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.

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