Was the Big Picture about the artist or the community?

I was tarting around looking for more ratings and favourites in my attempt to push this video from the unveiling of the Big Picture high in the Youtube ratings when I came across another person chasing credit.

Helen Marshall, the artist who worked on The Big Picture, had left a comment here quoting another photographer questioning if Helen was getting sufficient credit:

Comment from Julia Sander
In view of the fact that this is a world record breaking project, I am extremely surprised to find that the name of the artist, Helen Marshall , who was commissioned to lead the final phase and making of the Big Picture. is not mentioned more prominently, and in fact in most press releases, has received no credit at all for her work. I feel that this is a matter which should be rectified at once.
Julia Sander

This bemused me. (Update – Scroll down to see Helen’s response in the comments section. Julia Sander is Helen’s mum who was using her flickr account and (like all proud mums) wanted to be sure her daughter got due credit. The original comment has now been removed).

I contributed some pictures to the big picture and so rather oddly/uncomfortably find myself getting credit for being a joint World Record holder. I’m sure I’m a joint record holder with Helen – who will have also contributed images to the whole mosaic. The final image chosen to be turned into a mosaic was taken in the 1920’s. I would imagine the choice of image would have to fit certain practical constraints. A photo of a poppy was never going to make it because there would not be enough mostly red photos available to make the montage work.

So where does Helen sit in relationship to the community of people who’s technical skills or volunteering of images made the whole project happen?

For example is Helen as an individual artist more or less important than any one of the many people who contributed images? Granted many of those images I would just call snaps (certainly mine), but many of them were very fine photographs and the people who took them were indulging in art.

I suppose the comment just gets me thinking about the relationship between art as a communal endeavour and art as an individual act. The Big Picture is a deliberately communal endeavour, bringing together hundreds (thousands?) of volunteers plus loads of paid professionals who use their technicals skills as photo mosaic makers, designers, software writers, community builders, scaffolders or artists to make the whole thing work.

So who amongst all these should be elevated above the others and why?


  1. Steve Cooper says:

    Tis a bit of an odd comment, as you said there’s many many others who contributed. I suppose with Helen the final image is complete, however it’s still not physically complete as again many other unnamed volunteers have to assemble the final structure.

  2. Pete Ashton says:

    Writing form a position of complete ignorance here but I’d assumed the mosaic was made by pumping all the images into a program that sorted them by average dominant colour, then took the winning photo, divided it up into 10,000 pieces and matched the colours up. Technically this is a piece of piss to do, as shown here: http://blog.tinla.com/article/14087/2008-07-30-Speed-Racer-Video-Mosaic.html

    I also noted that in the mosaic on the big picture site there are images that repeat a fair few times, which is kinda weird. You’d think that wouldn’t be allowed? Or maybe it is. Like I said, complete ignorance as to the whys and wherefores.

    So, as much as I support the notion of art through photo manipulation and mashup I’m struggling a bit to find the “artistry” here. It seems like more a technical commission which needed someone with her skills. In other words, it’s a job. That’s not to diminish the work done by any stretch but she does get a very prominent credit on the mosaic page for the work she did.

    I should stop before I’m lead to a conclusion I wouldn’t want to agree with, what with my writing from a position of complete ignorance and all.

  3. Hiya Nick

    Wasn’t the thing that she was almost a curator? again, like others, I have done no homework but just based on the couple of mins she spoke at the event. She indicated choosing a lot of the final images etc. Bearing in mind this is something you can look at close up on the website etc perhaps the artistry was in the selection of images over others for inclusion. So that it works not just on a grand scale but also on a close up –

    There you go benefit of the doubt given


  4. lucy says:

    hiya its me again i would like to say everyone who took part in the whole prject should be extreamly proud of themselves and everyone played there own part. im confused as to why people are saying that people should have more thanks than others everyone should be happy that we broke the record. TOGETHER!!! sorry just wanted to get my opinion across! thanks again! lucy x

  5. Dave Harte says:

    The most fascinating aspect of the final choice for the Big Picture is that it is a classic High Street studio photo of someone participating in that most working class of sports, boxing. I’ve written elsewhere about some of the theoretical thinking that has informed our view of studio photography – the idea that they hide as much as they reveal. In addition this image also says plenty about class and family – about the kind of people that made Birmingham what it is today. In fact here we have a project that filters our entire city through working class experience. It takes all those individual pictures – the good, the bad, the self-consciously arty, – and strips them of meaning. Subjugates them to meta-meaning of the larger image.

