Too Close a Copy or Not Close Enough? | On Culture | Chicago Reader

Too Close a Copy or Not Close Enough? 

The controversy over a Martin Luther King monument to be made in China goes beyond politics and race.

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In 1966 photographer Bob Fitch set up a formal portrait of Martin Luther King. Fitch was working for King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (for "five bucks a week and room and board," he says), and the photo was to be taken at the SCLC headquarters in Atlanta. King's office was too dark, but Fitch spotted something in it he wanted for his shot: a picture of Gandhi hanging near King's desk. He carried the picture to a light-filled front office, hung it near another desk, had King stand nearby, and suggested that he "make himself comfortable." King, holding a pen in his right hand, folded his arms, turned his head slightly to the left, and looked past the photographer. In the best-known of the resulting photos, King is seen in near profile juxtaposed with the Gandhi image. It's remarkable on two counts: Gandhi's presence, with all it implies, his downcast eyes a counterpoint to King's steady gaze, and King's crossed-arm stance--an atypical posture, more self-contained and contemplative than his usual public image.

That photo appeared on the jacket cover of King's posthumously published autobiography (1998) and has attracted a lot of attention over the years. Fitch, who has the negative and claims ownership of the image, says it has appeared on everything from posters to mouse pads, and he's usually been contacted and paid a fee. But in the autobiography's credits, the cover photo was attributed to another civil-rights-era photographer, Charles Moore, and that's led to some confusion. Chicago sculptor Erik Blome, for example, didn't know Fitch had taken the photo when he used it as his inspiration for the bronze statue of King he made in 2003 for Rocky Mount, North Carolina. The statue made national news when some citizens objected that it didn't look like King and the town took it down. (I wrote about it here October 14, 2005.) Rocky Mount has since changed its mind: the statue was recently returned to its site, and Blome says he's sending Fitch an honorarium.

Fitch says he had no idea that his picture was also being used as part of a much bigger project--a $100 million four-acre memorial for King on the national mall, now slated to open in 2008. A star-studded benefit concert for the memorial was held this week in New York. But behind the scenes the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation has been scrambling to deal with a protest over its centerpiece--a 28-foot-tall sculpture of King emerging from a larger hunk of granite. The foundation, which began working on the project a decade ago, announced last February that it had chosen Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin as the monument's "artist of record." There were some immediate rumbles about the irony of this important national memorial arriving with a Made in China label, especially in light of King's ideological objections to communism. But opposition really took shape when Denver-based African-American sculptor Ed Dwight, who'd been part of the team that hired Yixin, took issue with the appearance of the sculptor's model. Unless something is done, Dwight said in a phone interview last week, the King memorial, with its representations of his metaphorical Mountain of Despair and Stone of Hope, will have at its center a 28-foot-tall statue "that looks nothing like King."

Dwight (known here for the Harold Washington and jazz musicians at 47th and King Drive) arguably has an ax to grind. He says it was his understanding from the beginning, when he was hired by the foundation in 2004, that he would make the model for the national monument and be the artist of record. But his first job was to translate the foundation's two-dimensional logo--an image of King emerging from the Stone of Hope--into three dimensions for use as small bronzes to give to major donors. According to Dwight, a "sketch artist" had devised the logo by Photoshopping a "famous photograph" of King "standing in his office with his arms folded" onto a drawing of the metaphorical rock.

Dwight re-created the image as a 15-inch bronze sculpture and believed that his rendering would be the basis for the 28-foot real thing. He thought Yixin was being hired simply to do the artisan's job of stone carving, which he would supervise, and that he'd be credited with the finished monument. But last December, on a visit to the foundation office, Dwight says he discovered that Yixin had replaced him as the artist of record and had been allowed to alter the image. "They had pictures, and it looked horrible," he says, adding that the foundation still wanted him to be associated with the project but severed ties when he expressed "vociferous" criticism, including a 13-page report detailing the ways in which Yixin had gone wrong.

Using photos--including Fitch's--as points of comparison, Dwight argues that Yixin's model depicts a "shrinking, shriveled" figure rather than the "powerful, dignified" leader that King was. Then he conducts a painstaking dissection of Yixin's errors: The head is too small in relation to the body and sits too far back, the forehead lacks King's distinctive slope, the brow is too prominent, the eyes are too deep-set, the posture is too stiff, and the body is too thick. Also, the clothing is uncharacteristically bulky, the eyes are cast down, and the look of King gracefully emerging from the rock has been replaced by a mostly separate form merely "plastered" onto the stone.

The protest against Yixin has been gathering support on the Internet. Atlanta painter Gilbert Young has an anti-made-in-China petition going at kingisours.com. And journalist Gloria Gibson of thegibsonreport.today.com faults Yixin's model as a rip-off of Blome, noting in particular the wide-legged stance. She also says Yixin made a mistake Blome didn't: the Chinese artist implies that King was left-handed (a fluke likely introduced when someone printed Fitch's photo backward). In what looks like a response to the criticism, the foundation recently hired African-American artists Jon Onye Lockard and Ed Hamilton as "artistic advisers" to Yixin. Reached in his Louisville studio last week, Hamilton agreed that there are "issues" with the model--"the face and the clothing"--and says he's hopeful there will be a revised version from Yixin in the next few months. "Our role is to help him see Martin as we see Martin," Hamilton says.

That's likely to be as Bob Fitch saw Martin. Fitch says he's honored that his photo is being used in such an important project but adds that no one's ever contacted him about it--"not even a courtesy call"--and that he hasn't received any stipend from the foundation. "I'm not a money-grubbing capitalist," he says. "I still do the same work, mostly for free, and live very modestly. But it'd be nice to at least get a little mention."

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