Sunday, September 11, 2011

Painting & Photography/ Photography & Painting

When this Missive arrives in your mailbox the exhibition “Shared Intelligence: American Painting and the Photograph” will have closed at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, but what a wonderful concept it is to mull.   While I had issues with the exhibition, such as installation and choices of some of the works, the concept was excellent.  How did and do painters use photography in their work. 

Even though I knew that some painters, such as Degas took up the camera shortly after the invention of photography, I was not really aware what an integral part of their work it became so early on.   It is, of course, perfectly logical.  Artists used to carry around a sketchpad so with this latest advance in technology they started taking their camera, though originally it must have been a bit cumbersome! 

Already in the 1880’s Thomas Eakins was taking photographs for his paintings.  The exhibitions showed some precise copies of his photos, though always with some interpretation involved in the addition or deletion of details.  Half a century later, Norman Rockwell, in his painting “Soda Jerk” from the Columbus Art Museum in Ohio, took it to the extreme by actually staging photographs, using lighting and crew to get the precise photos that he was looking for, which he then copied into his painting.  Ben Shahn, however, used a photo taken in Natchez, Tennessee and one from Pleasant Valley, Pennsylvania in 1935 as the basis for his painting entitled “Among the Church Goers” done in 1939.

When I was in college I was given a photo assignment to create an abstract photo.  My first reaction was, ‘Nonsense, Impossible, the camera takes exactly what it sees.’  So I started walking around Manhattan and ended up in the area known as Chelsea. There I came across this old truck and looked at it from the front and saw its rusted grill (they look different today) and there was my abstract image. The exhibition showed that Georgia O’Keeffe beat me to the observation by many decades. She saw the photographer Paul Strand as an abstract artist because he would sometimes pick details of scenes and still lives and focused on those.  She did the same in her detail of an artichoke or a blue flower, some see these images as erotic today.

Paul Strand "Bowls" (1916) / Georgia O'Keeffe "Blue Flower" (1918)
Photorealism starts with an actual photo, but the photorealist uses the camera and then creates paintings that are super real and go beyond the photo.  An excellent example in the exhibition was Robert Bechtle’s family. 

Chuck Close takes the process one step further in his original photo portraits of the 70’s and 80’s but he keeps pushing the bounderies.  Still, starting with the photo and a grid he will use a finger paint technique at times to create his over life size images.  Accentuating all details of the skin and its blemishes to the point where the portrait has come full circle and is almost abstract.  Our eye learns to scan quickly and not focus on the details, a reason that people can be most unreliable eye witnesses.

One of the most mind-bending paintings in the exhibit at the O’Keefe was by Audrey Flack called “World War II (Vanitas)”, from 1976-77.  Her garishly painted luxuries of life are not contrasted with the Old Master’s traditional device of a skull, but rather with a with a depiction of a photograph taken by Margaret Bourke White of prisoners at the Buchwald Concentration Camp in 1945. 

Audrey Flack "WWII" Ventas (1976-77)
The photograph has come a long way, no longer merely being used as a recording device but being used as an important element in creating the finished painting.

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