Project 1-6: Photography: The New Reality

This project requires reading the essay ‘Photography Versus Painting’ by Osip Brik in ‘Art in Theory 1900-2000’ (Ed. Harrison and Wood) before considering the following questions:

 Do you think that Brik’s article points to a practice that was taken up by photographers or other artists to any great extent?

 Although Brik’s article was written in 1926, nearly 100 years since the earliest surviving photograph by Nicéphore Niépce, he makes a passionate argument as to why photography is an important art form while acknowledging it is still in its infancy. As a Russian Constructivist Brik would have been concerned with art that serves a political and social purpose as well as art’s relationship with the industrial. As a Leninist living in post-revolutionary Russia the ties between art and the ruling classes would have informed his thinking; he recognises how the cost of photography is accessible to everyone, unlike painting, “The cheapest painting is more expensive than the most expensive photograph.” For me, there is a real sense of purpose and urgency to his words along with a belief that photography can form part of social betterment.

For Brik, there is no contest in the battle between art and photography, “Photography pushes painting aside. Painting resists and is determined not to capitulate.” The advantages of photography over painting, “precision, speed [and] cheapness”, mean that painters cannot compete with the “faithful reproduction” that photography can produce. Despite this, the counter attack by painters was centred on photography’s inferior realism to painting because it was black and white. For Brik this argument is flawed in that painters can only approximate the colours of nature: “However much the painter tries s/he cannot go beyond the narrow limits of the palette.” He hints that accurate colour photography is yet to come while dismissing the lack of realism argument with the aside that at least photography does not falsify like painting by giving an object the wrong colours.

For Brik, photography’s difference to painting should be total. Photographers should concern themselves with how a subject looks while “The painter not only has the right to change reality, it is virtually his duty to do so.” he cites artistic movements that have emerged from the mid nineteenth century as proof of this, impressionism, cubism, suprematism, each of which makes a decisive divide between photography and painting. Although he cannot resist disparaging painting again, “The photographer captures life and the painter makes pictures.”

Despite all of his assertions that photography is superior to painting, Brik admits that photography is not yet fully mature as an art form. This is due to photographers not realising their social importance and regarding themselves as humble artisans practicing an “insignificant craft.” The reason for this is that artists are free to make work of anything that they please rather than to commission. (Although I think he is presenting an idealised version of what it is to be an artist here.) The importance of their work is compounded by important exhibitions which are regarded as cultural events. He explains that this is why some photographers try to mimic this style by employing painterly effects, a reference to the pictorialist school of photography. Brik believes however that photographers will attain the social recognition enjoyed by painters by creating their own aesthetic: “The photographer must show that it is not just life ordered according to aesthetic laws which is impressive, but also vivid, everyday life itself as it is transfixed in a technically perfect photograph.” He acknowledges that a new theory of the art of photography is in its infancy but cites photographers like Alexander Rodchenko who understand it’s “mission, aims and development.”

There is much in Brik’s article that I agree with – that photography is a an art form and is separate from painting, that it has the ability to recreate reality more closely than traditional art and that photography can be important politically and socially. He rightly asserts that photography will move away from pictorialism into more realistic modes although today there are many different photographic styles. Because the article is a polemic which does not give any room for multiple view points only the assertion of Brik’s argument, I also have a number of concerns: Brik suggests that there can be only painting or photography when clearly they can coexist side by side. It is quite common today for artists to work in many different media so clearly this is untrue and many exhibitions feature both photography and painting. Brik also completely accepts the view that photography is a faithful representation of reality, a position that although it has some truth has been widely discounted today, or at least approached with caution.

 Do you find any resonances with Brik’s ideas in contemporary discussions of photography and painting?

Until recently I would have said no, that the argument about whether photography could be art was over and had broadly been won. A recent pair of articles in ‘The Guardian’ however show this not to be the case. In response to a photograph (‘Phantom’ by Peter Lik) setting a new world record for the most expensive ever (it sold for $6.5m), the Guardian’s art critic Jonathan Jones set out an argument against photography being an art form. His main thrust is against ‘Phantom’ which he sees as “derivative, sentimental in its studied romanticism, and consequently in very poor taste.” And “Lik’s photography is beauty in a slick way, but beauty is cheap if you point a camera at a grand phenomenon of nature.” Not only does he find the subject matter derivative of 100 year old painting styles he also has issue with the use of black and white which he sees as a special effect employed solely to elevate the status of the work. Indeed, Jones’ main issue is that anyone could have taken ‘Phantom’ as long as they stand in the right place, at the right time with the right piece of technology: “this hollow and overblown creation exposes the illusion that lures us all, when we’re having a good day with a good camera – the fantasy that taking a picture is the same thing as making a work of art.”

