Photographer Sues City for Calling Her Work ‘Gothic’


We can think of a lot of worse things to call a photograph than “gothic,” but that label was enough to really tick off the owner of a Kansas photo studio.

Debra Bates-Lamborn of First City Photo & Frames in Leavenworth filed a claim for damages with the city of Lansing after her bid to take new portraits of elected city officials was rejected. “We are going to go with a different person, so we won’t have the gothic look this time,” Mayor Billy Blackwell explained at a March City Council meeting.

Bates-Lamborn finds the term misleading and defamatory. “That’s scary to most people,” she said. “Gothic, to me, means dark and moody. That’s branding a photographer.”

She wants at least $75,000 and punitive damages from the city.

And now it’s time for You Be the Judge. Here’s a representative image — a school photo shoot at Leavenworth High — from First City Photo’s Facebook page:


Here’s a current image — of Councilman Kerry Brungardt — from the City of Lansing site:


And here’s the first Creative Commons image that comes up when I do a Flickr search on “gothic.” (Warning: Replicate said search at your own risk.)


(via Kansas City Star)

Image credits: Photographs by Rama, First City Photo, City of Lansing, Duccio Bartolozzi

  • Michael Palmer

    So she pitched for the gig and didn’t get it? That’s basically the story here?

  • Grokulnar

    Soi what would she have done if he said “we’re going with a different person we don’t want a unicorn fantasy land look this time”? Like, if they don’t like the way she does her portraits, they don’t like it. It doesn’t matter if they call it “gothic” or “marshmallow farts”. As long as they don’t call it something like “photography that will unleash Satan upon the earth if you patronize it” they aren’t really being defamatory.

    Also, gothic means a lot more than a bunch of teenagers in black makeup listening to Marilyn Manson. It was an entire renaissance art movement… among other things.

  • goth liket

    I like Gothic. Really….. But I think the city should counter sue for legal and court fees at least. If you don’t want to be called gothic don’t dress that way. People hire who they want and don’t have to give reasons. Learn from this…..maybe you would get more work if you didnt dress to repel and shock people. That is what goth does for most people….. Rejection in sales is hard, but at least you can benefit by understanding your market. Please don’t waste everyone’s time because you didn’t get the job. Go offer yourself to other goths instead…..or dress like a more mainstream photog….then it will be easier for most to hire you. The kill shirt is killing your business. Is it really hard to understsnd that?

  • Rob Elliott

    The Initial photo in this story isn’t of the photographer and is very misleading. More so the “example” image is also not the only style she does.

    That being said of the work on the facebook page I dunno if I’d want to hire her for Corporate shots. But Gothic is a stretch.

  • MT_Nat_Photog

    ““We are going to go with a different person, so we won’t have the gothic look this time,” Mayor Billy Blackwell explained at a March City Council meeting.”

    This quote suggests to me that previous work was done by this studio for the city. Without seeing it, who knows who is in the right.

  • Ryan

    People pay this gal to take pictures? Every one of them either has that horrible vignetting, is out of focus, has stupid fake photoshop frames, and horrible typography on them.

    Sue me.

  • peaceetc

    The second image is rather “gothic” in its processing, and even the font used on the names. I can understand the city wanting to go in another direction.

    The mayor didn’t insult the photographer, he was simply pointing out they were going in a different direction. The photographer might see this as an opportunity to use the “gothic” moniker and do something positive with it, instead of trying to sue the city.

  • knoptop

    Yeah, seeing the other photos on that Facebook page link… Gothic is the first thing that comes to mind. Not “classic”, “vintage” or “retro”, that font and border style on the black/white print is “gothic”.

  • harumph

    It’s pretty obvious even without seeing any pictures that the Mayor is in the right. He’s not obligated to hire the same photographer. And he’s perfectly entitled to his opinion on their work. He doesn’t even need to give any reason at all.

  • Jacqui Dee

    Ultimately she’s probably causing more damage to herself and her business by publicising this than if she’d just accepted that she hadn’t received the job, and her style (whether they had labelled it correctly or not) was right for the city council.

  • BigEnso

    After seeing the sample image from her Facebook page, gothic might be considered a step up. I would classify her work as pedestrian, in my humble opinion.

  • VSM Photo

    you’re still never going to be a unique and special flower…

  • Spongebob Nopants

    Had a tantrum over nothing? Sounds pretty darned goth to me. ;)

  • Spongebob Nopants

    Suing over not getting a gig can only damage the business. She could very well have directed them to her website which doesn’t look gothc. (well, it doesn’t look gothic now at least)

  • Richard Lurie

    OMG that album is HORRIBLE! SO DARK!!! thanks for sharing.

