I will probably regret opening this can of worms.
Anders Zorn, inventor of the ‘selfie’
Easily one of the most common issues of contention in schools of representational painting is the use of photography. Every painting studio I’ve been to has some version of this discussion, and nearly every online forum I’ve visited has an ongoing argument between some of the members- although folks on the computer are generally more technologically inclined, with that, more amenable to the use of photography to aid their work. I’ve heard painters deride people’s work far better than their own for using photos, time and time again. I’ve done it myself- try as I might, it’s hard to divorce process from product.
Some of the ‘atelier styled’ schools of painting out there object to the use of photography, and others embrace it entirely. I went to a school that completely rejects the use of photography to aid the creation of paintings, but interestingly, many of the alumni and instructors end up using photographs for their work as soon as they leave- and some students and teachers do it half secretly behind closed doors. I’ve never liked that needlessly duplicitous aspect of their painting process- it seems to me that whether or not you use photos is not the point- aesthetics and the painted image certainly is. Other schools use photography as a central portion of their educational curriculum- a tool to get unflinching accuracy into the students’ work.
There are a lot of painters out there to whom ‘not using photos’ is a badge of honor, that they can paint a final image using only their eyes, but their final image will make people exclaim ‘that looks just like a photo’; a somewhat uninformed comment which could be considered another badge of honor, or insult, depending on that painter’s personal predilections.
We are surrounded by photographs- they have permeated our collective conscience as ‘truth’ in image. Paintings were once the truth of image, and people went to exhibitions to see as the painter sees. Today, you can’t avoid photography- and I take photos all the time, but rarely will paint from one. I don’t find it enjoyable; I get bored quickly and would rather be working on something else. I can look at a photo for one of my landscapes, but only if I have already made a finished study of the subject on location, so that the photo jogs memory more than calling for literal interpretation.
For me, the joy of being a painter and draftsman is to translate the 3 dimensional world around you into two dimensions, the selection of what to focus on, include, accent or ignore. Making something 2d out of something already flat I find to be much less personally gratifying and engaging, and the camera’s instantaneous nature makes it own selection of what information to focus on. During Stapleton Kearns’ talk last week at the studio, he said something along the lines of “learning to paint from a photo is like trying to learn to swim on the sofa”. That said, people that are already trained very well in observing the natural world around them can make deft use of photography.
Some of Zorn’s etchings with the reference images
Here is the larger point I want to make-
To me, this ‘studio photography talk’ is a distraction from a much larger issue- that the camera’s aesthetic has permeated representational painting in general, through our dedication to the photographic image as truth. I know many painters who refuse to use photos in their work, that will publicly denounce working from photography, but their work retains a ‘look’ which is ostensibly photographic, as if they’re using their own bodies like a camera. I don’t think there is anything negative in their wish to render as if they had used a photograph– just that they are striving for a realism that is one and the same with the way the camera sees. Conversely, I know painters who use photos for each of their projects, going so far as to trace them rather than drawing them out by hand- but their final painting retains a look that is painterly and non-photographic.
The unintended consequence of the ubiquity of the photograph as ‘truth’ is that viewer and artist now often want the image to look just as real from up close as from far away…because of this, there are optical effects in paint that are nearly lost in today’s painting. You see less broken color, less thick/opaque/transparent paint contrasts, less brushwork that looks mad and abstract from up close (but absolutely glowing real from 15 feet away).
You could hardly have had the development of impressionism without each of these tools being employed. Today, people call paintings impressionistic if they look kind of messy, not if they are painting a specific light effect. The public equates highly rendered finish with skill, and of course; galleries take on what they think will sell. New York galleries are dripping with this sort of thing. The quick consumption of images on our phones and iPads hardly helps– as I mentioned in a previous post – optical effects in paint need to be seen in person, and do not translate well to tiny screens- what will get the most ‘likes’ is what presents best on a mobile phone.
There is plenty of documentation that Anders Zorn used photographs as the primary reference for many of his etchings, and for some paintings too- so much so, in fact, that the Zorn Museum in Mora has up an exhibition of Zorn’s work as a photographer. I’d be interested to see that catalogue; just released. I’ve seen a few John Sargent photographs that he worked up his paintings from -there was a great photograph of a gondolier in Venice next to one of his paintings in the Sargent Watercolors show at the MFA last year- I couldn’t find that image online, but the below image on the left is detail of a stereoscopic image, presumed taken by Sargent, and the corresponding painting on the right- taken from the catalogue of the watercolors show.
This does not discount the incredible skill and draftsmanship that these artists achieved. These guys could draw better with their left hand than nearly everyone alive today. There is overwhelming documentation of these artists working from life, but I find these little anomalies of remnants of their photo references to be amusing. In no way am I attempting to undermine these artists’ works in light of apparent occasional use of photography- quite the opposite- I am trying to make a point about aesthetics; their conscious decision to let brushwork, process and technique be evident throughout a painting.
At the beginning of this post I mentioned the commonality of derisive comments from one artist to another regarding their use of photography- by no means a new phenomenon- see the below quote from Royal Cortissoz about Giovanni Boldini’s reaction to Joaquin Sorolla’s paintings:
‘I have always remembered with amusement what happened when I went with Boldini to the Sorolla exhibition at the Georges Petit Gallery in Paris. As we progressed from picture to picture Boldini seemed suddenly to get into the grip of some hidden excitement and for a time hesitated about telling me just what was the matter. At last he could stand it no longer. “This man must work with a camera”, he said. “They look like so many snapshots.” ~ Royal Cortissoz in Scribner’s (May 1926)
During his day, Sorolla got a lot of grief about photography- I’d long heard that Sorolla painted from photos, but never seen any real photographic ‘proof’- instead I’ve seen an overwhelming quantity of pictures of him at work with his huge set ups and paintings outdoors with a multitude of live models, human and animal. His father-in-law was García Peris, a major Spanish photographer at the time- and Sorolla’s first artistic job was colorizing photos for him, perhaps where the connection of Sorolla and photography started from. It’s said that Sargent told his clients that Sorolla painted from photographs- maybe in an attempt to tear down his competition. Who knows- perhaps someone can link me to something substantial.
The closest thing to photographic reference I found regarding Sorolla is below, and it’s by no means a ‘smoking gun’- though the groupings are similar, the positions, negative spaces and perspective are all totally different. You could not arrive to Sorolla’s painting without an encyclopedic knowledge of light and color, inside-out awareness of the human body, and certainly spending a lot of time with hot tuna in the sun. Here is a link to the blog post that I sourced this grouping of images from.
Here is a closing thought: each of the artists I chose to include in this post were working long after the advent of photography, after the advent of high realism of the 19th-century, after Gérôme, David, Bouguereau, and after the availability of the pocket camera. Each made a conscious decision to paint in a style that celebrated paint itself, over pure rendering.
Similarly, today it is a conscious decision to let the physical presence of paint feature in an artist’s work- and personally, I hope that the effects of thick/thin paint, glazing and scraping, and the optical effect of broken, opalescent color relating to one another on the canvas return to people’s interest in painting. The big galleries certainly aren’t interested in showing much of that kind of work today.