This exhibition at The National Gallery in London, is something of a momentous occasion since it is the first major photographic exhibition by an institution that is largely concerned with painting and has been since the mid-nineteenth century. Hence, it is not surprising that the exhibition is concerned with the influence of painting on photography and does not appear to consider very much the effect photography has had on painting. Of course, photographers have been seduced by painting, I admit to this myself, but the influence of painting on photography has not necessarily been a beneficial one since photography operates under a different set of limitations to that of the painter and a “good” photograph is going to have different characteristics to that of a “good” painting. In fact, the relationship between painting and photography can be an interesting one and the subject of much debate; the painter Degas, featured in this exhibition, is an example of a painter who took this relationship seriously and endeavoured to use it in his art, such as in his Portrait of Princess Pauline de Metternich. One wonders whether this exhibition might not be presenting a one-sided view and instead of The National Gallery welcoming photography, their view is more guarded and is really encouraging photography as a lesser art, subjecting the medium to a set of rules which work well for painters but not so well for photographers.
The view expressed above is not merely my own, there are others who question the value of this exhibition such as Jonathan Jones who writes in The Guardian newspaper (october 30, 2012) that “A new exhibition at London’s National Gallery hopes to prompt a conversation between photos and their feted inspiration. Does it work?” Well it has got me going! Jones seems to think this exhibition does work, writing “It celebrates the more civilised side of photography, and the result is a cultural cringe before fine art.” Although interesting, a lot of the juxtapositions between photographs and paintings do not work for Jones yet he admits to being seduced by art!
Writing in The Times on October 30’th 2012, Rachael Campbell-Johnson is more generous towards The National Gallery, heralding the exhibition as evidence of photography’s emergence from the ghetto; Jeff Wall, a photographer who has previously exhibited at The National Gallery, had coined the term “photo ghetto” over the self-contained nature of photographic art. For Campbell-Johnson, the question of whether photography is art or not, is over and not just because photographs can now demand high prices such as the 4.3 million dollars paid for a work by Gursky. Photographers have drawn from “the pictorial language established by painting`’ as well as “photographic pioneers.” While exploring such concepts, the exhibition also encourages one to question in what way the photograph can be an object in it’s own right as well as a replica, the boundaries between truth and fiction, the role of the viewer’s imagination and the way in which a photograph captures time. Hence, not only is one being asked to reconsider the history of art but also to consider “a new appreciation of current possibilities.”
Brain Sewell, “national treasure”, writing in The London Evening Standard on 1’st of November 2012, assumes a more traditionalist stance, comparing his views with those of Charles Baudelaire. For Sewell, photography is an upstart and does not deserve to be considered as art. He refers to the exhibition as “a provocative investigation of photography’s enlistment of the ancient traditions of painting (and, less frequently, of sculpture)” and sees photography as a rapist. For Sewell, photography’s role is primarily that of documenter, a valuable resource that explains such phenomena as war, far away places and other naturally occurring things that he would otherwise find hard to comprehend. However, to consider photography as rivalling art is another matter. Sewell does admit to moments when photography can be called art such as “in the work of those photographers who accompanied Scott and Shackleton in the Antarctic, men who in those then unique circumstances had eyes to see that with the coolly calculated technology of their clumsy cameras, they could enhance the ice and snow, the darkness and the light, even the numbing chill of the deep distant south, in ways far beyond the dramatic romanticism of Caspar David Friedrich and Frederick Church, and the dabbing of the Impressionists, their near contemporaries.” He also mentions sports photography as being art.
However, Sewell does not accept “the notion that the photographer is, in genius, the equal of the painter.” I find myself amused by Sewell and interested; for instance his comment that the photographs are “glossy ghastliness and scale, aggressively large, aggressively coloured, aggressively lit, subtlety never their point.” to be rather accurate of much exhibited work; as one of the exhibiting photographers, Craigie Horsfield wrote of another exhibition,“The surface of a photograph does not act; the surface of a painting does, but the surface of the photograph is redundant, it is not engaged by the artist.” Sewell sees vulgarity where others see art and refers to the catalogue as “repellent, the nastiest example of book design ever issued by Yale University Press.” For him, The National Gallery has been not only seduced but debauched by showing this exhibition.
My visit to this exhibition starts with a talk in a National Gallery room by a member of staff. Unlike Sewell, it is balanced and I soon become aware of how this momentous show is not really an attempt to shock, Ori Gerscht’s photograph on the cover of an exploding bouquet might imply that, rather it is an attempt to examine and explore the interaction between European Fine Art represented by painting and photography. The National Gallery has a long association with photography that started with an early daguerrotype photo being made of it and the first director’s wife, Lady Eastlake, one of the first people to write intelligently about photography. This exhibition has also been run in collaboration with WIlson Centre of Photography, USA.
Generally speaking, photography is associated with truthfulness yet this is not as simple an approach to the medium as might at first be imagined.
