Saturday, August 31, 2013

Exploring the border between painting and Photography, cont.

Two things intrigued me about this world: the digital camera could record information in very low light levels, information that could then be expanded in photoshop, and also, the images themselves were immediately available in multiples to be compounded in ways that allowed for shifts in point of view that greatly expanded the information that could be put into a single image. I started taking pictures under increasingly dark condition- often the image would not be discernible, and then processing them in photoshop to bring an image out of the darkness. I likened this to Raku, you wouldn't really know what would happen and you had to work with what started to develop. For the first time in my life as an artist I was producing abstract images, and using photography to do so.
I also did a series of portraits of friends who came to visit. I kept the light low, and the camera I was using at the time produced rather blurry images that I would then draw detail into. When I paint a figure I usually keep the mass rather vague, and then, at the end of the process I would add a few careful highlights and a few defined lines to make the form "pop." I found myself doing this in photoshop, and it worked. On one of these I was having trouble with the color, and I started playing with layers of solid color, maybe I could do a duo tone and forget the color problem, and one layer that I tried was an earth green, I adjust the transparency, and suddenly I had what traditional painting calls "optical grays." I was stunned! The tricks of image making that I had learned by years of study of old master paintings worked perfectly well in photoshop.  I was using the newest digital technology to created my very old fashioned paintings!

"What old fashion could that be, Paul wondered with a palpitating heart," Like Paul in "Dombey and Sons" by Dickens, I was wondering with a palpitating heart what was old or new fashioned as I was playing with this new technology, channeling Dürer and Velasquez while taking color channels apart and applying gradient maps in photoshop! As dark as the first half of the first decade of the new millennium was for me personally I am firmly convinced that the wonder and excitement of this new way of expressing myself is what got me through.

I produced a series of abstractions, a series of totally abstracted figures and portraits (hats off to some very patient friends) and when I started to be able to walk about again some interesting landscapes that are very obviously manipulated. 

In 2008 I was doing a lot of landscape images. I was walking a lot at that time, and would use the parks around Boston, particularly the Fenway, Muddy river and Arnold Arboretum as raw material for rather pastoral images. They were a vehicle for developing my interest in way of constructing images in what I was  starting to  think of as "irritating the eye." The process of seeing is extremely complex, and is not a reading by the brain of a static image. Our brain is constantly interpolating information from our roving eyes and constructing a surprisingly dynamic image of this constantly changing information. I recommend the work of Semir Zeki, Oliver Sacks, and Dr. Land as a source for this. If you look closely at an eighteenth century steel engraving- completely representational images, and also at certain newspaper pages where the color plates are just slightly off register, you will see how the two dimensional images we process are often composed of nothing but interference patterns. This in fact was one of Dr. Lands great experiments, he used a black and a red transparency to project a full color image. We interpret color not by reading a light frequency but by interpolating between two frequencies.

To me this is all pretty interesting stuff, and experiments in the color channels of my images was what I was mainly focused on, the result being these pretty pastoral images with (I hope) a kind of dynamic vibration that makes them live. I don't intend the viewer to be conscious of the trick, only to be affected by the result.

In fact what I was doing was taking a picture, then editing the image to conform to what I thought of as beautiful- out with those telephone poles- and then doing my processing on the image of this fictional beautiful place. One of the questions I asked in the previous post contains a challenge. The alley behind the house I live in always seems magical to me. Walking through it is always wonderful, beautiful, but it contains all sorts of trash cans and hanging wires. I could- indeed I have, taken pictures in the alley and use photoshop to edit out all those offensive things, but could I put the beauty I experience in an image without removing them? To make the question more specific, could I make a beautiful image of this alley I love so much, rather than creating a fiction about a beautiful place and then making an image of the fiction?

That became my challenge in August of 2008. How I responded to that Challenge is the series of images contained in "A portrait of August." This at least is the formal challenge. There were others as well.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Exploring the border between painting and photography.

Question from Jason Evans, photographer, Brighton: "What's the difference between a photographer who makes art, and an artist who makes photographs?"
William Eggleston's answer:
"Not sure there is any difference."

This is taken from an interview with the "godfather" of color photography, William Eggleston in the Independent Newspaper (UK) with Michael Glover.
Many thanks to my friends at the Munroe Gallery of Photography for bringing this to my attention.

A few weeks ago I was asked to supply a short bio for the RI state house, where one of my paintings hangs, and when I described what I am doing now I felt a little at a loss- well, I guess I'm exploring the border between painting and photography was all I could think of to make sense of what I'm doing. Perhaps that popped into my head because I was very engaged in preparing the one man show at the BCAE which is now open. So, I've been thinking about that, and in conjunction with the show I propose to share some of those thoughts.

Here is another question: when we use the term "Photograph" what are we referring to? I think most people would refer to the process that was developed in the 19th century, but that process only dealt with the fixing of images on paper- or copper- in some permanent way. The camera had been around since ancient times. During the renaissance, developments in lens technology made the "camera obscura" available as an artist tool. Indeed, the only permanent result that the use of these technologies produced was the work of draftsmen and artist who used them as an aid in producing drawing and painting.

