The Eye of Photography: Norm Clasen

In an exhibition, Norm Clasen engages dialogue to his works’ appropriation by Richard Prince

An avid outdoorsman from an early age, Californian photographer Norm Clasen’s passion for photography grew from his love of the natural world. After attending the University of Colorado, Norm moved to Aspen in 1962, where he founded and ran an independent advertising agency. In 1978, a series of coincidences led to Clasen being invited to shoot on numerous occasion over thirteen years for Marlboro. The campaign was a natural fit, drawing on his intrinsic understanding of horses and the cowboy way of life.


To capture his iconic images of cowboys in their element, Clasen ate, drank, and rode with the men, earning their respect and trust. His authentic and natural point of view guided our cultural perspective of the cowboy to its zenith, with his work appearing in newspapers, magazines, and billboards across the world. Clasen’s photographs helped shape a visual lexicon that is integral to the iconography of the American West.


Between 1980 and 1992, the contemporary artist Richard Prince appropriated Clasen’s and other’s images for his series Untitled (Cowboy), re-photographing, cropping, and enlarging them to sell as artworks of his own. These re-photographs gained Prince both critical and financial success. One such image went on to sell for $3.75 million at auction in 2014. In his own words Prince states, “I had limited technical skills regarding the camera. Actually I had no skills. I played the camera. I used a cheap commercial lab to blow up the pictures. I made editions of two. I never went into a darkroom.”


This month, an exhibition entitled Titled (Cowboy), on view at M+B Photo in Los Angeles, features images taken during the Norm Clasen’s decades working as a freelance commercial photographer and explore the later controversy over his works’ appropriation by artist Richard Prince. The exhibition of course coincides with the show Richard Prince: Untitled (Cowboy) on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and acts like a form of response, offering the first chance to see these authentic images as envisioned by their original author, and a special opportunity to engage in dialogue and contemplation about appropriation, fair use, moral rights, and authorship in the art community.

March 1, 2018