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August 06, 2007

James Bama: Better Than Photography

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

One can argue -- and many have, over the last 150+ years -- that photography has eliminated the need for representational painting.

In return, others have contended that skilled representational artists can offer images that photography cannot.

Both viewpoints are right, of course.

Supporting the first contention, there is little question that photography pretty well eliminated the need for artists to make "record" type images -- pictures of cityscapes of the Canaletto variety, for example. And the collapse of representational illustration in the 1960s is well known to people such as myself who were in, aspired to be in, or are interested in that branch of commercial art.

Supporting the second contention is former illustrator and present Western painter James Bama. Wikipedia has a fairly lengthy biography here. Another non-cursory article that's worth reading can be found here.

And if you want to see lots and lots of Bama's work, there's a 2006 book about him that's probably still in print. The publisher's Web site deals with it here and the Amazon link is here.

In a nutshell, Bama was born in 1926 and raised in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan. Much of his early commercial work was done while associated with the Charles E. Cooper Studio, home to well-known illustrators such as Jon Whitcomb, Coby Whitmore and Al Parker from the mid 30s into the 1960s. For many years, in addition to magazine illustration, Bama was a top paperback book cover artist.

Unfortunately, I can't locate some of the best examples of Bama's illustration work on the Web. As I just mentioned, the recent book is the best source. But you might try the following link to a back issue of Illustration magazine that had two articles about Bama. It contains thumbnail images of pages that might be of a little help. Scroll down: the Bama stuff is in the top 40 percent or so of the Web page.

By the mid 1960s Bama had married and felt the need to switch from illustration to painting. Western painting, to be precise. So off the Bamas went, moving to the Cody, Wyoming area -- quite a change from New York. Since then, Bama phased out his illustration work and makes his living selling original paintings and Giclée images of those paintings.

Bama has relied heavily on photographs for much of his career. But, like Alphonse Mucha, for instance, most of his paintings are not slavish copies of the photos.

Most of Bama's illustrations and Western paintings seem to have been done on gesso-coated panels rather than canvas or even linen. The hard, smooth surfaces allow a painter to paint in great detail, should he so choose. In Bama's case, favorite details include cloth and skin textures including wrinkles -- all done with slightly impressionistic fidelity.

The examples shown below offer no real clue as to how his art has evolved over time. Let me suggest that Bama "peaked" about the time he was transitioning from New York to Wyoming. His more recent work, especially portraits of Indians and cowboys, seems more "hard-edged" than his best commercial work. Okay, that's just my bias: hard-edge detail strikes me as too brittle, not as "realistic" as paintings with blended edges. And let me admit that I haven't seen a recent painting or Giclée of Bama's to confirm this: I'm relying mostly on small catalog and Internet reproductions that might give the impression that his edging is more distinct than it actually is.

Nevertheless, I think James Bama is an extremely skilled artist with a knack for portraiture and making representational images more interesting than photography generally can.


This is an illustration for a story that appeared in the 21 March 1961 issue of the Saturday Evening Post.

A paperback book cover by Bama. He seems to give the monster more personality than did Boris Karloff himself.

At the Burial of Gallagher
One of Bama's Western paintings. The bulk of this work seems to be comprised of Indians -- Google "James Bama" in Images mode to view a good selection of those.

A Cowboy Named Anne
This painting strikes me as being too hard-edged, as does the previous one.



posted by Donald at August 6, 2007


Of, course, there is also the factor of "representational" (i.e., photo-realist) painting of things that cannot really exist to be photographed. In fact, my major association with talented photo-realist painters is Dungeons & Dragons, with often astounding depictions of fantastic creatures, magical spells, and the like, from very talented individuals whose names I don't even remember.

Posted by: J. Goard on August 6, 2007 7:47 PM

I'm a sucker for these postings on artists who are unknown to me. Check out those skin-bobbles and fabric-surfaces that are too real to be real! Love your work, Donald.

Posted by: Robert Townshend on August 7, 2007 5:40 AM

That Frankenstein painting is terrific. He must have been somewhat's interesting to give up magazine illustration in order to rely upon earning a living by painting originals and selling them. There must have been some known market for his work.

Posted by: annette on August 7, 2007 9:26 AM

Those of us who are (a) Baby Boomers and (b) of the geek persuasion, will best remember Bama as the artist who did the cover paintings for the Doc Savage novels Bantam Books reprinted in the Sixties and Seventies. Bama's Doc wasn't the Doc of the stories (who was supposed to resemble Clark Gable), and seemed always to be wearing the same shredded shirt, but so visually striking and dramatic (especially that first "Man of Bronze" cover, which Bantam reprinted as a poster titled, "Doc Savage needs a new shirt!") that it virtually hypnotized geeky adolescent boys into buying the books.

Posted by: Bilwick on August 7, 2007 10:34 AM

The Saturday Evening Post illustration looks a lot like a Rockwell. I wonder if that was intentional.

I'm always in awe of photo-realistic painters, probably because I can barely draw a stick figure, but usually they leave me cold in the end. The paintings here affect me that way. Can't deny the talent it takes to render life-like figures, but it's not my bag.

Posted by: the patriarch on August 7, 2007 10:44 AM

The trouble with photo-realist painting is that much of it is literally done from photos - not merely using a photo as a "model" from which to paint, but actually beaming a slide onto a canvas and painting directly on top of it. It's not unprecedented - I believe some Baroque painters used pinhole camera devices to get hyper-realist effects. But then I don't especially like their work either. (I think Pieter de Hooch was supposed to have been one painter who worked that way but am not sure.) It takes some painterly skill, but "awe" is perhaps not necessary, since there's a certain amount of purely mechanical manipulation involved in such painting.

Posted by: alias clio on August 7, 2007 11:34 AM

You know, what gets me about photography and painting is how photos of patterns (friezes, lattices, textured walls) get more of a pass from the conservative lay art viewer than painted patterns. Presumably, it's in part because such painting is seen as easy relative to photorealism, but photography gets a pass on the difficulty criterion.

Posted by: J. Goard on August 7, 2007 12:00 PM

I love Bama's Doc Savage covers, and keep hoping that some publisher would put together a collection of them.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on August 7, 2007 4:49 PM

While I agree that Bama has great technical skill and superhuman patience, I don't think he is much of an artist. In the vast majority of his work, he replicates every detail but never really evaluates (that is, assigns value to) the different parts of an image. That's what we really want from an artist. For a debate on this, see

Posted by: David on August 13, 2007 10:57 PM

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