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17th December 2012

“Pick Up A Pencil”

The theme of the new ArtWatch UK members’ Journal (see right) is “The Primacy of the Visual”. Failures to acknowledge, address, or even recognise visual evidence are examined. The text of Charles Hope’s 2011 James Beck Memorial Lecture is carried in full. Professor Hope cites failures of the National Gallery’s curators and restorers to address opponents’ arguments or to recognise the import of key historical documents on artistic practice. When Professor James Beck, the late founder of ArtWatch International, lent support to artist-critics of the Sistine Chapel restoration he came under vicious attacks from some scholarly peers – for all the world as if he had betrayed a priesthood of the visually ignorant. Prof Hope cites a letter of that kind. If artists do sometimes discomfort scholars, it is no presumption: knowing how art is made they are precisely the best qualified to detect its un-making. Here, the painter (and photographer) Gareth Hawker discusses both fundamental differences between painting and photography and the widespread failures to recognise these differences. His demonstration is timely. If (as we have argued elsewhere), art schools have given up the ghost with regard to teaching the traditional skills that formerly equipped artists to recognise restoration blunders, in the wider world of commercial film-making there are signs – notwithstanding giant leaps in the powers of digitalised image-making – of a renaissance in traditional art practices. We discussed this paradoxical relationship in connection with the extraordinary accomplishment of the hand-crafted animated film Frankenweenie. Another such heartening case is discussed opposite. [M. D.]

A Photograph is a Copy, not a Creation, Gareth Hawker writes:

…we have realised that we should give more attention to photography”. So wrote the Director of the National Gallery, Nicholas Penny, in his introduction to the current exhibition, Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present [1]. Several reviewers seem to agree. Tabish Khan wrote that, “…photography is a contemporary art form that can be just as inspiring and impressive as painting” [2]. But photographs do not incorporate the high-level thinking that paintings do. It would be misleading to put them in the same category.

The difference between painting and photography is frequently glossed over. For example, many people suggest that the camera is a tool just like brushes and pencils. At first sight, this may appear to make sense. The photographer decides what to include in the picture, in the same way that a painter often does. He chooses where to place the camera; in which direction to point it; how far to zoom in on a subject; and when to press the shutter. He may select models, costumes, and arrange lighting. All these factors contribute to what is called the ‘scene’ – the image in the viewfinder. The ‘scene’ may be recorded by a photographer just as well as by a painter, so the argument goes: they just use different tools in order to complete the same task. However this is to ignore what the tools are used for. The camera is used to record the scene, while the brushes and pencils are used to analyse it. The importance of this analysis is often overlooked.

Photographers who have wanted to claim equal status with painters have made various approaches, all ignoring this analytical element. At first they blurred and smudged photographs in order to make them look like paintings. Then photographers claimed that theirs was a totally separate art form, a pure record of the scene. Some argued against this, saying that if a photograph were pure, it could not be artistic. Before this issue could be resolved, some writers swept it aside. They suggested that what mattered was, “conceiving an image in the brain and finding some way of expressing it” [3]. What counted was the viewer’s response – whether a work, “spoke” to the viewer [4]. This disregarded a significant factor: people do not respond to paintings in the same way as they do to photographs, especially if they can see that a painting provides evidence of thinking, in a way that a photograph does not.

Paintings look different from photographs because they are made differently. A painting is constructed from brushstrokes; each stroke the result of a decision. A painting may represent a scene, or it may represent nothing at all. A painting is an independent creation, whereas a photograph is dependant on the scene. A photograph can be made only if there is a scene to be copied.

A representational painting may be compared to the summary at the beginning of a scientific paper – the paragraph which is entitled, “Abstract”. Its writer makes a personal judgment about which are the most important topics dealt with in the paper, and writes a brief account of his own. The “Abstract” is a new and independent piece of writing, just as a representational painting is a new and independent analysis of the scene. In contrast, a photograph is like a photocopy of the whole scientific paper. The photocopy shows no analysis, and no judgment.

Brushstrokes are only the most basic way in which a painter’s analysis or abstraction may be seen. Another is in the simplification of the human figure – in its reconstruction in terms of geometrical solids, such as eggs and cylinders. Even a simple tracing – the lowest form of analysis – shows which lines the painter has considered to be more important than others.

