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Editor: Myanna Dellinger
University of South Dakota School of Law

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Dispute Between New York Public Library and Photographer over Theater Archive

BluebookHere's a challenging fact pattern, but it is not from an exam. It's from Saturday's New York Times : Leo Friedman and Joseph Abeles formed a partnership, the Friedman-Abeles studio, that specialized in pictures of broadway musicals. Abeles was a portrait specialist, so he would take studio shots of the stars. Friedman, on the other hand, directed three-hour photo shoots, during which he would have the actors perform the relevant show in reverse, and he would shoot the scenes. Actress Carol Lawrence claims that it took about 300 tries before Friedman was satisfied with a picture of her running with Larry Kert that found its place on the cover of the LP recording of "West Side Story."

When Friedman and Abeles split acrimoniously in 1970 and the property of the partnership was allocated at an arbitral hearing. Friedman recalls the outcome of that hearing as giving him possession of the photos and negatives from the studio and giving Abeles possession of the studio itself and all of its equipment. This is Friedman's recollection of the ruling, but he has been unable to locate a copy of the decision, and Abeles died in 1991.

Friedman decided to send the collection (which now consists of about 4,580 prints and 2,655 contact sheets) to the New York Public Library's performing arts collection so that they could be catalogued and perhaps so that reproductions could be sold. The Library regarded the transaction as a gift. Mr. Friedman had always characterized it as a loan.

According to the Times, Mr. Abeles, perhaps under the impression that the photos were his, or perhaps out of spite, took the trouble to scratch out the original photo credit on the back of many of the pictures and replace it with a Joseph Abeles Studio label. The library has been charging fees for reproduction rights ever since (that's why you see no pictures here), but Mr. Friedman, now 89, objects. In 2001, the library offered Mr. Friedman $10,000 for the rights to the collection. Later, it doubled its offer to $20,000. Mr. Friedman thinks the collection is worth far more. Indeed, in 1978 Mr. Abeles sold 76 boxes of photos (some were marked "Friedman-Abeles Studio") to the University of Texas for $25,000.

[Jeremy Telman]

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