Project: Photography: the new reality
Modernism occurred within the context of urbanisation and industrialisation in the late 19th Century. Photography, film, developments in printing, and mass production of images fundamentally affected the way artists thought and worked (Haveland, 2009:29).
Photography versus Painting. By Osip Brik (1888-1945).
Photography constantly tries to push painting to one side, with painting resisting the action. This process began with the invention of the camera and will end when photography finally displaces painting completely. This sentence seems somewhat tautological at first glance; it seems to say it will only end when it ends. On reflection the author may wish to suggest that the battle will be all or nothing, and that whichever wins, the victory will be absolute.
Photographers say that photography is quicker, cheaper and more precise than painting, and painting cannot rival the photograph for faithful reproduction. Photography moved from portraits through other genres like landscape and genre pictures. Its popularity prompted painters to fight back.
Painting could never be cheaper or faster than photography, so painters built their battle around the claim that painting is more precise. For example, paintings, unlike photos, are coloured. The author then clearly states for the first time, what he thinks about the debate, and where he stands on it; that ‘painters were wrong, and many are still wrong today’ (Brik, 2003:471).
The author admits that humans see in colour, and that painters use colours to reproduce the objects around them, but these colours are not identical to those in nature, because the artist’s media have a ‘different effect on our eyes than the rays of light which give diverse colours to objects’ (Brik, 2003:471). This sentence seems clumsily written (or is it clumsily translated?); he seems to equate colours in media with rays of light transmitted by real objects. This does not compare ‘like with like’. I think there is an argument to be had, but it should compare the rays of light transmitted from real objects with those transmitted from artists’ media. A second argument pertinent here, is that photography when compared to painting, is the product made when light from the object hits the photosensitive paper- there is a direct physical connection, which is missing from the communication of objects via painting. This ‘indexical nature’ of the photograph (Evans, 1993:13) makes it more real than a painting, in this sense at least.
It strikes me at this point that this article is written in a less complex style than many previous articles, and it is more easily understood, but somewhat less sophisticated (so far) in argument and language.
The author then becomes a little more precise saying that the quality and quantity of the colours coming from a palette can never match those of real objects (more precise still would have been an argument involving hue, saturation and possibly tonal value). Photographs cannot reproduce real colours exactly, but at least they do not ‘falsify’ them. This argument seems a little flawed too. It is known that photographs do not accurately represent either the colour or the tonal values within a real scene. Thus black and white photography pushes the natural tonal values of a scene towards the two extremes of light and dark, and colour photography overemphasises the hues blue and red (Albers, 2013:13-14). On the one hand, Brik’s monochromatic photograph seems to falsify the colours, by omitting them and representing them with tonal values, and on the other, these values themselves are distorted from reality.
Returning to the painter, he explains that they do not hold reproduction of reality as the ultimate goal, and realise that ‘painterly colouring’ is more than just reproduction of colours in real objects (Brik, 2003:471). In fact painters, he expands, see their job as using the images of nature to give them ideas which they expand upon and change during the painting process- otherwise they (not Brik) feel they will be merely copyists – like photographers. This argument seems consistent with the view of traditional academic or classical painting held by modernist painters – that they must create using the ideas of reality-and that to simply mimic nature is unacceptable (Malevich,2003:173; Matisse, 2003:72; Schevchenko, 2003:100 ).
At this point I became a little confused again about just where the author stands on the issues. However, rereading the text it is clear that he is on the side of the photographers, but that when he discusses the painter’s ideas, he often discusses them favourably, through their own voice (not his). This communicates an ambivalence of feeling which may be deliberate.
The author then continues, that painters do have a different task to photographers; that photographers ‘reproduce nature’ whilst painters create paintings from reality. This function of painting has been declared since the mid 19th Century in progressive movements such as Impressionism, Cubism and Suprematism, amongst others. Note however that if here the Impressionists are cited as modern re-creators of reality, this classification is not universal, and other writers and painters have considered them just the opposite, producing a ‘superficial realism’….’where even more than with Courbet , the retina predominates over the brain;’ (Gleizes and Metzinger, 2003: 194-5).
Brik now introduces a new painting movement in Soviet Russia. The AKhRR (the Association of Visual Artists of Revolutionary Russia) is striving to return to the idea of reproduction of reality in it’s paintings. The reasons for this are: because it is a time of revolution, and these important times need to be recorded realistically, because many artists using the painterly style found it difficult to sell their work, and that there are many less cultured buyers who do not differentiate between an exact reproduction and an approximation. Brik feels that the AKhRR are foolish to attempt to resurrect ‘so-called painterly realism’ (Brik, 2003:472), because although not perfect, photography will triumph completely over reality painting, if not now, certainly in the future.