To give a computing analogy: a photograph is like a bitmap image (which records only pixels – spots of colour), but a painting is like a vector image (which records instructions about where lines are to go). A tracing programme can convert a bitmap file into a vector file. The computer makes a simplification which looks similar to a paint-by-numbers drawing. This computer drawing may be thought of as the beginning of an attempt to imitate human analysis – a type of artificial intelligence – though the computer has a long way to go before it catches up with the human brain in this respect (Fig. 1). If anything may be thought of as being a tool comparable with brushes and pencils, it is a tracing programme (which helps to analyse), not a camera (which does not).

To express the difference in another way:

Scene = Photograph

(Scene = Photograph) × Analysis = Painting

Analysis is an essential part of what makes a representational painting interesting to look at; whereas what makes a photograph interesting to look at is the scene, not its treatment.

Analysis demands abstract thinking – whether it is done well or done badly. What distinguishes the great painter from the mediocrity is the quality of this thinking, not any manual skill. Anyone who can sign his name, already has enough manual skill to make a great drawing. (This includes drawing in its wider sense: deciding where to place marks made by the pencil or the brush, even when no outlines may be involved).

The modern digital camera provides the most effective means for recording the scene that has ever been devised. Strangely, many photographers want to use it for a different purpose, to express an interpretation – a purpose for which it is singularly unsuited. Some photographers deliberately introduce all sorts of inaccuracies which mean that the result is neither a pure substitute for the scene, nor an independent creation.

The classical case for photography’s status as an equal to painting was put forward by the man who was perhaps, “the most important figure in the history of the visual arts in America” – Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) [5]. In his usage, the word ‘artist’ meant someone who, “got the spirit of the truth” [6]. He held that only 0.1% of painters were artists, and only 0.1% of photographers were artists. But not everyone takes such an exalted view. For example, a tax inspector wants to know whether a painter is a house-painter or an artist, not whether he has, “got the spirit of the truth”. So when a painter says that he is an artist, he is simply describing his activity. He is not claiming to be either good or bad at his job: that is for others to decide. But when a photographer says that he is an artist he is claiming to be in the top 0.1% of his profession: he is pushing others to accept the valuation he has placed on his own work.

By using the word ‘artist’ in this way, Stieglitz moved attention away from a vital distinction; that between creating something new (a painting) and making a copy (a photograph). He persuaded many viewers to ignore analysis, and to concentrate on the selection and arrangement of a scene – on pointing and shooting.

Stieglitz’s advocacy, along with that of other theorists, seems to have desensitised many viewers. They see only the subject which has been represented. They fail to notice that a painting exhibits the working of a mind – not just in the choice of subject, but in every single stroke. One consequence of this desensitisation became apparent when the Sistine ceiling was treated by restorers, and much of the best painting ever produced was wiped off. The picture of a man looks like a man, whether it is drawn well or drawn badly. Most historians were satisfied with what remained after the paint-stripping because they could still identify the subjects which had been depicted. Very few noticed how drastically the quality of the drawing had been reduced.

Many people were better informed about these issues in the days when Michelangelo painted his great work. Contemporaries who saw it for the for the first time commented at least as much on the power of its drawing, as on its subject matter [7]. The way in which influential men looked at nudes in those days may be compared with the way in which they look at motor cars now: with an appreciation of the beauty of engineering and construction – an appreciation which derives in part from an understanding of how all the parts connect together.

The paint-stripping made nonsense of some of the connections in Michelangelo’s nudes. His contemporaries would have been appalled, but most of today’s historians and television presenters do not even notice. They focus on the imagery and the iconography, not on the drawing. It is as if they were waiting for the work to ‘speak’ to them – for the artistic content to make itself felt. But, being sensitive only to subject-matter, that is all that they are able to see. Such narrowly prepared minds will respond only to the crudest visual stimulus (the colours looking brighter after the top layer of paint has been removed, for example).

Just as the critical response to painting has become limited, so the meaning of the word Art has expanded – to such a degree that almost anything seems to be embraced by it, including photography. However painting remains distinct: it is a creation which is independent, and which can embody the kind of analysis described above. This is why painting may be categorised with the higher expressions of the human mind, along with poetry and philosophy. Photography does not fit into this category because it cannot display abstract thinking.

But painting is now so little appreciated that, to many people, it seems comparable with photography. This has allowed photography to be called Art, and so to enter the National Gallery. Arguably this is the same lack of discrimination that has allowed paint-stripping to take place, not only on the Sistine ceiling, but on almost all the great works of painting in the Western World, including those in the National Gallery.

