A few years ago somebody played a cruel joke on Flickr’s DeleteMe group, where a photo is posted and self-appointed critics decide whether to keep or trash the image. A picture of a cyclist was posted and condemnation was quick. “Soft”, “grey”, “blurry” were among the criticisms as the judges decided the picture was, well, a bit crap. Then it was revealed that the photographer was Henri Cartier-Bresson.
The incident was a small but telling illustration of a modern truth: there are now two photographic worlds, one on Earth and one in cyberspace, each largely unaware of the other’s existence. The last two weeks have provided a spectacular demonstration of what happens when those two worlds collide.
Down on Earth Jay Maisel is a very big name photographer. With a 55 year career, multiple high-end awards and work scattered in museums and private collections around the world, Maisel seems a reasonable candidate for that much overused term “legend”.
Likewise, up in cyberspace, Thomas Hawk is a very big name photographer. With his stated ambition to publish a million images before he dies, and tens of thousands of followers across various social media, he was recently named 4th most influential photographer blogger. Yet a lot of professional photographers are now scratching their heads and asking: who the hell is Thomas Hawk? I know this because last week I ran a poll at a mailing list for pro photographers. The poll had two questions: firstly, who here knows who Thomas Hawk is? And secondly, do you know who he really is? The pros did spectacularly badly. Of over a thousand only two had even heard of Hawk; none could answer the second question.
So in the web photo world Hawk is a very big deal; yet back on earth it’s as if he doesn’t exist. And there’s a very good reason for this: Thomas Hawk doesn’t exist.
Peterson / Hawk gets angry at a lot of things. Apple. Canon. His phone supplier. His phone handset. He gets periodically very angry at Flickr. But recently he’s mostly been angry – very, very angry indeed – with Jay Maisel.
Ostensibly his fury is over Maisel’s action against tech entrepreneur Andy Baio, who heisted Maisel’s photo of Miles Davis and settled for the alleged infringement out of court to the tune of $32,500. Baio is a reasonably wealthy young man, having sold Upcoming.org to Yahoo in 2005; figures aren’t available, but pitch between 10 and 20 million dollars and you’ll be in the ballpark.
However that hasn’t stopped Peterson / Hawk and others from painting the story as “millionaire photographer crushes poor young artist”, and with very predictable consequences. Maisel had to pull his Facebook page after it was inundated with abuse from Baio supporters, but it didn’t stop there. Anywhere Maisel’s name appeared on the web was considered fair game for attack; juvenile memes were produced smearing the photographer; and Peterson / Hawk published two lengthy and legally questionable blogs savaging Maisel – “a hack photographer” – in just about every way imaginable.
The ferocity of the Peterson / Hawk attacks led some to wonder what the stockbroker’s motives really were. When Scott Kelby claimed on the Grid that Peterson / Hawk and Baio were former roommates that seemed to answer the question: Peterson / Hawk was standing up for an old friend. But that only led to further speculation of a business relationship: had Peterson / Hawk, stockbroker, been giving investment advice to his room-mate Baio on what to do with the millions the latter had made on his sale of Ucoming.org to Yahoo? Eventually Peterson / Hawk moved to deny all of this, claiming to have met Baio only once at a press conference, and accusing Kelby of libel.
In fact the real reason Peterson / Hawk got so worked up over the Baio-Maisel affair is much simpler. In March last year Peterson / Hawk decided to get his rocks off – photographically speaking – at the World Erotic Art Museum in Florida. Neglecting to mention to the museum what he was up to, he posted some 350 photos of museum exhibits to his Flickr account. The World Erotic Art Museum was not amused by this unexpected exposure, and hit Flickr with a DMCA takedown notice; Flickr duly removed the images from Peterson / Hawk’s account in December.
