What Lies Beneath by Mert & Marcus: Inspiration or Plagiarism?

By now you’re likely familiar with the content of LOVE Magazine #6 (also known as The Super Natural Issue).   The editorials and covers have been featured all over the internet as of late and to say that much of the content is absolutely stunning would be an understatement.  The majority of the issue was lensed by Mert and Marcus, who seem to be the “it” team of Fall/Winter 2011.

Of all the editorials I have seen so far, the one that instantly captured my attention and held it is What Lies Beneath.  Featuring Mariacarla Boscono, Saskia De Brauw, Kristen McMenamy, Paul Boche, Anais Pouliot, Lara Stone, Jed Texas, Guinevere VanSeenus, Xiao Wen Ju and Angus Whiteheadare, the imagery is provocative and breathtaking.  Darkly beautiful and disturbing.  Cinematic yet raw.

When I first saw them I was struck by the dark and haunting imagery… but something nagged at me… something familiar… something I couldn’t quite place.

Until this evening while browsing Fashion Gone Rogue.  I was reading the comments on this particular spread when someone mentioned photographer Jeff Bark. That is when it all came together.

On the left is an image from Mert and Marcus’ What Lies Beneath. On the right is an image from Jeff Bark’s Woodpecker series (circa 2007).

Notice any similarities?

“In these photographs, scenes of dream-like concoctions coexist with unembellished realism. The muted moonlit tones soften the human forms and the watery illumination lends them the appearance of otherworldly creatures indulging in their private fictions, desires and escape.”

Which series do you think is described in the above quote?

An uncanny resemblance, no?

I was first introduced to Jeff Bark through his Lucifer Falls series last year. That was around the same time that I first saw Woodpecker.  I remember being struck by its dark and haunting imagery, not unlike my reaction to Mert and Marcus’ interpretation.

There is no denying that Bark was a direct influence to Mert and Marcus.  The question is: does this shoot go beyond inspiration or interpretation and enter the realm of plagiarism?

Most people have never heard of Jeff Bark.  They have never seen his work and have no idea that he originated this scenario and theme years ago.

Without crediting their inspiration, aren’t Mert and Marcus doing a disservice to Bark?  Aren’t the taking credit for an idea that is not in fact their own?

It is clear that Mert and Marcus didn’t just decide to copy Bark and leave it at that.  Their interpretation of this theme goes beyond Bark’s work and enters a realm of its own.  The underwater imagery is mesmerizing and unique and wholly their own.  But is that enough?

Check out both works in their entirety below and let me know what you think!

UPDATE (8/11/2011): Mert and Marcus have also released a short film to go along with the editorial which raises more questions. Read about it here.

What Lies Beneath and Woodpecker (can you tell the difference?):

What Lies Beneath Photoshoot Details:
Photographer: Mert and Marcus
Stylist: LOVE Editor-in-Chief Katie Grand

Image Credit: LOVE Magazine images courtesy Fashion Gone Rogue and Real Life Is Elsewhere. Jeff Bark photography via Jeff Bark.

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  • Jasintude August 23, 2011, 10:09 AM

    This is disgusting.

    I can’t believe this is so ridiculously simlar and just a blatant rip off in every regard. I hope they get their arses sued!

  • Michael Hoppen August 17, 2011, 8:10 AM

    I have just seen the copy LOVE magazine – I am shocked and saddened by the blatant plagarism that has appeared in this spread. I have represented Jeff Bark’s work for some 8 years now and know how hard he has worked to produce original photographs for the gallery and for our clients.Woodpecker, a very special series Jeff Bark made in 2007, was a very successful show here in London and the following year in NY. The scene he built and photographed actually happened to him when he was younger, he did not leaf through old books and the internet to see what he could copy – he referenced a real experience! To see talented people, who should know better, simply copy his work (and Araki’s kinbaku pictures) so blatantly is upsetting to say the least. We see artists being copied all the time, mostly very badly – Guy Bourdin, Roger Ballen, Alex Prager to name a few. But this almost goes too far as it is a good copy and really looks like Jeff’s work. When people are tasked with being creative, that is what they need to be – creative and not simply refer to other artists work in such a cowboy fashion. Why did they not ask Jeff to shoot an ORIGINAL spread for them rather than rely on copycating?

  • Esinem August 12, 2011, 8:25 PM

    And, of course, the image of Leda and the swan is hardly original 😉 It has to be said the tow shoots do bear a spooky resemblance.

    The Japanese bondage was original anyway. I loved the shoot and how it made my rope work look, regardless of the inspiration’s provenance.

  • Ashe @ Dramatis Personae August 11, 2011, 10:32 PM

    One of the arguments in copyright law is likelihood confusion– would a viewer be confused looking at the two pieces? In this case, I think they would– a fashion editorial lover may not have a trained enough eye to notice the differences when viewing them months apart in differing magazines. They may think, “Oh, I remember this shoot!” and that would be it.

    Another factor tends to be percentage of a whole– how much of it is changed? In this case, lighting is similar, setting and background are both as well– in most cases, the gender and direction of pose are the only differing variables from a technical standpoint.