Giving more attention to photography”, seems to be one more example of this downward trend, but perhaps there is a glimmer of hope. When a great artist’s paint has been removed from a picture, the decline in its artistic quality is irreversible; but a decline in critical awareness is different: it can be reversed. At present, many people are only distantly aware that, in every brushstroke, a representational painting gives evidence of analytical thinking. Perhaps the exhibition at the National Gallery will help to promote this awareness. If so, it will have served a very useful purpose.

ENDNOTES:

1 The National Gallery, Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present, Yale University Press (9 Oct 2012), ISBN-10: 1857095456, ISBN-13: 978-1857095456
The exhibition runs from 31 October 2012 to 20 January 2013
2 londonist. Art-review-seduced-by-art-photography-national-gallery. Retrieved 8 November 2012
3 Gerry Badger. Collecting Photography. London: Mitchell Beazley, 2003. ISBN 1-84000-726-5 p23
4 Gerry Badger. Collecting Photography. London: Mitchell Beazley, 2003. ISBN 1-84000-726-5 p24
5 Richard Whelan, Stieglitz on Photography, Aperture, 2000, p ix
6 Alfred Stieglitz, Is Photography a Failure?, The Sun, New York, March 14, 1922 – reprinted in, Richard Whelan, Stieglitz on Photography, Aperture, 2000, p 229
7 http://artwatchuk.wordpress.com/2012/10/01/12th-november-2012/ Retrieved 12 November 2012

Gareth Hawker

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17_12_2012_AWUK_ Pick_Up_A_Pencil_Photography.pdf

 

