Oscar Wilde and the Mass Media

In January 1882, Oscar Wilde arrived in New York to begin his American lecture tour. To the custom officer’s usual question, he is said to have answered: “I have nothing to declare except my genius.” This often repeated comment may be more legend than truth,  but it fit the narrative of the time of Wilde as a brilliant literary celebrity from across the Atlantic come to grandly edify the American public—and it continues to fit our own era’s narrative of Wilde as a self-fashioned creature and master of publicity. Accordingly, soon after disembarking, he arranged to have his portrait taken by Napoleon Sarony, then the city’s preeminent portrait photographer. Sarony claimed to have photographed “200,000 people, 30,000 of whom were famous.” (from Laurence DuMortier’s “Oscar Wilde’s Multitudes: Against Limiting His Photographic Iconography”)

“Nothing to declare but my genius”: this witty statement defines “genius” in a traditional, Romantic fashion.  [Our linked resource on “Oscar Wilde in America” offers a detailed discussion of this mythical quotation’s provenance.]  Only months later, Wilde was involved in a lawsuit that set the stage for our contemporary understanding of intellectual property. From the world of fame to the world of celebrity: Oscar Wilde’s life spanned the transition….

Below is a commercial image, the source of the first (but not the last!) famous legal case involving the image of Oscar Wilde.

This photograph is the central exhibit in the case of “Burrow-Giles v Sarony.” The former were a lithographic company who produced the advertising image attached here; the latter was the portrait photographer Napoleon Sarony, who had taken that photograph of Wilde, originally known as “Oscar Wilde No. 18,” along with about 50 others.

Michael North has written about a related use of Sarony’s images, one by a cigar company.  (The image below, of a collectable cigar card from 1882 featuring Wilde, is drawn from his article.) North comments on the Burrow-Giles decision as follows (North, “”The Picture of Dorian Gray,”” 186):

In making its decision, the Court had to contend …with the challenge that photography poses to traditional definitions of artistic creativity. Burrow-Giles argued that a photograph cannot be protected by copyright because it is the result of a mechanical operation, an automatic process, and thus is not a truly authored work. By this argument, a photograph is merely a copy struck from reality … The Court held, however, that the taking of a photograph can, though it need not always, involve “novelty, invention, originality” …

Our short reading from the New York Times, an article which was published before the case was decided, asked in its headline the provocative question “Did Sarony Invent Wilde?”

I want us to think about Wilde as a figure who was aware of his own image from the very beginning; and to (re) introduce questions of originality and property: who owns (literally, metaphorically) the image of an author?  Does it seem right that Wilde (who was not, himself, interested in this American legal case…) had no ownership rights in these images?  Did Sarony invent Wilde?

5 Replies to “Oscar Wilde and the Mass Media”

  1. In my opinion, we all own the rights to our self image. We make ourselves into the version that we want others to see. I also believe that in the context of a photograph, the rights of the image that is produced belongs to the photographer. Photography is a form of art. The message that the photo coveys is the work of the photographer, not the subject at hand.

  2. Let me pose a dilemma for you, Albany… (You don’t have to solve it yourself, since you’ve posted first!) What about what we today call the paparazzi–the case of a celebrity photograph, taken perhaps against the will of its subject, and whose publication would contribute to the creation of the “version” you refer to? How should we think about that photograph?

  3. I think the owner of an image is the person the image is of, regardless if it accurately represents them or not. They are still the person represented in the image and it will still be tied to them by whomever sees it. It doesn’t seem right that Wilde himself had no control over the images, but I don’t think Sarony invented Wilde because a large part of how he was perceived comes from his writings which were created by Wilde himself.

  4. I think Wilde believed that the subject of the picture has ownership of the image, based on what Basil says about his picture belonging to Dorian Gray, despite him being the artist, Gray was the inspiration so it is his. I personally believe that a person should have the right to not be the photographed or used without their consent, but once they have consented to being photographed, the result (the art) belongs to the artist.

    1. Serena gets the last word in this discussion! “The right to privacy” is the legal doctrine that best matches your personal belief, Serena (& it’s discussed in the Michael North essay I mention).

      “Belonging”, like “value”, is another of those complex words in English whose different meanings can at times stand in powerful tension with each other .When we consider debates over the reputation of dead authors, and their living descendents respond, we see how wide the scope of “owning an image” can become….

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