The Hockney-Falco thesis

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.

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Holbein’s The Ambassadors – 1533

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 in 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.

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Ansel Adams’ words of wisdom.

In a recent article in OnLandscape David Ward quoted the following passage from Ansel Adams’ autobiography:

“To be fully committed, an artist has to believe so strongly in his own work that it is difficult to have affinities to other artists’ production. If I truly believed in the art of another artist, I would be making it rather than what I am making.“

There are several ways to read this statement, and since I have been obsessively turning some of them over in my mind for the last few months I wonder if I might come to some kind of resolution by putting pen to paper.

a) It could be read as a devine truth, handed down from the photographic pantheon: a state of mind to be aspired to.

b) It could be construed as a flash of arrogance from someone who was so lauded for his own particular (but reasonably specific) contribution to the art, that he had an over inflated idea of his own beliefs and abilities over those of other practitioners.

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Canyon de Chellya, Ansel Adams

Personally I find the statement fantastically seductive, but I suspect that this is partly because it fits with my own natural tendencies towards selfishness, jealousy and arrogance. However, it is fair to say that we each form opinions (however temporary and subject to change they might be) and that if we ever consider own own opinions to be superior to others, then both interpretations are partly true… but perhaps not mutually exclusive.

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Ansel Adams on location

From the statement it appears that Adams assumes that he would be capable of making all other kinds of art from that which he is currently making. But this is frankly unlikely, both from a physical and psychological perspective. Even if we remain within the medium of landscape photography and assume that he was happy to be inspired by painters, writers and musicians, or photographers of other genres, would he really dismiss the photography of that other arrogant visionary Galen Rowell ( who incidentally won the Ansel Adams Award for Conservation Photography in 1984, the year of Adams’ death ), who climbed mountains and trekked into undiscovered places with a 35mm camera slung around his neck, making compositions on the fly on colour transparency film? Though he did shoot in colour ( and their work is very similar in many respects ), Adams stated “I have done no color of consequence for thirty years! I have a problem with color—I cannot adjust to the limited controls of values and colors. With black-and-white I feel free and confident of results.” So, maybe he did believe in Rowell’s art but ultimately felt that he couldn’t make it himself. I know that there are photographs that I just do not have the patience, eye or equipment to have realised… I would have liked to have taken them myself, but am also aware that I would probably not have been able, even if I had been at the required time and place.

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Potala Palace, Tibet. Galen Rowell.

Adams also seems to suggest that you shouldn’t need to bother to look at the the work of any other artists because it will do nothing to inspire you or motivate you. Did he really not look at other people’s work? Did he really think that even his own work (and words) would only be looked at by laypeople or non-committed artists? Would he expect that his work was only judged by people that were specifically NOT his peers?

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Galen Rowell on location

But at the same time, is it not true that if you are struggling along some particular route to enlightenment… attempting to track down some particular truth, then you must feel that this voyage is in some way more important than others? While I can give lip-service to the art of many other photographers, can I really say that their interpretation actually moves me more than my own would have done? Sometimes? Rarely, I suppose. And at the end of the day, if we consider what we are doing to be art, who are we doing it for? It could be argued that if you are doing it for an audience then it is not art but commerce ( actually, this is how the French tax system sees the difference between non-comissioned and commsisioned photography ), and that the pursuit of art is essentially a selfish endeavour, unique to every practitioner. But, crucially, this is not to say that loooking at the work of other artists might not be inspiring. One might not want to do the same work, but it might ( and often does ) reveal avenues of endeavour that one had not previously thought existed, techniques one had not considered or subjects as yet unkown, and for these reasons other people’s art is often inspiring.

I am going to suggest a middle way (of course): that Adams’ statement veers strongly towards arrogance, but contains a vital nugget of truth.

A less provocative statement might have been:

“To be fully committed, an artist has to believe so strongly in his or her own work that it is difficult to have affinities to other artists’ production, however much it might inspire him or her in their own endeavours. If I truly believed in the art of another artist and that I was better able to achieve its goals than him or her, I would be striving to make it rather than what I am making.“

But then it is unlikely that I would have thought much about it.

 

Photography’s USP.

The fact that photography is unique within the visual arts is without doubt. Just exactly what it is that makes it unique is more difficult to pin down. For example, the idea that it is a more truthful representation of the world than say, painting, has long since been debunked. I will only go so far as to mention in passing black and white photography, the different reactions of different film emulsions to the same spectrum of light and contrast, the effects possible and errors probable in the darkroom, and of course the choices made by the photographer with respect to aperture, shutter speed and filtration. All the above are only easier ( some would say more obvious ) since the advent of digital.

 

Several years ago I gave a talk at a Light and Land ‘Discovery Day’, during which I championed the early photographs of Jacques Henri Lartigue in their ability to delight by using the shutter speed to freeze people in the act of doing things ( e.g. crashing go-carts ) in a way that had never been seen until that point, and which we are quite blasé about these days. I pointed out that we should never lose sight of the magic we felt when we looked at our first photographs, even though with time we can become habituated to it, and experience might make us feel we should ‘move on’ intellectually. I was recently reading an article by David Ward in OnLandscape ( https://www.onlandscape.co.uk/2015/01/houston-problem/ ), and for some reason this article bumped me a bit further along in my thinking.

 

What photography has that no other medium has is precision on the time-space continuum. 

