Rihanna was sued earlier this year for ripping off the work of photographer David LaChapelle in her video for the song "S&M." In October, Rihanna and her record company settled the lawsuit for an undisclosed sum after a judge agreed there were strong similarities between certain scenes of the music video and eight of the photographer's photographs. Now Rihanna has a new album, a new single, and a new video — but it looks like the singer is using her same old M.O.
At issue is the music video for "You Da One" (stills shown at left), which the folks at the online community Fashin have pointed out strongly recalls a certain May, 2008, shoot by fashion photographer Sølve Sundsbø for Numéro magazine (images from which are shown at right). Sundsbø, who is Norwegian, is known for achieving otherworldly-looking images often by using a mixture of digital-age and old-fashioned techniques. On the occasion of a 2008 solo show at London gallery, the Independent wrote of Sundsbø that "he probably has more in common with a fine artist than slick fashion snapper." Melina Matsoukas directed the video for "You Da One." Matsoukas also directed the "S&M" music video that was the subject of the LaChapelle plagiarism lawsuit.
The idea of lighting the female nude body through screens or other objects that cast sharply patterned shadows is hardly original to Sundsbø — as these 1940s images by the French photographer Fernand Fonssagrives show. Fonssagrives frequently explored these ideas both in the studio and outdoors.
The technique isn't really what's at issue, though. Anyone with the relevant skills can use a common photographic lighting set-up to generate his or her own original work. But Rihanna's video is like a scene-by-scene re-make of the Numéro shoot. Compositionally, scenographically, the video for "You Da One" doesn't look generically akin to the work of Fonssagrives or any other photographer who has ever lit a human subject through a screen: it looks consistently like this particular Sundsbø editorial.
I do not see how the numerous similarities between this video and that one magazine spread could be coincidental.
Even Rihanna's blonde mushroom wig recalls the black one that the model Edita Vilkevičiūtė wore for Sundsbø.
Most of Sundsbø's story is of Vilkevičiūtė shot in white light with black polka-dots. But for one shot, Sundsbø switched it up and shot Vilkevičiūtė in shadow with bright, white polka-dots, as if we were suddenly looking at a photo negative. And Rihanna copied the lighting change, too.
There's referencing — which Rihanna and Matsoukas do successfully elsewhere in the video, in the scenes where Rihanna is made up and styled to recall Alex from A Clockwork Orange, with one eye rimmed with false lashes, a bowler hat, and a walking stick — and then there's copying. The intention of the makers of the secondary work and the notoriety of the original are among the things that make the difference — if the intent is to pay homage, and the original is well-known enough for it to be widely recognized, then it generally passes and is received as a reference. If the intent is just to quietly copy someone else's idea and execution without acknowledgement as if it were one's own, and the original work is an obscure years-old editorial from a little-read European fashion magazine, then it's likely just a rip-off. Famous performers probably need to stop hiring Melina Matsoukas to direct their music videos: her "inspiration" process betrays far too heavy a reliance on the inspirations of others.