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« The Future of Movies 1 | Main | Photographic References in Painting »

April 05, 2006

Vettriano Redux--Art & Photography

Friedrich von Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards:

Donald's posting on the painter Jack Vettriano, who works exclusively from photographic reference, got me thinking about the whole topic of the respective roles of photography and art. This relationship has been somewhat fraught since photography was invented, but it seems trickier to me today as we are in the midst of an attempt to revive representational painting as a serious approach to art making.

In the 19th century the situation was somewhat less unstable, because painting was the inheritor of an many-centuries-old high art tradition and photography was a modern 'mechanical trick', so the use of photographs by Degas or Delacroix or Courbet in creating art was viewed as not very different from using other such aids, such as the camera obscura or a visual grid or the lay figure (a dummy on which clothes were draped so they could be painted), all of which had a pedigree stretching back to the Renaissance. (All pictures are of course pop-ups.)

Muybridge, E., Animal Locomotion: Horse and Rider At Full Speed, 1887

Degas, E., Horse with Jockey, 1890s

Today, however, that tradition can no longer be taken for granted, as it was broken by many decades of art-making during which only abstract/aggressively stylized representation could claim the mantle of high art. In those same decades, meanwhile, photography got the upper hand over 'handwork' in mass media commercial art (advertising and illustration). This gradual rise of the prestige value of photography tainted representation in painting as something intended for a middle or lower brow audience.

Rockwell,N., Freedom From Want, 1943

Beyond the questions of high and low in art (which, granted are really class tensions, but whoever said that art doesn't swim in the waters of social class?)there is also the simple fact that most 'realistic' art today has clearly been mediated through photography. Mary Scriver in a comment to Donald's posting brought up Western art. This reminded me of a visit I paid to a show of Western art (containing the work of 40-50 artists) a couple years ago; I was dumbfounded at how ubiquitously the art was based on photographs rather than live models. I bet less than 10% of the art in that show was painted or sculpted directly from life. The idea that art-making involves photography somewhere along the way was an absolute cultural given at that show. The same is true of contemporary animal art, especially that which uses 'tight' hair-by-hair rendering; it is likewise overwhelmingly dependant on the use of photographic intermediation. To round out this survey, I doubt if even 10% of even high-end contemporary portraiture is painted exclusively from life; at least from what I see on the Internet as well as what I've heard from working portrait painters, nobody today has time for the ten or twenty 3-5 hour sittings that John Singer Sargent’s portrait subjects routinely endured. (Lucien Freud has built his whole ouvre, in a sense, by obstinately fighting this trend, which I suspect is why people respond so strongly to it.) Photo-realism was, of course, an attempt to wring some high art juice out of these very issues, but ultimately seems to have merely served to highlight how unresolved the whole issue is.

Marvel Comics, The Incredible Hulk

Oddly, the only recent art I've seen that actually seemed serenely untroubled by the whole photographic intermediation issue was a series of murals that graced a museum show put on by Marvel Comics on the "science" of superheroes. Although reference photography was certainly used, nobody would confuse 10-feet tall depictions of the Incredible Hulk with garden-variety realism.

Ramos,M, Superman, 1961

I've often wondered if the recurring use of comic book imagery in contemporary representational painting over the past 50 years isn't an unconscious hankering for the roots of the representational tradition. These lie, of course, in ancient Greek culture, where the subject matter was mythological-religious and realism had to be sternly 'idealized' to pass through the Gates of Art.

Somehow contemporary representational art needs to come to better grips with all this than it has, at least so far. Dependence on photography is, in essence, one of the elephants in the livingroom of the representational revival. (I'll address another elephant in a future posting.)



posted by Friedrich at April 5, 2006


You're quite right. Many if not most of Western painters and probably even some of the sculptors rely on photos. Some take their own. Others comb the antique stores for old glass negatives which they claim are for "reference" but in fact are painted verbatim, if that's the word. Part of this comes from the idea that Western art is a form of history and that the representation of gear must be accurate since it is a "record." In the Sixties a lot of people painted "portraits" of old chiefs from photos.

We never had an elephant in the studio, but we did bring the horses in to pose. Not the rodeo bulls, I'm happy to say.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on April 5, 2006 11:17 PM

Yet many people think the biggest compliment they can pay a painting is to say "It's almost photographic."

Posted by: winifer skattebol on April 6, 2006 12:09 AM

And speaking of comic book art; in some circles the style is heavily influences by Japanese manga and anime. The so-called "Big Eyes, Small Mouth" school of representation. Which has shaped the look of the illustrations for the Iron Kingdoms series of game books, and the "Dini Girl" look of the DC comics based animated series on Cartoon Network.

Even the naturalis studies (dragons and beholders and goblins) of Todd Lockwood and others show the effect of long exposure to the Anime style.

Another factor which has had a big impact on art style in this group is the long term improvement of printing technologies. With the increased availability of low cost offset and dye sublimation printing comic illustration has become more and more detailed. Leading to works of near or quasi realistic value.

Then you have computers, and all the art tools that are available for the computer. While computer monitors are not the best venue for display, computer tools allow the artist one thing he hasn't had before, a nigh infinite supply of materials upon which he can practice.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on April 6, 2006 08:18 AM

This is a good subject. I have a lot to say, so look for a post later today.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on April 6, 2006 10:22 AM

Unless I'm mistaken, that "Animal Locomotion" series was pretty directly responsible for changing (correcting) the representation of running horses in painted art. Prior to that, horses were commonly shown with legs extended fore and aft in a way that photography showed was not natural.