  • John

    So what you are saying is that it’s okay to discriminate and insult a photographer if he/she is not mainstream dressed?

    Get real!

  • John

    In fact he shouldn’t have given a reason, and certainly not a reason that was aimed towards the photographer. A better reason would be “We have found someone else that we have chosen to work with this time”. End of deal.

  • Truikos

    Wild guess. This was in MURRICA, right?

  • The Fashionable Wedding Tog

    Yeh I wear flip flops and a tank top as a wedding photographer. Please don’t judge.

  • Mike

    You understand nothing, this is the view through a time machine.

  • Dani Riot

    There are two “gothics” though.

    There is the music based sub culture from the last few decades, or the 14th century art version.

    I think they are referencing the 14th century style, not the eyeliner and platform boots version. Debra Bates-Lamborn images are gothic in the latter sense,

    They are old styled framed photographs, using traditional gothic frames and texts.

    People really need to learn their history of art, if they wish to operate in the creative industries.

  • John Mason

    I took a look at the photographer’s site and didn’t see anything really dark or gothic. The portraits look good imho. She appears to have good control of her lights and retouching. On the city’s webpage however, the couple of shots of the city councilmen I saw were clearly in need of some work. Honestly, I’m not really surprised. She probably charged a certain rate and they were looking to get a deal or to have one of their nephews with his new camera give portrait shooting a try. That’s perfectly fine. They are free to take their business to whomever they want, but they goofed in publicly saying her work was ‘gothic’ as a reason to let her go. When you fire someone, you have to keep your mouth shut as much as possible to avoid any legal problems. They caused some level of damage to her business by publicly stating her work was distasteful. Is it to the tune of $75,000? probably not, but the courts and lawyers will figure that part out. But hey, nice work councilman, you now get really crappy head shots, and you end up paying more for the entire mess :)

  • David Liang

    Completely disagree. This is a subjective and TASTE based industry, and the client has complete right to not select vendors based on their subjective taste.

  • John Mason

    The selection of a vendor and the publicly defaming them at a public council meeting are two different things. I already said they have the right to take their business elsewhere. They can’t publicly defame her in the process though.

  • David Liang

    They are not publicly defaming by stating an opinion based on taste regarding the look of the photographers style. They didn’t say the photos were bad. The statement “gothic” is up to interpretation, for some like you as you yourself stated, who likes dark imagery obviously like the look.

  • John Mason

    The courts and lawyers will decide that point. Defamation is actually tricky to prove in any case. The person has to knowingly make a false statement to hurt the other person’s reputation. The councilmen could easily argue they are idiots and don’t know what gothic really is :) The main point here, is pick your vendors and keep your mouth shut. Otherwise, you may end up spending a lot of time and money defending yourself.

  • David Liang

    Which is the point I disagree with. Why should patrons keep their mouths shut for fear of being sued, when they have every right to choose who they go with? Especially when they are speaking the truth?
    The councilmen didn’t even say they didn’t like the gothic style, they said they would go with another look this time. How politically correct does one have to be? The councilmen were more than reasonable in drafting an accurate and polite statement on why they didn’t go with the photographer.

  • John Mason

    I can see arguments either way on that. Defamation has a restrictive nature to free speech in some cases. I think it’s a balance that our society has found that isn’t perfect but gets most of the more problematic issues out of the way. Most lawyers will tell you in cases like this, regardless of your opinion, it’s best to simply pick the vendor and say nothing more.

  • David Liang

    Oh I agree the system isn’t perfect especially where things are up the interpretation. I have a feeling the councilmen have to give a definitive reason as to why they didn’t pick this photographer, especially if they’d be using them before. So they drafted a precise reason based on their feeling of the look of the photographers work. All reasonable actions in my own opinion at the very least.
    I just don’t feel that a client/patron should keep their mouth shut in fear of anything, when they are simply stating their opinion, especially when done, in a polite and reasonable manner.

  • Janise

    But she has “over 300 weddings of experience.” She only shows three weddings in her portfolio (2 of which are her sisters).

    She also claims to be a former photojournalist with lots of experience retouching photographs… figure that one out.

  • BigEnso

    And we all know how much retouching photojournalist do, right? About the quickest way to get fired there is.

  • BigD

    I think a better description of her work would be SHITE. This stuff looks like it came straight from the website “You are NOT a photographer”. The industry should sue HER for calling her snaphots “photographs”.

    As far as going to court, she is doing nothing but wasting taxpayer money. It’s always the talentless hacks that defend their crap the most.

