We are not photographs, continued ….

When I grandly posted my ‘We are not photographs’ blog (my link at the end) on LinkedIn as part of the ‘Portrait Painters’ group discussion headed “Is a portrait painting really any better than a photograph?”, an artist, Fred Pectoor,  responded that ‘painting and photography are both different media, it’s like comparing wine and beer’ as  part of a thoughtful piece in response. You might have to join LinkedIn to read the full discussion ….

I replied that the challenge is all about making the transient intransient (John Berger in his novel, A Painter of our Time) and …
Hockney’s ‘joiners’ (particularly the one of his mother) are full of his painter’s sensitivity to composition, light and the possibilities of multiple viewpoints as well. Richter is such a wonderful painter and his visual intelligence is so measured that when he uses photography as source material he is confident enough to refer directly to the actual qualities of those photographs in his painting. Flatness, spreading of shadows, the shine of the photographic paper, its borders, black & whiteness and ambiguity are all beautifully realised of course. Kevans also seems to be acknowledging the limitations of photography very cleverly – I have just been looking at her work with interest.
As for artists who use photography as a primary medium, I have just visited the Gursky exhibition at the Bermondsey White Cube today. As I was thinking in my verbose piece ‘We are not photographs’ about people as subject matter, it seems relevant to pick his photographs of festival-goers, which are astonishing group portraits. Kander is astounding, isn’t he? The very best photographers are able to compress their experience and attitude towards their subjects into their work so magically, just some painters can do.
I was really tilting at the soft target of the sometimes thoughtless overlap that painters can stray into, aiming for that elusive and transient (possibly trivialising) imagery of ourselves that photography can provide.
I ought to have said clearly that drawing and photography can both be marvellous ways for artists to learn about people. The paintings and photographs that are often the outcomes of such research are often richer, in my view, when they aim for something particularly human, either intimate or generic, personal or societal.
Painting has borrowed from, in fact been informed by, photography since its invention of course (Degas’ framing, Duchamp’s quality etc) and artists have been aware of the immediacy of the lens and its ability to communicate so directly from the outset.
I also think that our chosen examples work well because these painters acknowledge the nature of photography in their work, rather than using it as an ‘easy’ way of gathering knowledge. In a similar way, Avedon and Kander are making images that acknowledge the foundations of their subject matter laid down by painters for hundreds of years (Rembrandt!).
William Ropp seems to be using expressionism directly and very powerfully. Also, aren’t Kander’s chalked naked bodies, with their direct (and arguably critcal) allusion to the qualities of marble sculptures extraordinary – they looked astounding in Cork Street last year.
Something might be lost if painting and photography were to lose their discrete qualities.



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