The premise of the exhibition is to show that “historical art was an engine for early photographic invention” and yet it does admit that photography did influence art. For instance, Delacroix who is featured in the first room, was one of the first artists to use photographs as drawing aids which nowadays is a common practice. However, for photographers who had “nothing to go on, painting provided some legitimacy” and so it is suggested that photography has a debt to traditional painting. I shall return to this at the end of my piece as the question that hovers over this exhibition is surely how accurately the relationship between photography and painting has been treated.
In the first room of the gallery, the walls are painted black and the lighting is low avoiding the garishness that characterises some photographic exhibitions. One sees a reproduction of the work by Eugene Delacroix “The Death of Sardanapalus”(1827) that some photographers have referenced such as Jeff Wall’s “Destroyed Room” that “quotes historical art without directly referencing it” (p.20) although it lacks the humanity of the art work unlike Tom Hunter’s interpretation which is more tactile and has some of the sensuousness of the original.
Oscar Gustav Rejlander was an early photographer who was inspired by art producing such works as “The Two ways of life” (1857) which is a composite made from 30 glass plate negatives and hence an early challenge to the notion of photographic truth. Here the photographer is presenting a kind of tableau that speaks of the way of debauchery and the way of sainthood as the two paths of life; this kind of allegory was popular at the time while nowadays a less dualistic and moralising view would be more acceptable.
Another interesting photograph is Karen Knorr‘s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, a pictorial reference to the well known essay of the same name by the art critic Walter Benjamin.
While the first room is concerned with narrative photographs whether of a biblical, historical or allegorical nature, the second is concerned with portraiture. The order of rooms follows the hierarchal view of art adhered to by the French Art Academy in the 19’th century; hence room 3 is concerned with the figure, room 5 with still life and the last room with landscape. Room 4 deals with the tableau and combines different genres.
In the portraiture section, the first image is one by Martin Parr from the series, Signs of the Times. A couple stand apart in their living room, looking rather uncomfortably at the photographer who achieved this effect deliberately by waiting before releasing the shutter of his camera. This couple have been described as upper middle class but their surroundings do not suggest it as the stairs are situated in the living room while behind them one can see only grass and a wooden fence. This photograph is alongside an unfinished yet remarkable painting by Thomas Gainsborough of a couple in their large estate who look quite happy.
There is another photograph by Karen Knorr, a black and white of a couple in a smart living room with a caption that suggests the need for security. Tina Barney shows a photograph of an aristocratic family likewise standing in their obviously well endowed home. These images presumably mirror the way artists often painted the wealthy in their homes as a way to earn a living.
Thomas Struth has an up close and personal image of a family posing in front of shelving, their faces carefully composed for the shoot while Craigie Horsfield who has spent a great deal of time in Spain where he has undoubtedly been influenced by the approach of Spanish portraiture with it’s emphasis on self-worth and self-prosperity has a photograph of a Spanish man, Fernando Gomez that echoes with an aura of painters like Velazquez. Besides this image is another one by Julia Margaret Cameron, a nineteenth century photographer, who features strongly in this exhibition as a photographer who has influenced later photographers.
Portraiture has always been important to European Fine Art and it is the same with photography. Portraiture has the ability to explore different aspects such as the psychological, emotions, the allegorical and deals with a wide range of people from celebrities and royalty to the ordinary poor. There is a sharing of stylistic devices between these two media.
There is a striking photograph by Nicky Bird. She had her niece, Jasmine, sit and imitate a photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron which is of a slightly blurred girls face. At one point, Jasmine burst into tears because she felt she could not act well enough and perhaps it is these tears that helped to soften her face and produce and image that not only imitates the original but is in many ways more beautiful.
The third room is about the “figure” which has had a contested “artistic and critical background” for ages while “photography intensified the debate”; it was perfectly natural for photography to take up this subject. The figure tended to be seen not as an object of lust (this became a covert yet popular intention in photography with the advent of photo-realistic pornography) rather as a form that has the power to elevate thinking,
The photographer Rene Dijkistra has photographed a young girl standing on a beach on an overcast day in July 1992; she is lit however by strong direct light from a flash gun. Comparisons have been drawn with Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” largely because of the pose and yet the photographer did not ask her model to pose in this way, it was naturally adopted. Did social convention received as a result of exposure to media influence the girl or is she just relaxing in a way that feels right for her body?!
Richard Learoyd’s photograph of a man with an octopus tattoo is a remarkable image yet it is also interesting in the way it has been made. The model was carefully controlled in the assuming of his pose, the hands for instance had to be clenched in a certain way, while the actual mode of making the image used a camera obscura, a box with a minute hole and a lens that projected an image on a wall from which photographic paper hung thereby recording the image. There was no negative used in the making of this image so it is similar to art in the sense that only one copy was made although this has since been photographed!
