Did Bob Dylan plagiarize these famous photographs?

Dylan’s painting “Opium” (2009) and Léon Busy’s photograph “Woman Smoking Opium” (1915)


As one of the most celebrated singer-songwriters of the 20th century, Bob Dylan is renowned for his influence on popular music. But when it comes to his paintings, the legendary folk guitarist may have been borrowing a bit too heavily from others. A new exhibit featuring some of Dylan’s art has drawn heavy criticism for showcasing paintings that appear to copy actual images from photography masters like Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Dylan’s Asia Series show, which runs through October 28 at the which Gagosian Gallery in New York City, features 18 original works painted by the artist. A description from Gagosian claims the paintings are “a visual reflection on

[Dylan’s] travels in Japan, China, Vietnam, and Korea,” and lauds his unique observations of “everyday phenomena in such a way that they appear fresh, new, and mysterious.”

However, a recent article from the New York Times raises questions as to whether some of those paintings are “fresh, new, and mysterious” at all — at least three of Dylan’s pieces are almost identical reproductions of well-known photographs.

For example, Dylan’s “Opium,” which features a woman lying on her cluttered floor, is almost an exact copy of Léon Busy’s “Woman Smoking Opium” from 1915. Another is reportedly ripped straight from a 1998 Bruce Gilden black-and-white photo of two Yakuza gangsters smoking. Both images are owned by Magnum photos.

Did Bob Dylan plagiarize these famous photographs?

Above: a photo from Henri Cartier-Bresson. Below: Dylan’s painting titled “Trade”

Responding to the controversy, the Gagosian Gallery released a statement on Monday in which it said Dylan’s pieces are “based on a variety of sources, including archival, historic images, the paintings’ vibrancy and freshness come from the colours and textures found in everyday scenes he observed during his travels.”

The Gallery also pointed to a quote from Dylan himself:

“I paint mostly from real life. It has to start with that. Real people, real street scenes, behind the curtain scenes, live models, paintings, photographs, staged setups, architecture, grids, graphic design. Whatever it takes to make it work. What I’m trying to bring out in complex scenes, landscapes, or personality clashes, I do it in a lot of different ways. I have the cause and effect in mind from the beginning to the end. But it has to start with something tangible.”

While Dylan specifically mentions photographs as possible inspirations for his paintings, it’s hard to argue after seeing the two examples posted here that he has added a significant twist to either work. In other words, they look like pure copies.

Of course, that’s nothing new. In either painting OR music. The problem, perhaps, is Gagosian’s characterization of Dylan’s work as completely original and without direct inspiration. A little credit to Cartier-Bresson, Busy and the other photographers would have gone a long way.

What do you think?