In response photography critic Sean O’Hagan argues that he could as easily dismiss all painting by using a narrow example such as the BP National Portrait Award, an “uninspiring show, a hotchpotch”, which is “mostly comprised of rather old fashioned paintings.” He chooses not to because “the ‘photography is not art’ debate is so old it’s hardly worth revisiting.” He agrees with Jones on one point however, that ‘Phantom’ is not very good, “a rather boring photograph.” However, he argues that the huge selling price shows the problems inherent in global capitalism rather than photography, “obscenely rich people with more money than sense.” He could similarly attack all contemporary art because of Hirst’s “obscene” diamond skull or Jack Vettriano but rather chooses to celebrate the great artists that take photographs and the great photographers that are artists, whose work, “sings on the gallery wall. Their work makes you look at the world in a different way.” On the subject of technology, O’Hagan asserts that digital photography has merely made it easier for people to take and disseminate photographs, “A great photographer can make a great photograph whatever the camera. A bad one will still make a bad photograph on a two grand digital camera that does everything for you. It’s about a way of seeing, not technology.”

So who wins the argument? Although I am biased towards photography myself I would still have to say O’Hagan – a lot of the success of his piece comes down to his difference in tone compared with Jones. While he appears measured in his responses and passionate about his love of photography as an art form, Jones appears spiteful and irrational. It is unclear whether his piece is a knee jerk reaction or simply provocative. It seems that it could be the latter as many commentators on the piece point out he has been an advocate for photography as an art form in the past. Still, the difficulties raised about the mechanical nature of photography, whether it is the machine or the operator that makes a great image and the fact that anyone can take a photograph are probably more commonly shared than I first thought. My suspicion is that many people who are not invested with an interest in contemporary art would prefer ‘Phantom’ over the previous most expensive photograph ever ‘Rhine II’ by Andreas Gursky. The problem though is that we equate cost with quality, and as O’Hagan observes, in this modern capitalist age of inflated prices, this is a dangerous parallel to draw.

Find and annotate two examples of images that demonstrate the impact of photography on painting. How do these images acknowledge the shift in visual culture that came about with the advent of photography?

From my research I found little concrete evidence of photography’s impact on painting, by that I mean that a lot of what I read came down the authors opinion or considered hypothesis of how artists reacted to the emergence of photography. Through my research of different art movements during photography’s initial development I came across a number of thoughts of my own which I will detail. I may be off the mark and my opinion is sure to change as my knowledge of art history improves and I become familiar with more artists, also, my ideas are contradictory in that photography both encouraged a new type of realism (rather than the presentation of an ideal) as well as provoking artists began to experiment with more abstract representations which differentiated painting from photographs.

It is difficult to say for certain whether these changes in painting are a direct result of photography or driven more by the rapid changes in society brought about by the industrial revolution. This notion of photography’s impact is also compounded by the fact that as an emerging art form it would be at least one hundred years after the first photograph before photography started to find its way as an art form.

The realism movement in art of the mid-late 19th century aimed at breaking artistic and social conventions through choice of subject matter and by attempting to show the world as they saw it. Realism was interested in challenging the accepted bourgeois notions of what art should be: the pursuit of the beautiful, moral and improving. In ‘A Bar at the Foile-Bergere’ (1882) Edouard Manet paints a young woman standing behind a bar with the customers reflected in the background. The image was controversial at the time because of the subject matter; many think the girl portrayed is a prostitute – not an accepted subject for a painting. Also the paintings style which rather than using perspective focusses the viewers attention with the distortions and omissions in the reflections of the background achieve a kind of depth of field effect – which has now become part of the language and way we understand a photograph. I think it is doubtful that this would have entered the visual language at the time Manet was painting but the comparison is interesting none the less. It also seems somewhat coincidental that a movement that aims to portray life as seen by the artist emerges at the same time that photography is invented.