    To do that is extraordinary and if the artist’s role was to choose that image over others and understand what is being implied by doing so then she deserves all the credit we can give her.


  6. Michael says:

    A novelist is the named author of book, though many otherj may be acknowledged as sources (of both information and inspiration). My question is could this project have happened without the artist; or, more importantly, would the result have been different?

  7. Nick Booth says:

    Good question Michael. Which I cannot fully answer.

    One thing that we can be certain about is that had Lucy Moore not taken part we would not have had the photo of her Grandfather – so the result would have been different.

  8. Katie says:

    Most of what I have to say is a bit of an educated guess so if I’ve got owt wrong, please do put me right!

    As I understand it Helen Marshall was commissioned due, in part at least, to her experience – she’s got another mosaic piece on her website (http://www.helenmarshall.co.uk/whathaunts.html), so has prior knowledge of what’s involved in pulling this sort of thing together.

    For this project she was employed to run a series of (six, I think) workshops in regional art galleries – to get people taking photos and submitting them to the Big Picture – and also to lead the workshops which produced the final mosaic panels.

    I think the choice of final image may have been due, again, I’m sure only in part, to its quite ‘neutral’ tones? Individual photos could be quite colourful but, when viewed from a distance, the eye blends them into kind of beige/brown hues. But this is just a GCSE-science guess – please correct me if I’m wrong! (And I’d like to add that, story-wise it was an ace choice too. I don’t want to take away from that by any means!)

    Anyway, I can see why the artist would want some recognition – to be quite coarse about it, a bit of good PR could help her get more commissions – though in the few things I’ve personally seen and read about the project, she has been acknowledged.

    There were lots of other people who had a huge role in the project who’ve barely been mentioned at all, so I think it’s real a shame if any individual (or someone they know) feels their input wasn’t acknowledged enough.

    The feeling I’m left with is that this was a joint effort. It’s something that was only ever going to be possible by lots of individuals joining together to make the project a (world record breaking) success.

    In fact, isn’t that exactly what makes the mosaic itself work too?!

  9. Hello!

    I am the Artist. The original comment has been posted by my mother ( JSander ) without my knowledge she accidently logged into my flickr account as we share it.

    Hence I feel I have to respond now for sake of freedom of speech and to defend my name. I am not a juvenile artist seeking press for further commissions, my track record demonstrates my commitment to the community, social engagement and respecting the contribution of others. I have always bee properly acknowledged for the work I do and rightly so. The work is also my ‘practice’ which is committed to making art accessible to the public and bringing out of the gallery. Believe me that involves quite a complex range of skills that not all artists have. It also involves skills such as curating, editing, design, management…all part of what contributes to the making of the final artwork. Should such skills be dismissed as not part of the creative process? Please take a look at work I have completed in the past. Please become familiar with the complexity of delivery a work of art in the public realm. It’s really not straightforward and involves a lot of creative processes and scrutiny to assure a quality work of art from start to finish.

    As an Artist I have a very big stake in anything I make and even though this work has been computer aided ( a specaillay written program, not off the shelf software…look into it, try it and you’ll see it’s not ABC ) this formed just two weeks of the work and the rest was extremely challenging and I had to harness all the skills and training I have received as an Artist to make it happen, and most importantly look as impactful as it did. It involved specific skills and my identity and skills and experience as an artist was integral to its result. If a corporate design agency had been employed to make it I challenge whether it would have had been successful as a work of art. This is an Arts project, I am an Artist. Quite apart from the fact that if a corporate agency had been commissioned the work would not have been based on an ‘artist’s’ rate of pay rather a huge commercial rate, therefore probably would not have been achieved at all. The sacrifices I have made as Artist do not only include my rate of pay, it includes sacrificing my right to sell the work and I give over ownership to the community. The only thing I ask for is to be properly identified for what I make. This is my right and is there in order to protect my name and reputation and future work indeed as a struggling sole trader with no pension or work protection rights.

