Aspen Daily News: Norm Clasen

For local photographer, LA exhibition is an act of creative defiance



Norm Clasen, who has lived in the Roaring Fork Valley since 1962, has a well-deserved reputation for being a laid-back sort who laughs easily. But mention the name Richard Prince, and Clasen’s nostrils begin to flare. His face reddens. Smoke seeps from his ears.

Some background is necessary.


Clasen has spent most of his career working as a professional photographer, and his clients are the stuff of legend: magazines such as Ski, Skiing and Powder; corporations such as Lange, Obermeyer, K2, Fila, Head, White Stag, Smith, PRE and Dynamic skis.


And, most importantly, both in terms of Clasen’s life and for our purposes here, Marlboro cigarettes. For almost 13 years — from 1978 to 1990 — Clasen was one of the principal shooters for one of the most iconic campaigns in the history of advertising. Through his photography, he seared the image of the “Marlboro Man” into the nation’s psyche.


When Congress banned advertising for tobacco products, Clasen’s stint with Marlboro ended.

While he considers that gig to have formed the backbone of his life’s work, when it was done, it was done: rearview-mirror time.


Then, out of the blue, about 10 years ago, he learned that some of his Marlboro Man work had been appropriated by a man named, you guessed it, Richard Prince, the most financially successful “photographer” (and Clasen insists that word appear in quotes) in the history of the world, a man whose portfolio consists primarily of “re-photographed” images.

Yes, Prince unapologetically takes pictures of other people’s pictures and sells them for millions of dollars.


Let’s be clear here: We are not talking about someone driving around trying to find the exact spots where Ansel Adams placed his tripod. We are talking about someone taking a photo of a photo.

By Clasen’s count, Prince has appropriated at least seven of his Marlboro Man photographs and maybe three others.


Two of those are now on display at the famed Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) in an exhibition titled, “Richard Prince: Untitled (Cowboy).”


Clasen and other photographers associated with the Marlboro Man advertising campaign — there were usually six or eight at any one time to keep the campaign creatively fresh — were not happy to learn of this. Clasen, who never smoked cigarettes, decided to do something about it. He arranged for a completing exhibition at M+B Photo, located a short distance from LACMA. Clasen’s show thumbs its nose at Prince. It is called “Titled (Cowboy).”


Clasen was born and raised in Southern California and attended high school in Big Bear Lake, a ski town outside San Bernardino.


“I had a chance to get a scholarship at the University of Colorado, but coach Bob Beattie had put together the strongest team ever assembled, and I was not going to make it, and didn’t,” Clasen said. “I stayed at CU until my senior year, when my dad died of cancer, and I returned home to help put the pieces back together.


“After I returned home to Southern California, I was involved in a 55-car pileup on the Santa Ana Freeway, and that was it for me,” Clasen continued. “I came back to Colorado and settled in Aspen. After a few years of teaching skiing and pounding nails, I decided to open a small design studio called Studio Three. We did logos, brochures and whatever came our way. No one else in town was doing that sort of thing.”


It wasn’t long before the little studio in Aspen, located in a small office near a pizzeria, was working with some of the biggest names in the ski industry.


Clasen also became involved in making movies, working in various capacities on two of the most-acclaimed early-era downhill ski movies — “Ski Racer” and “One for the Money” — both of which showed last year at the Wheeler Opera House as part of Aspen’s World Cup festivities.

While Studio 3 was chugging along, Clasen got involved in photography.

“I had no formal training at all,” he said. “I turned to photography when I couldn’t get the images I wanted for the brochures and things we were working on at the time. It became a passion that eventually got me out of the advertising work.”


He got his foot in the Marlboro Man door when he was asked by a man named Jim Christell, who worked for the Chicago-based Leo Burnett Advertising Agency, if he would be interested in helping to scout a location for Marlboro’s Christmas ad. Clasen agreed.


“At the time, the chief Marlboro Man photographer was Larry Dale Gordon,” Clasen said. “Larry didn’t really like horses. He was more of a Playboy-magazine-type photographer. He didn’t last that long. I grew up around horses and cowboys. I am comfortable around cowboys. I know their body language.

“I got a follow-up call asking if I would be interested in doing a test shoot,” Clasen continued. “I was ready to give my right arm. I did the test shoot, successfully.”


