On Photography

November 14, 2020

I’ve had a love/hate relationship with photography my whole artistic life.

OK. Confession over.

Here’s why.

A Pice of Me #41, egg tempera on panel.

A Pice of Me #41, egg tempera on panel, 21 x 13.3 cm or 8 1/4 x 5 1/4 in.

I grew up with copies of Life Magazine on our family coffee table. Their black and white photographs were stellar. Later I became entranced by other coffee table discoveries: Matthew Brady’s (high contrast) photographs of the Civil War; Edward Steichen’s 1955 exposition called The Family of Man; Diane Arbus’s haunting, disturbing photographs, the list could go on, but I’ll stop. In short, I loved photographs.

A Piece of Me #38, encaustic on panel. 21 x 13.3 cm or 5 1/4 x 8 1/4 in.

A Piece of Me #38, encaustic on panel. 21 x 13.3 cm or 5 1/4 x 8 1/4 in.

Later as a young artist I had no problem riffing off of photographs and commercial material. This is the the world; this is my reaction to it. It was a lot of fun. I loved playing with found images, basing my art upon them (not paying attention to those nasty copyright issues, but that is indeed another story). I was inspired by Photorealism and the work of Chuck Close. Over time, as I visited museums and my own artistic interests and capacities grew, I wondered how artists had been able to render external reality so precisely – in those pre-photographic days. And I realized the depth of my inexperience. Sure, I could draw. Sure, I could paint. Sure, I could play off of a photograph or some printed object. But so what? How in the world did those artists construct huge, I mean huge, canvases filled with evocative swirling figures? And all out of their own imagination? As an American raised in the era of television (where my visual imagination was continually fed by external commercial sources) I felt my poverty.

So I embarked on an internal and external exploration. I vowed to base my work only on renderings from life, from the external world around me. In this, my realistic temperament reigned. Such old school realism may now be considered anachronistic or reactionary (which it is): we already know that; you are not saying anything new. So be it. Nevertheless in this way and on this path I wanted to eschew photography, at least as a basis for image creation. Whenever I did consult a photograph (as a secondary visual resource) I realized a very important thing: a photograph is a two dimensional rendering of a three dimensional reality. Period. It can never, ever give you information that you yourself do not already possess. So I began to hate photographs, well not really, what I really hated was my own lack of formal training. Because in a traditional sense, much of what an artist does, in basing their image from life, is formal, it’s about perceiving with your own gevoelsmatig bewustzijn (aesthetic consciousness) a three dimensional form and rendering that onto a two dimensional surface. While a photograph is actually the reverse: it’s a two dimensional piece of paper that has mechanically captured a moment of life in space and time. Form doesn’t enter into it.

Then one day, to my surprise, I found myself basing a new painting project on a photograph(!). Relative to the aesthetic world that I had assigned to myself for these last decades, it was a kind of blasphemy. Because rule number one for artists seeking to do representational art is that the image should be based on a figural sitting or a study from real life (not a photograph). Well, apparently, my self-assigned apprenticeship was now over.

I cut up this photograph and started making panel paintings from the individual pieces. (I’ve included a few samples here, left and right) Compositionally, many, if not most, were abstractions or quasi-abstractions. Thus, rule number one for artists creating abstract art is that the image does not attempt to represent an accurate depiction of a visual reality but instead uses shapes, colours, forms and gestural marks to achieve its effect. Most of the panels were abstract paintings first and foremost and (contributions to) a visual reality second. This whole project then would be something in-between. For want of a better term I began to call it Deconstructed Realism.

The only thing I have to say about it all now, as I near completion, is that my self-imposed formal training in drawing from life, as well as my self-imposed training in exploring an indirect painting technique during this time served me well. By paying a lot of attention to form I was (for the most part) able to avoid that lack-of-form-information-problem from my base photographic image. I happily strove to insure that the shapes, colours, forms and gestural marks in each panel would carry its own weight. And that the final assemblage (which really is half-painting and half-sculpture) would ultimately speak for itself. I hope to be able to post images of that final assemblage soon.