    All I can say is that I have been properly acknowledged on the project website. However in terms of all the national press, TV etc I have not been acknowledged at all which is a moral right to be identified as an artist. Its simply not a case of stitching it together on a computer and I assure you if it was it would not have been a world record. This took blood and guts to make and tons of creativity and well as number crunching. Granted it took teamwork but when has a work of art been denounced as not art or by the artist historically when it involves assistants? Take the Sistine Chapel for instance. Many artists use assistants, teams and methodology, certainly to make a piece as enormous as this. The individual photos rightfully belong to the contributors. I have been given permission to make them into the mosaic. The mosaic belongs to the community, the public. The original boxer photo belongs to Lucy.

    The only thing I have rights to is the artwork itself, the huge mosaic as a whole that I made and to be properly acknowledged as it’s creator. Many artworks use other works to make up their parts including montage and its a very interesting debate, but lets get this clear, its not up for sale in the Saatchi Gallery making a fat profit. How can profit be gained or abused from being rightly credited, isn’t that something I deserve as an Artist behind the making of this world record breaking piece especially since I’ve relinquished the mention in the world record book? Is that really too much to ask?

    This is an age old debate.
    In response to some of the comments above I can tell you that I selected the final image of the boxer and there was a strong element of curation to my role which is paramount to the social, aesthetic and political statement. It is part of being an artist. needless to say the selection of images was riddled with complexity of why’s and how’s but I believe it was part of my role as the artist and crucial obviously to the artwork. Looking at Lucy’s family I knew I had made the right choice.

    Please support me. Artists get bad press ( journalists love the sensation and don’t concentrate on the good art in the public realm ) and they are far too often scapegoats and take the brunt of a lot of criticism. I was just there to make this work and make a beautiful work of art for the public and I gave a way a lot of my rights. I achieved it, all I want is a proper mention in the press and to be acknowldged quietly but assertedly for my role in the artwork. Art is powerful, social, political, emotional…see how much debate it brings about! That is Art’s role! Support Artists please….they are much closer to the community’s heart than politicians or policy makers…believe me.

    Helen Marshall

  10. Just to add a comment to another comment…if it was a ‘piece of piss’ to do then try it yourself at a scale of 30×30 metres…calculate the RAM needed on your computer, and instruct the software to use every image and render the final image photo realistic. Then revise the ‘piece of piss’ statement when you are about halfway through about to cancel another week of any remnants of your human life…..why is it a world record? because its not apiece of pis to do! Did make me laugh a bit though and feel a bit better though, thanks.

    Helen Marshall

  11. Shona says:

    In a nutshell, this was every inch a project that only worked because of every single person who contributed in one way or another. Pulling it all together is no mean feat so, therefore, I agree Helen Marshall deserves credit for her role in it – as a creative co-ordinator/director/lead. Artistry? There have been plenty of artists (sculptors come to mind) who have the vision and then employ artisans to create their work, so that’s a question whose answer could be subjective depending on your stance.

    However, the whole is greater than the sum of its constituent parts, and it was the effort of all those – contributors, project team, volunteers, etc – who deserve as much credit for their superb efforts. Lucy is absolutely bang on – this was a world record broken by people together and those involved should feel incredibly proud.

    Thanks for clearing up the Flickr comment, Helen, as I’d imagine there were others like me who were initially thinking that you’d posted it yourself. It had raised a few choice questions before you kindly resolved them without the need for me to ask!

  12. Katie says:

    In response to Helen’s comment:

    First of all, I think it’s lovely that your mum has such a passionate interest in your work!

    I don’t think anyone not a part of a process can begin to comprehend everything involved ‘behind the scenes’. As with most things, there was more to this project than meets the eye, and if something _looks_ easy to do … it probably isn’t!

    I’m not an artist but I do understand and fully support a person’s moral right to be seen as the author of their work. It’s vital for reasons of both personal and professional pride, as well as for protecting and building a reputation.

    Thanks for going into a bit more detail about the process – and your feelings about the project. Interesting stuff. Perhaps you could start a blog about your work?! 🙂

  13. Pete Ashton says:

    Position of complete ignorance somewhat rectified, though I’d build on what Katie said – detailing the process helps understanding a hell of a lot and adds value to perception of the work no end.