And thus began a stint that saw Clasen shoot 70 to 80 different Marlboro Man ads.


The first three years, he had an art director constantly at his side directing the shoots. Eventually, he was given the leeway to conceive and design his own shoots. He would do conceptual sketches and then try to bring those visions to life on film.


For his effort, he was paid well. His day rates included scouting locations, conceiving shoots and doing the actual photography.


“It was hard work, and often dangerous,” Clasen said. “I was out in the dirt with ants and snakes.”

Which, in his mind, is what makes Prince’s unabashed appropriation of those images all the more galling.

Prince, by his own admission (via his personal website and various interviews available on the web) does not go out into the field. He barely even considers himself a photographer. He sets up a tripod in front of someone else’s images, zooms in to whatever part of the image that catches his eye, hits the shutter release and prints the resultant image on relatively cheap paper.


He then purveys his work, generally via auctions organized by Christie’s Fine Art Auctioneers. Prince’s images have sold for multiple millions of dollars. He is feted for being a visionary, groundbreaker and trendsetter, often by people who stand to profit from the whole enterprise: gallery owners, agents and museum curators.


Needless to say, response to Prince’s definition of creativity has landed him in legal hot water.

According to Wikipedia, in 2008, photographer Patrick Cariou sued Prince in U.S. District Court for copyright infringement, arguing that Prince had wrongfully appropriated 35 of his images. In 2011, a federal judge ruled against Prince. That decision was overturned in 2013 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which stated that Prince’s use of 25 of Cariou’s images was “transformative” and thus were used fairly. The use of the rest was considered less transformative and was sent back to the lower court for review. The case was settled out of court in 2014.


Pretty much ever since, according to Clasen, Prince has managed to beat back whatever legal grenades have been launched in his direction.


“The guy is worth millions and can afford to hire the best lawyers,” Clasen said. “Where does that leave people like you and me? How can we defend ourselves?”


Complicating matters for Clasen, as well as other Marlboro Man photographers whose work Prince has “re-photographed,” is the issue of ownership.


Clasen worked for the Leo Burnett Advertising Agency, an outfit that he praises effusively, on a work-for-hire basis. So, he does not own those scores of Marlboro Man photographs he shot. They are in fact owned by Philip Morris Tobacco Co., which in turn owns Marlboro.

“These images are now 20 or 30 years old, so Philip Morris probably doesn’t care,” Clasen said. “They probably consider it good exposure.”


But he looks at it from a different angle. Even though the images gracing the walls of LACMA and bearing Prince’s name are not technically owned by Clasen, he still feels there is an ethical issue that ought to have every creative person in the country quaking in his or her boots.

“This poses a risk to everybody who has ever owned a copyright,” he said. “This is nothing more than thievery.”


As of last month, Clasen had intended to cause some sort of scene at the opening of Prince’s “Untitled (Cowboy)” exhibition at LACMA. He even considered the possibility of getting intentionally arrested to make a point. But he decided to just go with his own show at M+B Photo.


The undertaking is expensive, as Clasen has to pay for about 30 images — all from his Marlboro Man years — to be printed on high-quality paper. The irony is, because he does not technically own those images, it is possible that Philip Morris could file for some sort of cease-and-desist order.


Clasen plans to donate a portion of the profits from his show to American Photographic Artists for their copyright defense fund to “help defray legal costs for photographers everywhere who have been affected by artistic piracy.”


While in Los Angeles a couple weeks ago, Clasen visited LACMA and eyeballed Prince’s exhibit. Tempted though he was, he did not take any photographs of the photographs of his photographs. He also did not run into Prince, who, according to Clasen, has never had an exhibition in Aspen.

“I have never met him,” Clasen said. “I would very much like to see him face-to-face. I would mention something about how he is making a mockery of photography.”

An attempt to solicit comment from the media-relations department of LACMA via email was not answered as of press time.


It was not possible to get comment from Prince, as his otherwise-extensive personal website does not contain contact information.


“Richard Prince: Untitled (Cowboy)” runs at LACMA through March 25.

Clasen’s “Titled (Cowboy)” will run at M+B Photo through March 23. The opening reception is from 6 to 9 p.m. Friday, Feb. 16.


To eyeball a video about Prince in which Clasen appears, go to:

March 1, 2018