The impressionist movement, originating from around 1860, could be seen as a rejection of attempting to compete with photography on the grounds of realism. Impressionists explored ways to capture light, movement and colour through their work and thus provoke a sensory reaction from the viewer. It is only since the 1970s that colour photography has overtaken black and white as the accepted norm (certainly in reference to ‘serious’ photography) so it understandable that the impressionist’s use of colour was one of the central aspects of their work and a key differentiator with photography, see Claude Monet ‘Impressions, Sunrise’ (1872). On a separate note, the early pictorialist movements in photography can be read as an attempt to follow what was happening in the art world (and an attempt to have photography accepted as an art) and appears to me to be heavily influenced by Impressionism. Edward Steichen, ‘The Pond-Moonlight’, 1904.)

As art moved into modernism, painting became less concerned with realism and more abstract,  which again can be read as a further distancing between painting and photography. Certainly a work like Picasso’s ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’, 1907) is unrecognisable as what was understood at the time as a painting through Picasso’s use of flattened perspective and jagged shapes.

A final example of how by the beginning of the twentieth century painting and photography are now beginning to inform each other can be seen in Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Nude Descending a Staircase, No.2’,1912 which clearly is influenced by cubism but also references the photographic studies of motion by Eadweard Muybridge (‘Woman Walking Downstairs’, 1887.)

Thoughts…

As my main artistic interest and area of knowledge lies with photography and because of this I thought this would be an easy project to complete, the reality has been somewhat more slippery however. The difficulty has mainly come from trying to establish the relationship between painting, photography and reality as it applies to the mid-late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries. It quickly became apparent to me that it is impossible to look at only painting and photography in isolation as the development of both was probably influenced far greater by the fast changing world driven by advances in science and technology and also massive shifts in society. It seems probable that any serious artist would be aware of photography as an emerging medium and that seems to be demonstrated by the examples I have given, how much so is difficult if not impossible to assess. It is not unreasonable to assume that artists may have been subconsciously influenced by photography’s development rather than actively seeking it as an influence. That photography was influenced by art seems similarly likely because of the early photographic movement of pictorialism.

Realism in photography is a tricky subject. It is probably only very recently that we have stopped believing the cliché ‘the camera never lies’ and this is only because we are now sophisticated readers of visual culture. In the early days of photography this distinction would probably not have been made, conversely however it certainly took a number of years before photography developed its own visual language (the development of the technology played a part in this)  so it would certainly have been even longer for acceptance of photography as a visual language to be made.

In short, as with all the other exercises so far, what has seemed straightforward at the beginning has become less so as my study has progressed. I feel a little less certain about the relationship between painting and photography now despite my increased knowledge, maybe this is because I recognise that I have only scratched the surface and that the relationship is an extremely complex one with many other outside influences.

Keywords and concepts for further research:

Constructivism, Factography, Reportage, Realism, Impressionism, Cubism, Suprematism, Social Realiam, Futurism, Bauhaus movement, Neo-Classical.

Key figures for further research:

Osip Brik, Alexander Rodchenko, El Lissitzy, Vladimir Mayalowsky, Vladimir Tatlin, Dziga Vertov, Varvara Stepanova, Van Doesburg, Naum Gabo, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Kurt Schwitters, Charles Vantongerro, Pablo Picasso, Eduoard Manet, Marcel Duchamp, Eadward Muybridge.

Bibliography:

Brik, O. Photography versus Painting in Harrison, C. and Wood, P. (eds.) (2002) Art in Theory 1900–2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Oxford: Blackwell.

Jones, J. The $6.5m canyon: it’s the most expensive photograph ever – but it’s like a hackneyed poster in a posh hotel in The Guardian 10th December 2014

Available at http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2014/dec/10/most-expensive-photograph-ever-hackneyed-tasteless [accessed January 2015]

Macey, D. The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory (2000) London: Penguin books

Murray, P and L. The Penguin Dictionary of Art and Artists 7th Ed (1997) London: Penguin Books

O’Hagan, S. Photography is art and always will be in The Guardian 11th Decemeber 2014

Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/dec/11/photography-is-art-sean-ohagan-jonathan-jones [accessed January 2015]

Sturken, M. and Cartwright, L. (2009) Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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