In the mid-1970s, artist Richard Prince was working at Time Life Publications (now Time Inc.), combing through publications daily, when he began to see artistic potential in the Marlboro Man advertisements. Enamored with their simple, evocative depiction of an American archetype, he photographed the ads himself, enlarging them and cropping out the text. He rebranded the advertisement work as his own “Untitled (Cowboy)” series.
Prince never credited the original photographers (though, notably, the original advertisements hadn’t either). He eliminated the photographs’ commercial context and hung them in a gallery setting, making the images “art” in a way that Clasen’s work for Marlboro never was. In 2014, one of Prince’s appropriated works (which cribbed from a different Marlboro-commissioned photographer) realized $3.7 million at a Christie’s auction. Rephotographed images of Clasen’s original shots have garnered over $1 million.
About seven or eight years ago, after Prince’s auction prices had shot up, Clasen found out from a friend that Prince had lifted his work. “If you see somebody’s copied your work, there’s something deep down in you that says, ‘I’m the author of that,’” said Clasen. “Somebody took that work and rephotographed it. They’re not the ones that were out there lying with the rattlesnakes, the ants, the mosquitos.”