Photographer sues Yale over Peru pictures

After almost a century of conflict, the dispute between Yale and Peru over artifacts from Machu Picchu is ending.
After almost a century of conflict, the dispute between Yale and Peru over artifacts from Machu Picchu is ending. Photo by Sarah Nutman.

One year after Yale resolved a lawsuit with the Peruvian government by returning thousands of Inca artifacts to Machu Picchu, the University is facing new legal pressure from a plaintiff closer to home.

Michael Lawton, a photographer from Glastonbury, Conn., took pictures of Machu Picchu for a January 2003 Peabody Museum exhibit opening. In a pending Connecticut Supreme Court case filed against Yale in January 2006, Lawton claimed a 2004 work published by Yale University Press, “Machu Picchu: Unveiling the Mystery of the Incas,” has used his photographs to earn a profit for the University without giving him proper compensation. But University Vice President and General Counsel Dorothy Robinson said in a Sunday email that Lawton has “outlandish expectations” about the financial entitlement he was contractually promised.

In the latest development in the case, Lawton has alleged that “Machu Picchu: Unveiling the Mystery of the Incas” used a photograph he took of stone steps leading to an archway in Machu Picchu — labeled as “4.15” in the book ­— without acknowledging him. Lawton said he accidentally stumbled upon the photo at a gala this year celebrating Peru’s 100th anniversary.

Credit for the photo is given to Peabody Museum Curator Richard Burger ’72, but Lawton said the picture is a missing image from a set of three he took while in Machu Picchu. He said that similar cloud formations and small twigs located in all three photographs prove that they were all taken by him on the trip, adding that Yale has returned the other two photographs in the set to him.

“If you find three items that are the same in two photographs, you can pretty much guarantee that they were shot at almost identical times and locations,” Lawton said.

But even if Lawton’s claim is correct, the photograph in question will not factor into any legal decisions. The Connecticut Superior Court ruled on Nov. 16 that the picture will not be admissible in court because the evidence was not presented until August 2011 ­­— more than five years into the case.

The contract the two parties drew up in 2000 specifies that Lawton would receive a portion of the revenue generated by for-profit books published with his pictures, but that he would not be compensated for any nonprofit catalogue, exhibit, article or website that used the photographs. The distinction between a book and a catalogue is a contentious point in the pending case, as Lawton claims that “Machu Picchu: Unveiling the Mystery of the Incas” constitutes a for-profit use of his photographs for which he deserves compensation.

“Yale has to deal with this. In the academic world, this is not polite,” Lawton said Saturday. “I want my film back, and I’m not going away until I get it.”

Relations between Lawton and the Peabody Museum turned sour in November 2002 when Lawton noticed “Machu Picchu: Unveiling the Mystery of the Incas” for sale on Amazon.com, and he thought the cover photograph was one he had taken. Though Lawton argued that he deserved some of the profit from the sale of the book, Yale claimed the work was a catalogue to accompany its Peabody exhibit — an argument that justified use of the photograph under the contract.

In January 2003, Burger told Lawton in a letter that their relationship had taken an “uncooperative tone” and the Peabody would no longer use his pictures. Burger promised in the letter to return Lawton’s film, but Lawton claims that the majority of his photos from the trip are still missing.

Burger could not be reached for comment

Yale is now in a “Catch-22,” Lawton said, in which the University can not return his photographs without first admitting it improperly withheld them.

Lawton has sent letters to several Yale administrators, including University President Richard Levin, asking for their help to resolve the case. Levin said Sunday that he did not recall receiving a letter from Lawton.

The Hartford Courant reported Friday that Kevin Shea, the attorney representing Yale in the case, filed an Oct. 28 motion requesting that Lawton be barred from contacting any more employees of the University.

The case is scheduled to go to trial beginning in March 2012.

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