In the nineteenth century a method of fixing the images on paper was developed, and for the first time a document of the light from the lens could exist without the intermediary of a draftsman, a separate technology was born, which would evolve into a separate art form as well as being an independent recording mechanism that could represent its own version of an assumed truth.

But artists did continue to use the camera as an reference in their work, at first as blatantly as they had formerly, then somewhat seruptitiously as photography gained recognition as an independent art form, and finally apologetically.

In the world of figurative art today the standard position is that one should not paint from photographs for the following two reasons: first, why imitate in paint what has already been stated by the photographer, second, there should not be an intermediary between the artist and their subject. It is also sometimes stated that the quality of a drawing is diminished by copying from photographs. This is accepted as true, despite the fact that many artists, including myself, have and do use photographs for reference, and there are hundreds of years behind this practice. It needs to be stated that using a photograph for reference, as a memory jog, is different from simply copying a photograph, and when I, and others who I respect, use this method it is as an adjunct to actual observation, and usually involves photos taken during sittings. But not always, I once did a posthumous portrait using a shoe box full of old photos to assemble the image- and that worked out pretty well.

These thoughts were part of my rather testy relationship with photography before the tables got turned and the other side of this question put to William Eggleston came into focus. Using photography as a reference tool for painting and drawing was seemingly clear cut, but suppose by some science fiction it became possible to reverse the equation, and use about 45 years worth of painting and drawing experience as reference material for  photographs. I don't mean simply experience in recognizing a good composition, but actual color manipulation, decisions about scale and composition and lighting. I relate this in a very personal sense- there are great differences between images recorded by the eye and the hand in traditional art versus images recorded by film upon exposure to light passing through a lens; but there are also great similarities and common judgments. I am relating here my own exploration of process.

In the mid 1990's I was sharing an office with a graphic designer. I had studied calligraphy in High school and college, and that lead to typography. This was a side intreats but as often happens with people in the arts these side passions can often be turned to practical-i.e. bill paying use. So, while I had done lots of illustration and been sometimes involved in the production of type, this partnership was a new involvement, at a different level. This was a time of dynamic change in technologies, and many of these changes had not as yet reached our desktops. Most of the images for client presentations were printed for us by "service bureaus" who would take our digital files and print them on high quality photo paper. The state of the art was the "Iris" print, and we were very accustom to calling for them and having "Bike Messengers" (remember them?) deliver them to our office.
One day, a mistake was made. The prints were on matt paper. This was entirely new, to us at least. These prints were absolutely beautiful. It was also during this time that some galleries started talking about a new form of print making: giclée. Because I had some experience with photoshop and Macpaint I was able to recognize that these were images being created on computer programs, and when the matt Iris images appeared I recognized the technology being used to produce them. 
The term Giclée has an interesting if short history. It is presently used too often to designate a photograph of a work of art created in traditional media which is being printed by the new digital process, but at the time I am referring to, in the galleries that I was acquainted with, the term was being used for images that were original digital creations. This is a real distinction, and it is not a new one. Let me illustrate by talking about fine art prints in general. Suppose a particular etching, or lithograph, is reproduced in a book. The print, i.e. the original art, is photographed, and the photograph is printed on a printing press. What is the difference? To answer in a traditional manner-  this answer is presently being examined by many avant guard artists, but it is still valid to say that the intentions of the artist, the method of expression, is integrated with the technology of the printing mechanism, the nature of the line in the case of an etching, that the artist made the line on the plate, that a certain number were printed, and those prints represent the primary intent and the limit of publication dictated by the artist. They are works of art. At first, and still at times, this process applied in the case of digital art. The digital image is constructed in a particular manner, and an artist can manipulate it in ways that reflect the inner logic of the process. The digital image is the "Original"and prints from it can be considered to be unique works of art, particularly if the artist retains control of the image, even more if the artist controls the printing, as Jack Duganne was doing at Nash Editions when he coined the term "Giclée." Let me put a fine point on this- the etching is a linear process, the image is built up lines which hold ink and are transfered to paper. The inner logic of a digital process is points, pixels. when an etching is is photographed and then printed as a "Giclée" the material process is at odds with the conceptual process by which it was originally conceived.

All this was swimming around in head in the late 90's and the first years of the new millennium. When my path veered into the world of sickness, and I had to curtail my professional engagements I started playing with my digital camera. I also started playing with photoshop. There were long stretches when even going outside was an effort, and some of the medications I was put on made me very light sensitive, but the compulsion to make images remained strong, and photoshop could be explored very comfortably at my desk or even in bed, as the day demanded. A further complication arose, I developed "peripheral neuropathy," which really complicated holding a pencil, or a brush. This caused a major shift of focus to the camera as a recording device; as a digital camera obscura.