    Screw her. I hope she ends up working at McDonalds cleaning grease traps. That’s where she belongs. A PHOTOGRAPHER she is NOT.

  • 43543543

    americans are morons… every new day proves it…

  • aaaa

    thank you for cutting the chase! Her work doesn’t look professional and is certainly out of date and inappropriate for the kind of photos that were required for the job.

  • Dan Howard

    ^— I agree with this guy

  • Sid Ceaser

    . . . sounds like she’s in the process of ruining her own career.

    I hope she didn’t sue every art professor she had who dared critique her work.

  • Burnin Biomass

    This just in, Grant Wood just sued himself because no one in the painting “American Gothic” had a nose piercing.

  • John

    “The Initial photo in this story isn’t of the photographer and is very misleading. More so the “example” image is also not the only style she does.”

    How do you know the photog in question dress “off” ?

    No matter what, if anyone does NOT dress mainstream, it doesn’t mean the person is a bad craftsman/woman, and in this case, it was no wedding (and no “goth” style clothing).

  • cas_e

    Oh my god they’re awful. It makes me wonder why I can’t be a professional photographer and get paid for it.. perhaps I should try.

  • Theresa Z.

    Her portfolio should be what a potential client is focusing on. If all of the pictures in this article show the different types of portraits she shoots then calling her entire portfolio “Gothic” is incorrect. But, I don’t see how this will work in her favor for this lawsuit. Win some, loose some, you can’t please everyone or fixed closed minds. IMHO. Peace.

  • Theresa Z.


  • Ferd Myron

    I didn’t pitch the gig at all. I wasn’t even aware they were doing new pictures. He makes the comment during an open meeting. In the state of Kansas, that’s illegal and against the law for an elected public official to use his office to criticize a business, person, or group of persons.

  • peaceetc

    I’m not sure I understand why one would feel what the mayor said is criticism. “Gothic” describes a style, and judging by the photos on that Facebook page, I would say it’s an accurate usage of the term.

  • Jeremy Madore

    Well said, Hicks!

  • Julian

    Independent of what one thinks of the word “gothic”, there is a separate problem. In Kansas, an absolute privilege exists with respect to individuals “who serve in a legislative, executive or judicial capacity”. See, for example, Turner v. Halliburton Co., 240 Kan. 1, 7, 722 P.2d 1106 (1986). In other words, no one can be sued for what they say in that meeting.

  • Gary

    As Michael just said, below, it seems to me the real issue is that they decided on a different photographer, not that their use (or misuse) of the term “gothic” had anything to do with it. Sour grapes. Unless she’s identifying her own work with the term “gothic,” I don’t see what it has to do with her not getting the job.

  • Tyler Magee

    I think you are in Photography for the wrong reason people criticizing work is a good thing not a bad. If you are going to sue the state over calling a photo “Gothic” makes you look money hungry and pathetic not only as a photographer but also as a person.

  • bob cooley

    It’s pretty clear that in the context that he stated, the term “gothic” refers to the more antiquarian styling (use of vignetting, typography, framing, etc.) and not “Goth”, the subculture.

    Gothic refers to a style (you could substitute “antiquarian” or many other terms, and it would have been essentially the same statement). In no way does the statement read as “poor quality”, etc. There is no liable here, simply an explanation.

    Clients have the right to hire or not re-hire whoever they want for whatever reason.

    All you are doing here is making sure that no local business will work with you for fear of frivolous litigation.

  • Courtney Navey

    I think the bigger issue is not that the photographer was labeled “Gothic” but that her work isn’t that good. I’m not being a jerk…just take a second look at the portrait of the council man. It’s not that great. Window frame in the right side of the shot is distracting, flag is too close to the subject and his posturing is terrible. Not to mention that a little rim light on the back of his head could’ve added to the dynamic quality of the photo. The post on this photo is a little too cool for my taste. I realize I don’t have all of the variables of what she was working with but I think most pro photogs could have handled that portrait better. Maybe if her works was unprecedented she would have gotten the job regardless of creative preference.

  • Crabby Umbo

    Whatever…all I see is someone who can’t light worth a darn…she’s got the whole “overlit-digital-output” thing going on…no, or very filled, shadows, all pancake… Woukld have sued if the guy just said: “we don’t like her work…”, ’cause that’s what I would have said…

    Fighting about artist merit and “gothability” in Leavenworth Kansas? Who cares…I can tell you from my experience in living in small town mid-western america, that’s what happens when there are too many people trying to make a living with not enough money and clientel around; that’s why people move to the coasts. You put too many rats in a box and pretty soon they start eating each others tails…