    To be honest, if it went to court, I imagine that it would be a very sticky case, to say the least. Plagarism, intellectual property theft, while being very complicated areas, do have very strong foundations that they rest on.

  • Gabrielle August 10, 2011, 7:53 PM

    I think that sometimes what happens with artists, and a lot with photographers, is you see something once and it gets stuck in your head. Actually it can happen to anyone who’s looking for inspiration. And then later on when they’re working on something an idea forms. They don’t realize this idea has roots in that image they saw so long ago. And so they continue on and create something which is beautiful and their own. But it’s also been influenced by something they found inspiring long ago.

    Whether this is plagiarism, I’m not sure. It is so similar and while comparing the images from both photoshoots they can lap over, and you can be unsure of whose photo is whose.

  • Courtney August 10, 2011, 2:33 PM

    Not right! I think if they wanted to do something with a similar feel then they should’ve contacted and worked with Bark. Definitely stealing.

  • Barbro Andersen August 10, 2011, 1:55 PM

    Oh my, the resemblance is remarkable! I would absolutely say that it is plagiarism. There is a fine line between being inspired and copying someone else’s work. This is just wrong!

  • Jamillah August 7, 2011, 9:54 AM

    Yikes! I do think there is a definite crossing of some lines here. It’s just too similar! I used to work at a large content licensor and this is totally something we would’ve flagged. If one of our assignment shoots were recreated so closely they would be getting a letter from our legal. For me, even though there is definite differences and M&M’s own spin on the concept it still looks like a derivative work.

  • vanessa August 4, 2011, 9:21 PM

    This looks like plagiarism to me. I mean they are almost carbon copies of each other.

  • Xizi August 3, 2011, 10:41 PM

    Unbelievable! This is to the point that I can’t even say which one I like better, they are replicas of each other! However, do you think it’s possible that Mert & Marcus were not the creative directors of the shoot, but were ordered about by higher powers at LOVE?

    • sa August 9, 2011, 11:09 PM

      you just said higher power at love in reference to mert and marcus… yea not happening.

      • Xizi August 10, 2011, 1:55 PM

        Actually, I was referring to anyone else BUT Mert and Marcus…I asked if there were any higher powers at Love directing the shoot and maybe if Mert and Marcus were only in charge of executing those ideas.

        Why don’t you read my comment again?

        • sa August 10, 2011, 3:09 PM

          right my point it is that when M+M are dealing with a (small) magazine like Love they are calling the shots. working with art director? sure. but i have no doubt who is the big dog.

  • jessica August 3, 2011, 7:19 PM

    Um, these are exactly alike… no? I think its total plagiarism. The whole look, theme and feel seem to be exact replicas.. I cant understand how Bark wasnt credited. Shocked!

  • Stephanie August 3, 2011, 6:36 PM

    I would have to say this falls in the line of plagiarism. Maybe M&M saw Bark’s work when it came out and forgot about it, but the image was still stck in their minds. But know that it has come to light I think they should give credit to Bark. I felt like I was looking at the same picture.

    -Great post hun!!

  • Angelos August 3, 2011, 12:41 PM

    Plagiarism, pure and simple.

  • A Brit Greek August 3, 2011, 2:55 AM

    Wow, i haven’t seen these yet. I am a huge M&M fan and their shoot is simply one of a kind, hypnotic and captivating, but I definitely see the incredible likeliness between Bark’s work and M&M.
    Cate below has expressed my very thoughts in her comments below. I’m pretty sure that M&M aren’t the only guys to have maybe even gone beyonf the realms of inspiration and crossed the line into plagiarism, but probably should at least credit Bark.

    p.s Saw this yesterday – not sure if you’ve read it yet.


  • Cate August 3, 2011, 1:53 AM

    ok, i won’t lie. because i am unashamedly devoted to M&M and they are the inspirations for my future career, i am very biased. however, while i see your point, i think that this doesn’t QUITE fall into the plagiarism realm. it gets very VERY close, but doesn’t get there just yet.

    i think that when you said this:
    “It is clear that Mert and Marcus didn’t just decide to copy Bark and leave it at that. Their interpretation of this theme goes beyond Bark’s work and enters a realm of its own. The underwater imagery is mesmerizing and unique and wholly their own. But is that enough?”
    you kind of hit the nail on the head.

    it is obviously very similar and to deny that would be silly, but i think that essentially everything is a remix, and photographers are always inspired by the work of their peers, myself included. i think that maybe since the link is so apparent it might have been in better taste to acknowledge the inspiration outright, rather leave people to speculate. they are very open about being influenced by Guy Bourdin, so why not simply say that they are reinterpreting Jeff Bark?

    for me, this is a matter of professional courtesy. although, like i said, i’m biased. i don’t think that this enters the realm of plagiarism, but i do think that they should have come right out and acknowledged where the inspiration for the shoot came from. to me it’s the same as crediting the rest of the team that they worked with (stylist etc) and it should have been done as a matter of course.