Rock Photographer Lynn Goldsmith Beat the Warhol Estate at the Supreme Court, But It Cost Millions

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The intimate photos of late-’70s Bruce Springsteen on concert stages, train tracks and hotel-room beds, due in an upcoming book that documents his Darkness On the Edge of Town period, are not Lynn Goldsmith’s most important images of 2023. It turns out that the veteran photographer’s 1981 shot of Prince, which Vanity Fair licensed for $400, carries far more significance. In May, Goldsmith won an intellectual property case in the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled the late Andy Warhol infringed on her copyright with his Prince rendering.

From her Nashville home, Goldsmith, 75, recalls how the legal battle ravaged her financially and why she’s putting out Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band: Darkness On the Edge of Town through Taschen after her 2022 book, Music in the ’80s, was released by a different publisher. “I have that identity, of a quote-unquote rock and roll photographer,” says Goldsmith, who has published 15 photo books — including for KISS, Marky Mark and The Police — and dated Springsteen when she shot the intimate photos included in the Darkness book, available for pre-order here. “I don’t quite get it, but at my age, it sounds very sexy, so I’ll take it.”

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(You can check out a gallery of Billboard-exclusive photos from Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band: Darkness On the Edge of Town here.)

In addition to the photos of Springsteen, I notice the intimacy between members of the E Street Band — there’s a striking series of the late organist Danny Federici sort of cuddling up against the late saxophonist Clarence Clemons. How did you capture this camaraderie?

One of the motivating factors for the book was, I felt that most people focus just on Bruce Springsteen. The band itself never got anywhere near the coverage that I felt should be brought to the attention of people. What Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band show is that when there is a brotherhood, the power of something increases exponentially. You have a group of individuals, led by someone, who are totally aligned with rock ‘n’ roll being the spiritual vehicle for saving people’s lives, for bringing people together, for celebration as well as for reflection.

Why put out this Springsteen book now?

[Art-book publisher] Taschen asked me if I would do a Bruce book. I’d already done a book on Springsteen, which I made intentionally small. It was when they did the reunion tour [with the band in 1999-2000] and I wanted it to be affordable. It was like 20 bucks. I wanted a real rough paper. It’s not that I wanted it to be cheap. I wanted it to reflect something. All these people who loved that period of time now have kids, and they could go to the show and they could mark it off. And that’s not the kind of book you do with Taschen.

So how did you come to do this book for Taschen? You’d just put out Music in the ’80s in September 2022 with a different publisher. 

Until the surprise success they had with the Bowie book, Taschen was known for books that were architecture, high-end fashion photographers and artists like [Ai] Weiwei. It was unexpected. The sales were so great. Taschen’s looking at, “What else do we want to do?” After I did my Patti Smith book, an editor there asked me if I would do a book on the ’80s, and I said, “Ah, I hate the ’80s, I don’t want to do it.” He said, “Please, Lynn, put something together.” Upon looking closer at my files, the ’80s were probably one of the most amazing decades of music, because so many different kinds of music were popular, from Herbie Hancock to Thomas Dolby to Barry Manilow to Bananarama. So I got really excited. Then the editor at Taschen who had suggested the book in the first place called me and says, “Listen, we decided we’re not going to do any books on general subject matter, we want it on a specific artist.” I told Taschen I would ask Bruce, and if Bruce was on board, then I would do it. Bruce said, “Go ahead.” I sent him PDFs, just to make sure there were not any images he did not want in the book.

So how did you put out Music In the ’80s?

I went back to [publisher] Rizzoli, who would do whatever I wanted to do because of that New Kids [On the Block] book and they said, “Sure, we’ll do it.”

They agreed based on your New Kids book?

In 1989, there weren’t any art-book publishers that would handle rock ‘n’ roll. If they did a celebrity subject, it was only Elvis or Marilyn Monroe — until I got Rizzoli to do New Kids on the Block. I had gone to every art-book publisher on the planet and everyone, including Rizzoli, had turned me down. It wasn’t until Kodak approached me and said, “We would like to do a book with you, whatever book you want to do,” [that] I said, “Well, this is what I want to do.” There were companies that said, “Oh, these little girls, they’ll buy anything.” I felt it was important for somebody to give [New Kids fans] something that would be sacred to them. That book sold 350,000 copies. Art-book publishers then went, “Oh, there’s a market here.”

In 2019, you estimated your defense in a copyright-infringement case against the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts at $2.5 million. Did you get to recoup any of the costs?

No. The costs were well above $2.5 million. I knew from the start that there were not damages in there for me to collect on because I’m beyond the statute of limitations. [Editor’s note: As such, Goldsmith did not recoup any of her personal costs]. Also, I didn’t sue them, they sued me. Not only did I want to stand up to the bullying — wealthy individuals as well as companies or foundations can weaponize the legal system to grab rights — but all photographers were just sick of people thinking they could just take things without permission.

Did your GoFundMe work? Did you make up at least some of the legal fees?

I’m incredibly happy that I lasted through seven years of stress and fear, because if they had won, they could take everything I have. Well, that’s a threat. When you’re my age, are you going to start over? I didn’t have my house or anything in a trust before the lawsuit so they could have taken everything. When I started out as the Joan of Arc of copyright, I did not think my dress was going to be burning all the way up to my waist, you know? At the moment that I won the case, there were only 150 contributors, and there was about $50,000, after seven years. Now there’s about $68,000 in there. That is really a drop in the bucket.

So you’ve taken a huge personal loss. How did you make it up?

We sold our house in Aspen and we moved to Nashville, where it’s far less expensive. I have a beautiful home, but it’s not Colorado. In addition, I made an agreement with my lawyers at a certain point that they would go pro bono.

I live in Denver so I take your point about Colorado.

So you understand what happened there. You can make a lot of money on your sale in Aspen.

Going back to the Springsteen book: In his introduction, he refers to you in the late ’70s as a “lovely New York apparition.” What do you make of that?

Lovely! [Laughs.] I’m glad he didn’t describe me as a pushy, complaining, criticizing girl.

UPDATE: This article was updated on Nov. 7 to correct Goldsmith’s age, Vanity Fair’s licensing of her Prince photograph, the year in one of her responses and add an editor’s note pertaining to her personal costs around the Warhol lawsuit.

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