Above photo of Oscar Wilde is perhaps the celebrated playwright’s most famous photo. Little, however, is known about the famous controversy that surrounded the photo and its photographer Napoleon Sarony. Sarony was a famous New York photographer who took the photos of many celebrities of the day; in the days when photographers paid their famous subjects, and then retain full rights to sell the pictures, Sarony paid Sarah Bernhardt $1,500 (equivalent to $20,000) to pose for his camera.
Understandably, Sarony was mad when the Burrow-Giles Lithographic Company had marketed unauthorized lithographs of above photo in 1884. Titled ‘Oscar Wilde No. 18’, it was just one of a series of portrait Sarony took of Wilde two years before. (Inspired and not to be outdone by Sarony’s portrait, Wilde tried his hand at portraiture of another sort The Picture of Dorian Grey in 1890). The constitutionality of the extension of copyright laws to photographs was highly debated; finally, Burrow-Giles Lithographic Co. v. Sarony reached all the way to the Supreme Court, which unanimously upheld the power of Congress to extend copyright protection to photography.