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Above, the covers of the new AWUK Journal. In 2013 two further James Beck Memorial Lectures will take place.
In New York in April, Professor David Freedberg, Director of the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America, will speak on Morality and Movement in Renaissance Art.
In London, in October, Jacques Franck, the Leonardo specialist and Permanent Consulting Expert to the Armand Hammer Center for Leonardo Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, will speak on Painterly Practice and its Light on the Old Masters.
(For information on these events, or on Artwatch membership details, please contact the Membership and Events Secretary, Helen Hulson – hahulson@googlemail.com.)
In the Daily Telegraph Magazine on 15 December, Georgia Dehn reported a visit to the animation studios of a new animated film, The Snowman and the Snowdog, based on Raymong Briggs’s The Snowman:
“…a team of about 40 people is busy colouring in with Caran d’Ache pencils…Eight people who worked on the original film are working on The Snowman and the Snowdog. ‘We had to get them out of retirement…A lot of the others hadn’t used drawing skills like this for years because now they are all drawing on tablets straight into the computer – and we’ve trained some new people as well’, [Camilla] Fielding says. Lupus [Films] has employed 78 renderers in total…As a lead animator, [Pete] Western was responsible for four ‘key’ drawings per second, which plot out the main action of the shot. An animation assistant – or ‘inbetweener’ – does the remaining eight drawings per second to fill the gaps…’ We had a debate about all the programmes you can use to make something seem handmade’ [Joanna Harrison, the art director, co-writer and and co-owner of Lupus Films] adds, ‘but I think if you go to all the effort of getting something to look as if you have picked up a pencil, why not just pick up a pencil?'”
Above, Fig. 1: Photograph by Julien Vallou de Villeneuve 1854. Tracing by Delacroix.
Delacroix made a tracing, perhaps from the back of the photograph held up against a window. I flipped the photograph horizontally to make comparison easier. I placed a semi-transparent image of the drawing on top of the image of the photograph. The lines correspond with the painting almost exactly, thus confirming that the drawing was in fact a tracing, not simply an accurate drawing. Tracing may seem to be a task which is almost mechanical, requiring little mental input, but when the task really is done by a machine – a computer – the tracing is far less informative than the one made by a human.
For example, Delacroix has outlined the arms and hands in a way which is impossible for the computer. The computer divides the image into areas which are equal in tonal value, then places a line around these, whereas the human can discern the meaning that these tonal areas have structurally, even when they are the same in tone value as adjacent areas. For instance, the arms and some parts of the costume are clearer in the drawing than in the photograph. In the tracing made by the computer some of these lines are missing altogether.
Above, Fig. 2: Standing man looking to the right. Drawing by Delacroix.
This pairing of photograph and drawing presents a rare opportunity to view exactly the same photograph as a great artist did when he made his drawing. We can compare the analysis which he made with the analysis which we might make. It is as if Delacroix had constructed the figure out of egg-shaped lumps of clay, which he pressed into shape to conform to the structure of the body; but he has not pressed and smoothed to such an extent that the original eggs become invisible.
After a few days training, most 10 year old children would be able to draw more accurately than this, in the sense of making an outline which resembles a tracing; but accuracy of this kind was not of primary importance to Delacroix. His outline forms a clearer description of a three-dimensional construction than a tracing would have done. In some ways it is harder to draw like this from a photograph than from life. In life the model and the artist move slightly, which makes the construction easier to see and to draw.
Above, Fig. 3: Heads by Memling and Stieglitz.
On the left a detail from a portrait of a man by Memling, the “first photographer”, according to Alfred Stieglitz; and, on the right, a detail from a portrait by Stieglitz. The comparison is not on a perfectly equal basis, because the subject of the Stieglitz is a woman (Georgia O’Keeffe) but it was the closest I could find which might bear comparison with the Memling.
Notice how the painting clarifies the structure of the head, while the photograph does not. It would be easier to make a sculpture based on the Memling than on the Stieglitz. Even a very exact copy of a photograph shows some kind of analysis (although it may be of a poor quality).
Above, Fig. 4 Nude drying herself by Degas.
Degas may well have taken this photograph at about the same time as he made the painting. This does not necessarily mean that he worked from the photograph. Quite often painters take photographs of the subjects they paint, only to have historians jump to the conclusion that they must have painted from the photographs. (An historian did this with my work on a couple of occasions. He suspected me of hiding my modus operandi, even though I was quite happy to point out paintings of mine which I really had painted from photographs).
This comparison shows the type of departure Degas would have made from a literally accurate tracing. In the computer tracing, the form of the model is difficult to discern. The painting contains about the same number of lines or edges as the computer tracing, but Degas’ lines give a clearer idea of the model’s shape.
Those who believe that the camera is a tool just like pencils and brushes tend to think that analysing a scene is a mechanical process, done equally well by a machine as by a human. That is a fallacy, as this comparison shows. The translation of a scene into a painting is not a mechanical process: it involves making choices – choices which are different from the mechanical ones which might be made by a computer.
Above, Fig. 5 Kneeling woman by Delacroix.
It is possible to see exactly where Delacroix has departed from literal accuracy. In its place he has provided some clarification of the three-dimensional structure of the model, though not as successfully as in the previous drawing (Fig.2).
Delacroix has brought to the photograph his knowledge of the figure, and how its parts fit together. Note, for example, how the small of the back links the back with the hips, something which is almost invisible in the photograph.
Even so, he seems to have had difficulty with some of the forms. The position of the woman’s shoulder-blade, for example, is not clearly expressed, and in many places the shading is not very informative about the construction. Compare this with Figs. 2, 6 and 7, all of which are better drawn in this respect.
These are the sort of deficiencies which one frequently sees in the drawings which students make in life classes. Even a great artist like Delacroix could sometimes make drawings which fell below his customary high standard.
Above, Fig. 6 Drawing of a seated man by Delacroix.
Notice how Delacroix has outlined the volumes, rather than making the equivalent of a tracing. Given the task of constructing the figure out of pieces of plasticene, the drawing would explain where to put them better than would the photograph.
Delacroix has found a clear place for the ridge of the shoulder blade and the muscles on the man’s side, all of which link together logically; but he seems to have lost his way along the spine. It almost looks as if he has introduced a distant arm behind the man’s back.
This illustrates the sort of intellectual exertion which is needed when making a drawing or a painting (and when viewing one). The drawing informs the viewer about Delacroix’s analytical thinking (whether of high quality or low), while the photograph does not.
Above, Fig. 7 Delacroix (1798 – 1863), Liberty Leading the People, 1830 (detail).
Photograph by courtesy of the Musée du Louvre, Paris.
Analysis has formed the main topic under discussion so far, but this example illustrates its complement, synthesis – drawing from memory and imagination. The approach to drawing is similar. Delacroix has drawn lines around volumes, and they represent equivalent volumes in the subject. But while a drawing from life or a photograph may be checked against the scene to see whether it is a reasonable summary (Fig. 6), the construction of an imaginary scene may be checked only in so far as it strikes the imagination of the viewer.
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