In April, model and actress Emily Ratajkowski announced
on Twitter that she was “reclaiming” her image by selling a photograph of herself through a major auction house, Christie’s. The “conceptual artwork,” titled “Buying Myself Back: A Model for Redistribution”
sold Friday in New York for $175,000 after fees.
But it wasn’t just any photograph.
The picture — for which the bidding started at $2,000 — shows Ratajkowski with her arms crossed in front of another artwork hanging in her home: a canvas by artist Richard Prince, who notoriously appropriated
one of her Instagram posts for his own exhibition.
The work, which Prince exhibited without her permission, features a portrait she shot for Sports Illustrated as well as public Instagram comments reacting to the photo — including one later added by the artist, in which he appears to detail fantasies about her. The print was part of a larger series of repurposed Instagram screenshots, “New Portraits,” that Prince first exhibited as paintings at Gagosian in New York in 2014.
Ratajkowski has described Prince’s work as “an image that had been taken from my platform and produced as another man’s valuable and important art.” Credit: Emily Ratajkowski/CHRISTIE’S IMAGES LTD. 2021
“I hope to symbolically set a precedent for women and ownership online, one that allows for women to have ongoing authority over their image and to receive rightful compensation for its usage and distribution,” Ratajkowski wrote
on Twitter on April 23.
Ratajkowski’s “reclaimed” image was sold as a non-fungible token, or NFT, a kind of virtual signature that uses blockchain technology to prove ownership of digital assets, including photos.
She is by no means the only celebrity to jump on the NFT bandwagon. Grimes, Ja Rule and Lindsay Lohan are among the many others to sell work using the tokens, which have allowed the art market to expand substantially into digital art — as well as enabling the sale of viral memes and tweets. The first NFT to sell at a major auction house by the artist Beeple fetched
$69 million at Christie’s in March.
By selling the meta image “Buying Myself Back,” Ratajkowski has symbolically reappropriated Prince’s appropriated artwork, which — as she famously detailed in an essay
of the same name, published by The Cut — she bought with an ex-boyfriend for $80,000 shortly after Prince’s exhibition.
But it also adds another layer to troubling questions around copyright and ownership. Works from “New Portraits” have been the subject of several ongoing court battles, as Prince did not seek permission from people featured in the images. In The Cut, Ratajkowski described it as “an image that had been taken from my platform and produced as another man’s valuable and important art.”
Prince, meanwhile, has argued that his use of publicly available Instagram images constitutes fair use. In a 15-page statement, he said he wanted “to reimagine traditional portraiture and bring to a canvas and art gallery a physical representation of the virtual world of social media,” according to
the Art Newspaper.
In a tweet
prior to the auction, he wrote: “I have no idea who Emily Ratajkowski is or what she does. I have never met her and I have never done her portrait. I have no interest in NFT’s, Bitcoin, cryptocurrency.”
Just one day prior to the Christie’s sale of “Buying Myself Back,” one of Prince’s other works from the series, which featured an Instagram screenshot from the performer Slayrizz (also known as K Rizz), sold at Sotheby’s
in New York for $75,600, under its low estimate of $80,000.
Ratajkowski has pointed to the saga as part of a larger problem stemming from the easy dissemination and exploitation of digital images on the internet. Her viral essay also detailed how other artists and photographers, including the paparazzi, had profited from her image. She alleged that portraits of her had been sold or included in books without her consent or knowledge.
“The digital terrain should be a place where women can share their likeness as they choose, controlling the usage of their image and receiving whatever potential capital attached,” she wrote
on Twitter. Instead, the internet has more frequently served as a space where others exploit and distribute image(s).”