  14. Mike Pelton says:

    Pete – hi – coupla things… it’s our software that did the computation – we worked very closely with Helen – and I have to echo one of Helen’s points – it’s the scale that made this technically very challenging. First off, each small picture is gridded too – it’s not just about a single tone, we’re actually looking for shapes and colours within each image. Then there’s the n-cubed question – if you have a hundred pictures and a hundred places to put them that might take (say) a second to compute. But then you’d imagine two hundred pictures would take 4 seconds to compute, but it’s actually closer to 8 – if you’re a mathematician think about the area under the x-squared curve you’ll see why. So we have to jump through some sneaky algorithmic hoops to make 113,000 pictures workable in less than a lifetime! From a printing perspective we hit some interesting scale issues too. In broad terms you’re right – matching a few pictures by colour isn’t rocket science – but when you do giant billboard ads, and the sides of trucks (as we do in our commercial work), and indeed 900 square metres in Birmingham, you realise there’s a bit more to it. While I’m here, if you’re a keen photographer, can I recommend a mosaic of your pictures as a superb present for your nearest and dearest – come and see us at PollyTiles!
    All the best

  15. Mike Pelton says:

    Oh.. and I forgot to say.. trust me there are no repeated images in there. There were some batches that were obviously taken with a motor drive and hence very similar, but by contrast with the freebie mosaic-ing code out there we don’t let anything in twice unless it’s explicitly asked for!

  16. simon gray says:

    Sorry to be so brusque, but helen here actually just comes off as whining & pretentious here (Artist with a capital a indeed), whereas mike just comes across as spamming an advert for his company on this blog.

    Everything i’ve seen written about the big picture project has had helen given as much credit as she deserves, so it seems she wants *more* credit; & as for ‘my mother was logged in as me’ – sheesh, that’s as old as usenet.

    All in all – pr fail.

  17. Stef says:

    Great to see the Big Picture generating some debate.

    I think of this project as a huge collaborative effort by lots of talented people. For me it was all about celebrating the West Midlands through photography and that everyone involved could if they wish legitimately call themselves an artist and a joint world record holder just for having been involved.

    But as with an orchestra, each individual artist is nothing without the whole, and that whole will not come together to produce a meaningful work without a strong artistic vision holding it together. And that’s the point where you need an experienced artist.

    In response to the easy/difficult issue, I don’t think that technical difficulty is always a strong measure of the quality of an art work. “An Oak Tree” in the Tate Modern is a perfect example of something extraordinarily easy to produce yet that is (in my opinion) a good piece of art because it makes the viewer think: http://www.tate.org.uk/servlet/ViewWork?workid=27072

    Who knows what the Big Picture has made everyone who was part of it think, but for me it makes me think that there’s something very interesting to be done using social media tools (like Flickr and WordPress) to create large-scale artworks that bring together lots of people who perhaps don’t think that “An Oak Tree” is there cup of tea (or water).

    It seems to me that in that regard the Big Picture was a big success. Great to have been involved.

  18. Julia Sander says:

    Hi Simon Gray
    You seem to doubt that I exist. Well, I can assure you that I do. I am Helen Marshall’s mother and I did indeed post a message last night, without realising that it would show up in Helen’s name. I thought I would be anonymous and would get a debate going. Failure on the first point, success on the second. Sorry you’re such a doubting Thomas – don’t suppose you’ll believe me – but it’s true!

  19. Nick Booth says:

    Hi Julia, thanks for joining in. Yes you got a debate going. What do you make of the original question:

    “So who amongst all these should be elevated above the others and why?”

  20. Hi Again,

    It’s true, it really was my mum! I was a bit shocked by the innocent mistake but I’m really glad its opened a debate and I never professed to be good at grammar either especially when it comes to capitalisaton, seems pretty poor to pick me up on that instead of what I am saying. When blogging writing tends to just flow and notate….I hope people agree the visual language is my strength. I worked with many people on this project but principally it was a technical partnership between myself and PollyTiles. Why shouldn’t they promote their services? It’s a free country. If anyone wants to ask any questions about the process of making this thing feel free, its not a guarded secret and a very interesting complex process. I love to explain how something is made and realised. I am simply the creator of the vast mosaic artwork itself with help from PollyTiles. I selected the image. f anyone woudl liek to know more about the selection process please ask. I want this to be as transparent as possible and certainly not make enemies here on a blog. Its a debate and prefer not to have semi abuse via a blog where I am slandered.

    many thanks

    Helen Marshall

  21. Julia Sander says:

    In answer to Nick’s question – this whole debate has generated a lot of very interesting discussion around an area which is not familiar to me. There is of course no question of elevating any one member of the project above another. In a socially interactive project of this nature all have their part to play. It is not necessary to mention the artist’s name ahead of any others. It should however be mentioned, which has not been the case in any of the press coverage of the event.

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