Room 4 container tableau, large images that tend to have a narrative. Here biblical and battle scenes feature, there is a sense of history as well as use of the allegorical. Thomas Struth’s large photograph of people looking at a religious painting in The National Gallery is a picture in a picture and one we are drawn into as we are also in a gallery looking. The subject of the painting is Christ allowing Thomas, the doubter, to touch his wounds to show they are real and in the photograph people are examining the photograph closely perhaps asking similar questions. The exact nature of truth in photography is also being posited one might think; in fact, the photographer did not set this photograph up, the people in the image are not models but ordinary people whom Struth has managed to catch in a decisive moment.
War photography played an important role from the early days of the medium and can be seen in the work of Roger Fenton. A contemporary war photographer is Luc Delahaye whose image of a battleground in Afghanistan is over 2 metres wide. Apart from a bunker, the only signs of war are a large puff of smoke with more in the background and it is only the title that is left to actually inform us of the subject. Yet this seems to be a realistic image of what war is these days and a change from the more conventional images of bombed out villages. Delahaye does not consciously reference painting although a large painting above his photo mirrors the scene Delahaye has recorded, rather he is asking questions about warfare and it’s consequences.
An image of the Madonna and Child is a photomontage constructed from photocopies made by the subjects coming into direct contact with a large flatbed scanner, a recording device that acts like a camera in recording what is placed on it. A number of these photocopy images have been placed together and some paint added to produce the final art work.
Maisie Broadband has made a look alike version of Simon Vouet’s “An allegory of wealth” painted in 1635; she describes herself “not a tortured soul” but “makes work because (she) feels happy”.
Room 5 is devoted to still life, nowadays the most successful of photographic genres unlike the early days when colour was not available. Still life can have great symbolic effect.
There are a couple of photographs of a rose bush, from the front and the rear. Flash has been used so as to render the background black, a device used by artists, that helps to highlight the flowers rather than diminish their presence by a complex background containing details. The experience is of the objects being isolated in a space of their own.
The centre piece here though is Ori Gersht‘s “Blow Up!” which is of an exploding bouquet made using ten high speed digital cameras from which an image was found that records the most dramatic moment when a bouquet of flowers was blown up. The bouquet was “frozen” using liquid nitrogen so that it shattered when exploded. The image is remarkable, the restrained use of colour apparently inspired by a painting that hangs nearby.
Nan Goldin who has photographed the graphic details of her life on the United States eastern coast, shows fruit lying towards the end of a bed; in the background, one can see the blurry forms of a couple of notebooks. There is a sense of the ephemeral here which echoes previous art works. A detail of fruit from a Carravaggio painting is shown which is interesting because Carravagio is considered to be an artist who made use of the camera obscura as explained by David Hockney in his book “Secret Knowledge.” However, there is no comment about this as this exhibition does not seem to cover such an angle in the painting-photography ddialectic.
The last room showed landscape. It started as a background to more classical paintings but has had an important role since the 16’th century conveying magical places, national character, industrial issues etc It can present a purer vision of the world, uncorrupted by art’s mannerisms, “furnish the fact on which art is based.”
Richard Billingham‘s “Storm at Sea” (2002) may not look particularly stormy yet the wind was blowing so hard at the time that he could not stand up properly. Some of the storminess can be seen in the waves yet the eye is drawn to a strip of light on the horizon above which dark clouds hover. The work is referenced to Gustav Le Gray’s photographic seascape hanging nearby (an image that used 3 different negatives to perfect) and a painting by Balkes called The Tempest.
One photograph I liked was Edward Muybridge‘s ‘Moonlight Effect” (1868) for it’s highly realistic effect enhanced by stereoscopic vision.
Another group of photographs that I found strangely compelling was Jem Southam‘s pool photos, all taken of the same spot but at different times so that the images looked very different. Besides this, covering the wall at the end of the room, was a large view of a scene once described by Van Gogh. The images that make up this scene are photo-gravures.
On the way out, there is a large photograph by Luc Delahaye which consists of many images composited into one giving a sense of heightened drama to the scene. Delahayes comments that “his photographs do not refer to specific works of art history: any similarity comes from shared pictorial and cultural references.”
One comment about photography is that it is “like engravings – only exquisite and delicate beyond the work of graver.”
Sometimes one feels photography is simply photographing what is there to be photographed rather than consciously or subconsciously mimicking artistic conventions. Can the making of self portraits for instance really be attributed to the influence of painting? It seems to be a natural response to the camera though the way one does it may be influenced by former practices.
How much does photography owe to painting? To a certain extent, photography’s development has been limited by the influence of art which has imposed inappropriate rules. For example, if photography has to conform to certain compositional concepts such as the “rule of thirds” then many great and important images would never be made.
Does making a photo the same size as a painting ensure its role as art? Of course not but this seems to be an underlying assumption among some contemporary photographers.
I found the exhibition catalogue worth the price; it helped one to reflect further on what was a magnificent exhibition even though it might have done more to explore the subject. It seemed to be more about art than photography itself yet engrossed one – there is more I could write about this exhibition but for now the above will suffice!