He reiterates the photograph’s strengths (cheap, quick and precise) and states that these make it socially more important. Despite this photographers do not think of themselves as important- rather, as inferior artisans when compared to the painterly artists. Brik lists the practices (rituals?) of the painterly society, which reinforce the idea (ideology?) that painting is art, but that photography is ‘merely an insignificant craft’ (Brik, 2003:472). These include exhibitions, catalogues, lengthy analysis of paintings, and the accoutrements of cultured events.
Brik now flips to his own ‘anti-painting’ voice. Photographer’s who try to make realistic photos painterly destroy their craft and reduce its social importance. Understandably, painters follow this path because they seek the recognition given to painters, but Brik strongly believes that they must not attempt to play painters at their own aesthetic game- but to take them on via the defining characteristics of their own medium- the photograph’s faithful reproduction of everyday reality.
This journey is not an easy one, as no artistic theory of photography exists, other than a few tips on technique, and how to make a photograph more painterly. However, some painters have left the discipline of painting, and taken up the challenge of photography, and have even produced results.
Brik believes that if photographers communicate with each other, about their experiences, and fight against painterly photographic technique, a new theory of ‘the art of photography’ is possible (Brik, 2003:473). Like a ‘poacher-turned gamekeeper’, the former painters are best placed to create artistic photography. One such former painter is A. M. Rodchenko, who is now a photographer, producing experimental work. Knowledge of him will help photographers to develop as a profession.
Other questions arising from the piece:
What were the technical characteristics of photography at this time? Monochrome colour , Black and white? How was the camera made?
Brik does not say much about the painter’s counter-attack- what did it entail?
Is this less sophisticated language and argument? Or just translation effects?
How well does the distinction between painting and photography fit the characteristics of Althusser’s ideology?
How important were paintings and photographs in the Russian revolution and Soviet Russia ?
In your Blog
Do you think that Brik’s article points to a practice that was taken up by photographers or other artists to any great extent?
Photography is definitely a practice which became, and still is massively popular in the world. The scholar Nicholas Mirzoeff admits that he and many others were wrong to predict the fall of photography in the 1990’s, and that ‘precisely the reverse has happened with the quantity and significance of photography being greater than ever before (Mirzoeff, 2013:3). The evolution of affordable and easy-to- use cameras has progressed from Brik’s time, through black and white to colour, and from complicated machines and processes, through instamatic cameras, sophisticated digital cameras, and mobile phones, many of which will have a camera built in. This technological age allows the execution and sharing of pictures in seconds. Personal photographs can be uploaded into virtual spaces such as the cloud, instagram, and facebook, and shared with hundreds of people. Because of these modes of sharing and storing pictures, we live in a world which is more dominated by personal images than we have ever known. In 2014 the Independent reported that the number of hand held gadgets (overwhelmingly mobile phones) had increased from nought to 7.2 billion in 30 years- though interestingly, more than half of the world’s people do not have one (Davies Boren, 2014). In the third quarter of 2016, Facebook, driven largely by shared photographs and text, had reached 1.79 billion monthly active users (Statista, 2008).
Photography has proved massively popular as a tool for sociological recording, from amateur family snapshot albums, through Facebook galleries, and including the work of professional photographers (the paparazzi and famous war photographers to name just two genres). The ubiquity of cameras has meant that not just professional, but even amateur still or moving pictures can prove highly socially important. Just as Brik foresaw that the photograph would help record the reality of revolutionary events in USSR, the ubiquity of mobile phones has allowed and facilitated revolutions globally in the 21 st Century.
The ‘’Arab Spring’’ of 2011 comprised a wave of revolutions against dictatorships in Africa and the Middle East, and was closely aligned to the ‘Occupy’ movement which sought to highlight the social inequalities in the world. Downtrodden people began to see more clearly the social and political situations they were enduring, and organised revolutions to escape.The media, including social media, Facebook, and at it’s centre the photograph, was fundamental to this process, both allowing people to see the reality of their own situation, and by allowing the outside world to see the situation through media broadcasting.
Additionally, there are daily media examples of self-recorded, or by-stander recorded images of socially and politically important events such as controversial police shootings, or the close-up images of disasters such as the 9/11 disaster in New York, or the 7/7 train explosions in London. These relations of photography to political and military power struggles, are discussed in ‘Introduction: For Critical Visuality Studies’ (Mirzoeff, 2013). The author claims that a key part of these studies is identifying ‘who claims to control the authority to look’, who ‘is willing to claim the right to look’, and ‘the demand to look on that which authority holds to be out of sight’ (Mirzoeff, 2013).