I suspect that prior to stop-action motion photography, persistence-of-vision issues made actually seeing what was going on impossible.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on April 6, 2006 11:31 AM

Degas' "Horse With A Jockey" might get the hooves right, but that neck and head! Looks like the horse has a fractured neck or something kind of icky.

Being a lowbrow rube, no wonder I like representational art. But why would it matter so much if people are working from photographs? I asked this before. Why is it a shameful secret? I mean...painting a landscape, for instance...wouldn't the change in weather and light make it hard to finish a painting that appeared to make sense, unless one can whip off a painting in an hour? What if it starts to rain? How does the artist finish the Paris streetscape that way?

Posted by: annette on April 6, 2006 11:40 AM

I don't know where this puts me on the artistic scale, but I really miss Norman Rockwell covers. He certainly had a knack for capturing the moment, whether it was the family Thanksgiving dinner or the beat cop and boy at the soda fountain.

Posted by: JG on April 6, 2006 12:52 PM

I would have done a better job of illustrating this posting, but time was (and sadly remains) limited. I would have preferred to show some side-by-side comparisons of Courbet nudes and his photographic source material, but I couldn't dig them up quickly on the web. But I think the main point holds, which is that unless the subject matter is still life or the landscape is expressly plein air, most (but clearly not all) "realistic" painting one sees today has a photograph somewhere in the food chain. I think this fact raises a lot of interesting questions.

One is raised by E.H. Gombrich's assertion that visual art begins in what could be described as a symbolic mode, and that observational data is added only slowly and incrementally (and over centuries) to create additional 'realism', the end-point of which is to highlight sophisticated issues of perceptual psychology (one example being Impressionism).

If this is true (and a good historical case could be made for the notion that this cycle has been repeated a number of times in a variety of locations, historically), won't the presence of a non-human element in the middle of this evolutionary cycle, well, gum it up? Or at least make it mutate in strange and unexected ways?

Of course, this is only one out of hundreds of points that could be raised. As a friend of the realistic revival, I'm hoping to stimulate a larger discussion of this and other 'elephants in the room'. Let the discussion begin!

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 6, 2006 01:04 PM

Western (cowboy) painting and impressionism, to choose 2 categories, both come on the cusp of the transition from painting to photography which is also the cusp of industrialization. (A camera is a little machine.) The subject matter of both is almost always pre-industrial or "non" industrial -- bucolic, animal-based, etc. When industrialism comes in, it is often as the romantic machinery of war or transportation: railroads, ships. Not until "super" realism is there much portrayal of the surfaces associated with industry and modernity: sheet metal, plastics, glass. Super-realism LOVES rows of cars in sunlight -- the sharp edges, the sheen, the impossible colors, light on windshields.

Western "cowboy" art has its roots much entwined with war because people like Remington were painting the scene as a precursor for the journalistic photography which took over in the Civil War. (Guns are little machines.) Then, successful photographs needed time exposures, so they were photos of people trying to hold still (and therefore motivated to do so -- no candid snaps) and dead people. In ordinary life photographs of dead relatives, esp. the many children, were cherished. "This," they say, "Is the reality of the child who lived such a sort time." A photo was a certifying document: the daguerrotype of the married couple which is as convincing as the marriage certificate. Much earlier, expensive and symbolic paintings might record a royal marriage.

But the other use of photography in early years was erotic: naughty postcards. The sort of French photo with ugly women in black stockings, showing carrots or candles or daring unattractive men, which all contribute to the notion that this is REAL -- a forbidden reality that no one else but the holder of this photo would believe or even imagine. (Today think of the photos of torture, like Abu Ghraib.)

And in modern times there is a kind of photo that no human being could paint without at least a reference photo: human insides. When they do a colonoscopy, the little camera on the end of the optic fiber takes a snapshot of anything interesting or -- if you're important or at risk -- a video. Then the doctor shows you and tells you things like, "Do you see how smooth and pink this wall is? That's healthy." Or something more scary.

The technological photo: fetuses in the womb, the interior of blood vessels, have HUGE emotional repercussions, both individual and societal. Perhaps abstract expressionism could be discussed in terms of trying to imitate the strangeness but intimacy of such photos.

Now, of course, we have a new category: the Photoshopped photo. One of my favorites is the man dangling on a rope ladder under a helicopter hovering over the sea. Out of the water thrusts a giant shark with jaws gaping, going for the dangler like a trout after a dryfly. You could paint it, but that would be different.

The change in vision brought on by technology can lead to new kinds of painting. There used to be a person who exhibited in Montana. The paintings were old 19th century homesteads in low light. Behind the little frail buildings and windmills rose a HUGE moon, much larger than the buildings and clotheslines, the kind only seen in telescopes. I loved them -- don't know what happened to them or their painter.

PS. There's an interesting review of the new Eakins bio in this NYTimes Book Review.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on April 6, 2006 01:55 PM

Notice this says he was reacting to the "painterly aesthetic" of photography:

Adams, Ansel, 1902–84, American photographer, b. San Francisco. He began taking photographs in the High Sierra and Yosemite Valley, with which his name is permanently associated, becoming professional in 1930. That year he published the first of many books of his photographs, Taos Pueblo. With Edward Weston and others he founded the Group f/64 in reaction to the painterly photographic aesthetic then current. He specialized in characteristic regional landscape, particularly of the Southwest, and worked to emphasize the conservation of nature. In addition to heroic vistas of the American wilderness, he also made smaller and more intimate images of such landscape elements as trees, rocks, driftwood, and grasses.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on April 8, 2006 12:15 AM

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