Show & Tell

Mad About You An artists photos of an exs angry e-mails prompt even more anger.

(Illustration by Robert Ullman)

At the Fraser Gallery in Bethesda, the stinging words of a wounded ex leap out from a series of photographs:

I DON’T LOVE YOU ANYMORE.

I HOPE YOU SUFFER HORRIBLY.

I. HATE. YOU.

Some of the words are in larger type, inky iterations of hate. The rest are blurred—streaked with light, smudged, or shadowed. D.C.-based photographer Doug Sanford, 42, says the images depict e-mails he received from an ex-girlfriend during the six to eight months following their breakup in April 2006.

“Well, basically, I was involved in a three-year relationship,” he says, confessing that “there was some infidelity on my part.” He calls the messages he received from her after the breakup “very hurtful and mean”—at first, he says, they were difficult for him to process. So, “in an effort to really understand what she’s saying, I printed them out.”

But Sanford hit a roadblock when he tried to read the e-mails. “As I was reading them printed out, I found that they were so painful to read that I would scan them,” he says. The photographs in the exhibit, “I. Hate. You.: Letters to a Cheating Boyfriend,” are intended to convey his experience coming to terms with his ex’s words and his own infidelity.

“It was a pretty angry breakup,” he says.

And it’s gotten angrier.

On Jan. 12, the opening day of the exhibit, Sanford’s ex-girlfriend contacted both him and the gallery’s owner, accusing them of copyright infringement and demanding that the photographs be taken down. If they didn’t comply with her wishes, they say, she threatened to take legal action.

“I have received several e-mails from her asking me to remove Doug’s work from exhibit because she doesn’t want it displayed, because she feels it’s an infringement of copyright,” says gallery owner Catriona Fraser. “And she made it clear to me in a phone message that she expected all proceeds from sales.” As of press time, that’s a moot point: Sanford says none of the photographs have sold, though he adds that one collector has demonstrated an interest in buying the entire series.

“Her being a writer and being tied to words, she says the words belonged to her,” says Sanford. But both Sanford and Fraser are convinced that Sanford’s ex doesn’t have a case, and they have decided to go on with the show as planned. (It closes Saturday.) “There were people [at the opening] who expressed their distaste about putting up personal e-mails,” Sanford says. Some called it a betrayal; others thought it “was a beautiful way to make something tragic into something positive.” Either way, Sanford says he was careful to protect his ex’s anonymity. “I’ve taken precautions to keep her name out” by playing with “camera angles, lighting and computer work,” he says.

Both Sanford and Fraser declined to name the woman. Attempts to independently identify her were unsuccessful.

As far as copyright infringement goes, Sanford believes that the photographs have a “universal” quality that transforms them into a unique artistic product. Plus, he adds, it’s not as if he duplicated the e-mails and called the words his own. “The words are the subject. I’ve never said the words are mine.…If I were selling her words and calling them mine, there would be a copyright issue,” he says. Instead, he compares his ex’s words to a model in a photograph or painting, pointing out that subjects don’t typically lay claim to the pieces featuring them. “The subjects are never the owners,” he says.

Fraser agrees. “He owns the copyright to his work,” she says. “That’s all I’ve heard from every lawyer I’ve spoken to.” After all, she notes, artists like Joseph Cornell have been reproducing and refashioning text for artistic purposes for years.

According to Torsten Kracht, an attorney with Akin Gump Strauss Hauer Feld, although Sanford “may not be able to claim authorship rights in the underlying text of the e-mail, he may have a copyright in the unique photographic image he created because of the way he has put it together.” Kracht, who is not involved in the controversy, writes in an e-mail that Sanford “has selected only certain words, chosen to blur some of the text at the bottom and brought out the texture of the paper on which the e-mail is printed. That’s all his artistic expression and interpretation.”

Exactly, says Sanford. “It’s far more about the universal issues of infidelity,” he says. “There’s not been any harm done, except to her pride.”

A LITTLE FINE-TUNING?

Last week the sisters of Taleshia Ford, the 17-year-old girl who was fatally shot Jan. 20 at Smarta/Broadway near U Street, testified before Jim Graham’s Committee on Public Works and the Environment. Even if you’re underage, getting a drink at a bar or club is easy, they said—all it takes is enlisting the help of an older patron or slipping a $10 bill to the bartender.

Ford’s death and her sisters’ testimonies have sparked a debate about the danger of mixing teens, clubs, and cocktails, and prompted Graham to say, “What I can do is look at a bad apple like [Smarta/Broadway] and figure out how there ain’t gonna be any more of them.”

Graham will soon have an opportunity to do just that. On Feb. 14, the ABC Board will hold a hearing on its sales-to-minors penalties. The board strengthened those penalties nearly a year ago: The current minimum punishment for the first offense of selling alcohol to a minor is $1,000, with a mandatory two-day suspension to be served on a Thursday and Friday.

It makes sense that the alcohol board is taking a hard look at the intersection of minors and liquor sales these days. Thing is, the hearing was scheduled in late December—a month before the shooting at Smarta/Broadway.

Why?

“We were encouraged by Councilmember Graham and stakeholders in the business community to evaluate this policy, now that it has been in place for a year,” says Jeff Coudriet, spokesperson for the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration. “And of course the ABC Board is always glad to discuss any public policy issue. We get these kinds of requests all the time.”

Graham says he’s in favor of the hearing because of his long-standing attention to the sales-to-minors issue. “They know my interest, and I do want their views of it,” he says of the alcohol board. He also wants to know whether the current penalties for underage liquor sales have gone too far. “The…suspensions, I can tell you, got reactions.… You don’t want a penalty that’s more than what you need.”

So will the hearing result in even stricter rules regulating liquor sales or will it lead to a big fat valentine for alcohol-serving businesses? Nadine Parker, Director of the National Capital Coalition to Prevent Underage Drinking, plans to testify before the alcohol board. She says the penalties need to stay right where they are. “If we lessen the penalties, I honestly believe sales to minors will increase.” Some business owners disagree. “The gist of our position is that the current penalties on sales to minors are too harsh,” says Andrew Kline, the attorney who will represent the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington at the hearing. “We don’t think that the first-time offenders are the problem. It’s the repeat offenders.”

Asked whether the association plans to change its tune in light of Ford’s death, Kline says it doesn’t. “I don’t see how it’s relevant at all.… I don’t see how [Ford’s death] had anything to do with the service of alcohol.”

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