As Brik wished, the practice of photography has become widespread and socially important. It has also become an artistic discipline in it’s own right, worthy of scholarly analysis and discourse, exhibitions, and artistic and critical respect. Fine art photography is also bought and sold for high prices rivalling paintings in the international art markets. These developments are clearly shown in a criticism of the work of the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (Mercer, 1993). Whilst the author is severely critical of the underlying racial fetishism shown in his work ‘Black Males’, he acknowledges that Mapplethorpe has become a star in the eyes of ‘journalists, critics, curators and collectors’ (Mercer, 1993:435). The author discusses the technical skill, thought, and artistry behind these photographs at length, saying the artists ‘characteristic signature (is), the pursuit of perfection in photographic technique’. The price of Mapplethorpe’s photos in the International market in art photography is described as ‘exorbitant’.
Do you find any resonances with Brik’s ideas in contemporary discussions of photography and painting ?
Find and annotate two examples of images that demonstrate the impact of photography on painting. How do these images acknowledge the shift in visual culture that came about with the advent of photography
Carole Benzaken is one of the contemporary artists listed in the book Vitamin P: Painting. The text tells us that she is primarily a painter and is interested in the question of abstraction v representation. This has been a central theme in Art since the mid 19th Century, and Brik acknowledges this debate through his discussion of realism v painterliness (Brik, 2003). This artist allows herself to work between both environments, and takes no ideological stance (unlike most Modernists). Benzaken is also interested in the techniques of photography and painting, often and often integrates both in the same painting. She often uses several styles within a painting showing the range of ‘painterliness’, and often uses photos as the starting point of her work.She is particularly interested in collective public events, such as the funeral of Diana princess of Wales, or busy public scenes such as urban life in LA, and her work focuses on ‘looking and seeing’(Dailey, 2002:40).
Figure 1. La BreaNight, 2002.
- The background scene is quite abstract. Is it a busy road with car lights and streetlights at night ( a very photographic scene), or just abstract shapes and colours (a more painterly scene)?
- The style is very free and impressionistic, suggesting lack of focus (like an unfocussed photo?).
- Within this background we have several circular formats- in the traditional position of the ‘subject’. Except, rather than a main painting subject, the artist has presented several subjects- suggestive of photography not painting (we might even call them ‘snapshots’).
- These snapshots are painted in a less painterly, more realistic manner, more representative of the photograph than painting, and are urbanesque, containing buildings and people
- Some contain images of sport and musical performances (suggestive of crowd events)-highly ‘photographic’ but less common in paintings.
- Compositionally this piece is rather modern- it seems balanced, but in the manner of an exploding planet leaving swirls and vortices in its wake- very different to the compositional techniques of the painter’s at this time.
David Bussel gives the following thoughts on this contemporary painter, in the book Vitamin P. His work is sceptical to art history and the problems of image making today. He is interested in Painting, authorship, commodity fetishism, translating from photos onto an abstract ground, and the relationship of modernism to technology. He enjoys playing in-jokes with references in paintings, believing these to allow an ‘emptying-out of the signifier’ which allows ‘freeing up (of) meaning and possibility’ (Bussel, 2002:58).
Figure 2. Chairs (1999-2000).
- The main subjects are a car and a half dressed woman- typical commodity items in the 21st Century- probably copied from advertising photographs, which are the sine qua non of the modern photographic image. They seem to be painted, but in a more realist, less gestural style than the background, perhaps because they are iconic photographic images. There is little perspective between the two main subjects (reinforcing the modern).
- The background is rather complex, looks somewhat like a ‘classical’ painting ( like a Claude landscape). It is less focussed and painted more gesturally (more painterly) than the main subjects. It is a typical painterly genre and incudes painterly compositional ideas such as linear and aerial perspective. It is also Modern however- as it contains modern motor cars.
- The incongruous positioning of the subjects on the background inevitably questions what relationships the two could have in the viewer’s mind. Relationships about importance, subjects, background, message coding, and ideas about Classical and Modern.
- How much is the woman’s body equivalent to a classical ‘nude’, or to a modern ‘commodity’, is there much difference?
- The same could be said for the car- is it a form of transport or just a commodity to be bought and sold?
- The background is more complex, gestural, than the woman-car –cap trio. Does this imply that it is more delicate and important (suggested by the signifier technique) or less important (suggested by the signifier position in the background) than the subject trio?
- Many of these suggestions hinge around the ambiguity within the language of these images. One may interpret them in several ways
Figure 1. Benzaken, C. (2002) La Brea Night [acrylic on canvas], at http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-tMLTi0t0TTQ/U2LTJRnlkYI/AAAAAAAAB
_0/WKoFQDbZRqQ/s1600/bubble+2.jpg (accessed on 11 December 2016).
Figure 2. Carpenter, M (1999-2000). Chairs [Acrylic on canvas] at http://www.simonleegallery.com/artists/merlin_carpenter/selected_works.html. (accessed on 11 December 2016).
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