 

To take painting by comparison ( since it is this to which photography is most often compared ). Painting has no real validity in time or place. It is impossible to say at what point in time a painting has been made with any kind of precision at all. It may have taken hours or days to paint in the field during which time the lighting may have changed and the subject may have moved, or it may have been created from several sketches or photographs that were taken at several different, unspecified times. It is not even certain that all the physical elements of a painting ever had the spacial arrangement that was given to them by the painter. Indeed painters often bring in elements from elsewhere ( including their imaginations ) to help them create a composition.

 

We can say precisely where, and within exactly what time frame a photograph has been taken… and this combination can never be reproduced. Ironically, being able to give this information instantly makes it redundant: although we can go back to a location, we can never go back to a time. The interpretation of the scene at that place was only valid at that time. Even the same photographer would probably never make the same exposure at any other time. Even exactly a year later, the antecedents would be different during the months, days and minutes prior to the photograph ( temperature, humidity etc ) rendering light, foliage, clouds, water levels etc probably totally different. Interestingly, it also means that we have to redefine what we mean by a “fake” when applied to photography: since a photograph is created by the application of light to a sensitive substrate, which we can never reproduce, whereas a painting is created by the application of paint on a surface, which we can reproduce. The best we can hope to achieve is an exact copy of a digital file by physically assigning the numerical data to each pixel space. Otherwise known as  hitting the “copy” button on our computer. Images on film are even more problematic. Of course we can make copies of photographs, but that is not to say that any resulting reproductions ( on screen or in print ) will be the same as what the photographer created any more than any of the millions of printed copies of the Mona Lisa are faithful to Leonardo’s original.

 
But I digress. I propose that where a photograph is taken should be irrelevant to anything other than a documentary or journalistic photograph, even though this is often the only caption a landscape photograph gets. We expect to know where the photograph was taken. But surely this should have no bearing on whether we are moved by the image, unless we actually want to be affected by any prejudices we have about that place? Knowing where it was taken might allow us to go there ourselves or to seek out other photographs of the same place, but it should not inform how we look at the image. Precise timeframe information is, at least, more useful. It might tell us how quickly the water was flowing, how windy it was, and may give us an insight into the creative choices that the photographer was moved to make ( the shutter speed could be considered an analogue to the physical application of paint to a canvas )… but more importantly,  being able to control exactly when the image is made and how long the physical process takes is unique to photography, and in combination with the location information it is unique in every photograph ( since we tend to not actually stand on one another’s shoulders at even the most popular locations ).
 
I am no great follower of the Cartier Bresson ‘capture the moment’ thesis, each photographer at each particular point in time might find a different moment or period of time important to them: there is no Great Unifying Moment. But it is something we have absolute control over, and which no other medium does.
 

What are the implications of this? I am not sure. I shall have to think about that. But I shall try labelling my images differently and see how I feel. Maybe just numerical coordinates and the exact time frame. If anyone is moved to find out where an image was taken then they can, but they are going to have to want to first rather than deciding whether they should like a photograph depending on where it was taken, which seems to be the current conceit .

Going somewhere vs doing something

I was recently killing an hour or so before a train from London. I wandered into the National Gallery, picked a time period more or less at random and ended up in 19th and early 20th Century. Amongst the icons (Various Van Goghs, Monet’s bridge at Giverny etc) was the following picture:

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The title actually made me laugh out loud. “Camille Pissarro. Fox Hill, Upper Norwood”.

Pissarro was effectively exiled there to escape the Franco-Prussian war, and painted a number of pictures of the area, at a time when the train had just arrived but the Norwoods were still villages on the outskirts of London.

It was Pissarro’s habit to paint a picture all at once (i.e. not starting with any particular subject or colour) and to keep adding paint right across the canvas until the painting was finished, on location. In this resect his technique mimics what happens as we take photographs, but this is where the simillarity between this landscape painter and most landscape photographers ends.

It is only a small canves, maybe a couple of feet wide, and the subject matter is mundane in the extreme, but the way Pissarro treated the subject was radical. It was an early example of Impressionism, it was a style that he said “doesn’t catch on, not at all …” and shocked the critics by showing people going about their business in a landscape soiled by mud and litter, painted quickly and sketchily in order to better capture the natural light and athmosphere.

What struck me was the contrast with photography’s insatiable appetite for new and ever more extreme locations. Every year the media are awash with near identical images of the latest trendy location as everyone tries to get that ‘new’ image by neurotically jumping on the latest bandwagon. As photographers we are at a disadvantage in some respects, in that the light falling into our cameras is recorded mechinically and is therefore less susceptible to natural variation from one practitioner to the next… but still, how often do we ask ourselves what we are trying to achieve with our image? How does it change the way people see a subject? How does it move the story on?! How many photographers even TRY to make work that a contemporary would be able to recognise as coming from them and only them, and not from any one of the other people who happened to climb off the coach to Jokulsarlon that day and witnessed the same icebergs on the same black beach in the same light? Indeed, later in life Pissarro gave up Neo-Impressionism (things had moved on in the interveneing years) saying that it made it “impossible to give an individual character to my drawing”.

To say that there are not thousands of people out there quietly ploughing their own furrow would be unfair. Some of them are even making a good living doing it. And I suspect that digital photography, electronic media and the way we are swamped with images of a certain kind will prompt more people to do something different… or to surf google images and stop taking photographs at all.

In the mean time, maybe we should all visit the galleries more often and see what Van Gogh could do with some olive trees, what Monet could do with a pond in his garden, or what Pissaro could do with Upper Norwood.