When Baio was accused of copyright infringement by Maisel the former consulted lawyers. But Peterson / Hawk is more of a direct action kind of guy; so in his case with the World Erotic Art Museum he launched a blog barrage accusing the museum of fraud. This genius move backfired very badly; the museum regarded the blog posts as libelous, and on January 10th filed suit against Peterson / Hawk in Miami federal court for $2M damages plus attorney fees and litigation costs. Shortly afterward Peterson / Hawk caved in, reached an out of court agreement with the museum, removed the allegations of fraud from his blog, and replaced the offending Flickr set with an abject apology so humiliating it’s practically a Private Eye parody.
So it’s no surprise that Peterson / Hawk should side with Baio against Maisel, a dispute that the stockbroker repeatedly characterised as an example of a wealthy individual or corporation exploiting intellectual property law to crush the little guy: in a very real sense, he could feel Baio’s pain. But it seems Peterson / Hawk has learned little from his recent brush with the intellectual property and libel laws. Here are just a few of Peterson / Hawk’s recent descriptions of Maisel:
“PHOTOGRAPHER JAY MAISEL EXTORTS (OPINION) $32,500 OUT OF ANDY BAIO”
“Maisel’s a dick.”
“He’s the worst sort of artist who tries to inflict pain on other artists.”
“He held his feet over the fire and tormented him and hung him upside down to shake $32,500 out of his pockets.”
“I doubt Spielberg’s as big as an prick as Maisel.”
“Apparently thinking it’s bad to extort $32,500 out of someone gets you blackballed from the high-powered Zack Arias / Jay Maisel elite blue ribbon good old boys photography club.”
“People are not extorted by Disney in the same way that Andy was extorted here. They wouldn’t risk tarnishing their reputation in quite the same way that Maisel has tarnished his.”
Talking of reputation, as one of the country’s most respected investment firms Peterson / Hawk’s employers Stone & Youngberg take certain principles seriously. Here’s what they have to say on their website:
“Integrity — At Stone & Youngberg, integrity is paramount to maintaining our corporate culture and our reputation in the industry. We expect our employees to meet the highest standards in both their professional and personal lives.”
Does anyone else see a massive disconnect between the behaviour Stone & Youngberg publicly expect from their employees, and that delivered by this particular employee? Worse, Peterson / Hawk’s website is registered to Stone & Youngberg’s corporate headquarters. To the casual observer – or a lawyer – this makes it appear that the company is associated with and endorses the content of the Peterson / Hawk site.
In one sense the antics of Baio, and Peterson / Hawk especially, are just funny. Despite his supporters’ description of him as an artist, Baio was unable to produce the 8bit version of Maisel’s image himself – he had to pay someone to do so. Likewise the rent-a-mob who turned up to decorate Maisel’s home were paid to do the job by Baio’s supporters. As for Peterson / Hawk’s claims as an artist: well, you be the judge.
But let’s be clear: Andy Baio, a man with a history of breaking and encouraging others to break intellectual property laws, made a considerable amount of money selling his intellectual property to Yahoo under those same laws. His account of his dispute with Jay Maisel provided an ammunition dump for those who wished to attack the photographer for defending his work under the same laws that allowed Baio to profit. And Andrew Peterson / Thomas Hawk has gleefully raided that dump to conduct a campaign of defamation and vilification against Maisel, neglecting to disclose his own recent history of being caught out for copyright infringement and libel.
There’s nothing very funny about an 80-year-old photographer being abused and defamed across the web for the supposed crime of protecting his own life’s work. And there’s definitely nothing funny about a bunch of paid thugs committing criminal damage to the photographer’s home.
Baio – irony alert! – doesn’t allow comments on his own blog that set this witch-hunt in progress. It would take a very brave person to venture into the comments at Peterson / Hawk’s blog, where anyone who supports Maisel – and the law – risks branding as a fascist and a “fucktard”. And unlike Maisel, both Baio and Peterson / Hawk keep their home addresses secret. That really only leaves one place to respond:
Stone & Youngberg
One Ferry Building
San Francisco, CA 94111