I have just read an interesting and thought provoking book by David Hockney. Hockney is always worth listening to: he has a restless and enquiring mind, and the energy and resources to back it up. He doesn’t always seem to follow a linear path with his argument, but maybe that is just due to overzealous editors… and I don’t really care anyway; I am just glad to have my thoughts provoked.
This book ‘Secret Knowledge’ was published in 2001 by Thames and Hudson, but until I chanced upon it on my father’s bookshelf I was not aware of it and hadn’t seen any fallout from it in any other media. Maybe Hockney’s conclusions have been accepted into the mainstream, or maybe they have been dismissed, but in any case they made me think about the place of photography in the visual arts.
The thesis is this: By about 1430, painters in the Netherlands had started to use concave mirrors to project an image of the subject onto a canvas, and would then paint directly over this image without the need for any preliminary sketches. This meant that they could render the subject very accurately and quickly, which had clear benefits for a jobbing portrait painter. The radical increase in realism offered by this technique soon became the goal for painters everywhere and everyone started experimenting with mirrors and lenses, apprenticing themselves to painters that knew how to use the technology, or at least trying to paint in such a way that it at least appeared that they were up with the current thinking.
I won’t bother to go into the evidence or examples presented by Hockney, but I am essentially convinced by his argument. What interests me as a photographer is that people effectively began to fix a photographic image in paint long before light sensitive chemicals had been thought of, and that these techniques caused what we now call ‘painterly’ and ‘photographic’ interpretations of subjects to ultimately diverge. Or at least for painters to move on and leave photographers stuck in a rut of their own making.
Before 1430, painters had pretty much accepted that understanding perspective and reproducing it in your pictures was the way to go, since no one could be any better at pure draughtsmanship than they already were. All of a sudden, new technology enabled an unexpected, order-of-magnitude improvement in draughtsmanship, but was unable to apply it right across the canvas all at one time. Hence, the new trend for accurate and consistent perspective within an image was replaced by a newer trend for increased detail in individual items at the expense of spacial fidelity across the image as a whole.
In the Holbein example above, while the image shows off hitherto incredibly difficult to achieve realism in the patterns in textiles following the form of the draped cloth and in the lines of text and various mathematical drawings following the form of the various books and scientific instruments, the perspective and vanishing points of many of the individual objects (e.g. the two books on the lower shelf) are unique and indicate that they were painted out of context. And that is quite apart from the anamorphic skull at the bottom of the picture. Indeed, the whole painting has been said to illustrate the conflict between science and religion… and it is worth knowing that Roger Bacon was imprisoned by the Church after he sent an opus to the Vatican in 1268 that included instructions for projecting images using mirrors.
Then photography came along… which could render detail accurately and at the same time maintain consistant perspective across the whole image, and painting had to find another unique selling point, a course that would take it into cubism, amongst other things.
Painters had to live with the fact that they were condemned to effectively make compositions of elements painted individually from directly in front (i.e negating perspective) and in direct light, if they were to fully exploit the technology in search of greater accuracy. Once Photography came along and started applying accuracy to entire landscapes, it was time to move on. Interestingly, Hockney himself (normally thought of as a painter) has experimented with applying photographic accuracy to “painterly” reinterpretation of the space with his Polaroid collages back in the 1980’s, long before considering that painters were doing the same more than 300 years before.
The thing is that, by and large, photography has not found it easy to reinterpret the spacial relationship between elements in a scene other than by physically moving things around before the shutter is triggered. Neither has Photography (with the exception of photojournalism) been keen to examine what it can do better than other media. It has been constrained by technique, but at the same time has not truly celebrated this technique. That is, until now.
Some photographers have accepted for some time that pursuing ever more detail and accuracy for its own sake is an excercise in diminishing returns but now, after more than 250 years, we have the means to freely manipulate the space we represent in our images and more practitioners are beginning to try to see where this leads us. Now more than ever, we need to think of ourselves as belonging to a tradition of exploration and interpretation in image making dating back millennia, and we need to fully exploit our medium to see what we can do to extend the boundaries (and therefore increase the opportunities for self expression) a little further.