Role Reversal: How Paintings and Photography Switched Roles in the 20th Century

Thu, May 03, 2018 at 9:30AM

Fig. 1 Roger Fenton, British, 1819-1869, Fruit and FLowers, 1860, albumen print, National Gallery of Art

It is hard to over-estimate the influence of photography on the development of art since the 19th-century. Although camera obscura image projection had been known since ancient times, 1839 marks the year photography was introduced to the public through the daguerreotype, the first photographic process to require only minutes to achieve an image. Soon photographers were turning their cameras towards all types of subject matter, making simple but significant discoveries about animals locomotion such as through the work of Eadweard Muybridge (fig. 2) but also understanding that photography could now much more quickly and thoroughly capture images such as landscapes, portraits, and still-lifes (fig. 1) which had been long reserved for paintings, drawings, and prints. 

Fig. 2 Eadweared Muybridge, British, 1830-1904, Horse in Motion, c. 1886, black and white photography

Mastering this new technology took many years of experimentation and growth. Most photographers in the mid-19th-century approached this new medium from a scientific viewpoint rather than an artistic one as they attempted to grasp the nuances of mechanized reactions of light and chemicals. But it did not take long before the artistic effects of photography caught their attention and the beauty of atmosphere, or sfumato, as it is called when referring to Renaissance masters such as Leonardo da Vinci, created a movement called Pictorialism. 

Fig. 3 Clarence H. White, American 1871-1925, Morning, 1905, platinum print

The years 1885 to 1915 represented the height of this movement which generally refers to a style in which the photographer manipulates what would otherwise be a straightforward photograph to create an evocative image that seems to capture a mood or feeling rather than merely record something. For the Pictorialist, a photograph, like a painting, drawing, or engraving, was a way of projecting emotion, feeling, and poetry (fig. 3). This was new territory for the young field of photography and it quickly took hold with a public hungry for imagery both "modern" in technique yet "artistic" in the traditional sense of the word. Many of the 20th-century's most important photographers including Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), Edward Steichen (1876-1973), Edward Weston (1886-1958), and Paul Strand (1890-1976) began their careers as Pictorialists. 

While photography was becoming more "painterly," painters were exploring new ground themselves. With the demand for exacting likenesses in portraits, landscapes, and other scenes diminished painters turned to new expressions that seemed to revel in something unique to their art - the brushstroke. 

Fig. 4 Claude Monet, French, 1840-1926, Impression, Sunrise, 1872, oil on canvas, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris

The French Impressionist painters such as Camille Pissarro, Edgar Degas, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet (fig. 4), and Berthe Morisot burst onto the scene in the late 19th-century and created a watershed moment in art. Veering away from the subject as dominant, they focused more on light, color, and movement in a way that was not possible with photography. Much has been written about the Impressionists' concern with the early science of optics - advances in understanding how the human eye mixes colors to submit an image to the brain and the effect of light on a scene. But Impressionism was also about the physical act of painting as a side-by-side comparison of any Impressionist painting with what a photograph reveals. Never before had the physical act of painting been left so apparent on a finished canvas. The public was shocked that artists were exhibiting works that they considered "unfinished" sketches and the first Impressionist exhibition was loudly panned by the public as well as art critics. 

Fig. 5 Vincent Van Gogh, Dutch, 1853-1890, The Sower, 1889, oil on canvas, Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, The Netherlands

But the revolution that Impressionist started was only the beginning. The free application of paint on canvas gave way to greater forms of expression and yield giants in 20th-century art such as Paul Cezzané, Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh (fig. 5), George Seurat, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec as well as Pablo Picasso, to name only a handful. The Post Impressionists themselves gave way to the great story that is 20th-century art - the gradual liberation of technique, subject, and form to the extent that it actually became separate from the canvas or defined sculpture and became human action alone. This became Performance Art of the 1960s. 

Fig. 6 Josef Albers, German, 1888-1976, Homage to the Square: Apparition, 1959, oil on Masonite, Guggenheim Museum of Art

Fig. 7 Brett Weston, American, 1911-1993, Cracked Glass, 1954, black and white photograph, Courtesy of the Brett Weston Archives

Geometric Abstraction also played a large role in the trajectory of 20th-century art. Artists no longer felt compelled to render recognizable human life and could celebrate the purity of geometry. Piet Mondrian, Josef Albers (fig. 6), Ellsworth Kelly, Judd, and Frank Stella were some of the biggest geometric painters of the last century but some photographers also followed this path. Brett Weston: Significant Details, will be on view in the Donald Karshan Center of Graphic Art from April 28, 2018 through July 29, 2018 and showcases the photographs of Edward Weston's son, Brett (1911-1993) who took cues from his father and created stunning black and white photographs that mirror 20th-century Geometric Abstraction (fig. 7). Honing in on details in the natural or built environment, he found beauty in shapes, form, and patterns all around us and brought them forth in black and white high contrast. His photos ranging from large sand dunes and glaciers to leaves, cacti, cracked glass, and even grease droplets are close-up studies of geometric poetry created by nature. Interestingly, through, it is often hard to tell exactly what is depicted in his work. This was by design. Photography had now adopted some of the primary tenets of 20th-century Modernism. The subject matter is not necessarily important but artistic expression is. Pushing the boundaries of what could be photographed was now on par with developments in painting and other visual arts, all of which had come a long way since the 1800s. 

Fig. 8 Richard Estes, American b. 1932, Telephone Booths (1968), Oil on canvas. Museo Thyssen-Bornesmisza, Madrid

If Brett Weston and other photographers of his generation "flipped the narrative" on the role of photography in art, some mid-20th-century painters were poised to up the ante yet again. No sooner did photographers decide that they could train their lens on abstract form and create "arty" photographs than painters opted to confront photography head-on at the point where it all began -- the faithful depiction of reality. Photo-Realism as an art form came on the scene in 1968-1969, with formative stages in New York and California, it involved the production of images that deployed near-microscopic detail to achieve the highest degree of realism possible. Using the photograph as the primary visual reference, artists such as Robert Bechtle, Charles Bell, Chuck Close, Robert Cottingham, Richard Estes (fig. 8), and Audry Flack painted with the goal of surpassing celluloid and often included technical or pictorial challenges with a focus on surface, such as glass, reflections, or the effects of light. In some artist's works, the use of multiple photographic studies for each work transcended the limitations of the normal depth of field of conventional photography. 

Fig. 9 A.D. Cook, American, Indian Summer, 2000, acrylic on canvas, Collection of Marc McAlister


Luster: Realism and Hyperrealism in Contemporary Automobile and Motorcycle Painting is an exhibition that celebrates the height of his phenomenon in 20th-century and early 21st-century art. The artists in the exhibition, on display now through June 21, 2018, in the Ford Gallery at MOAS, have all closely followed in the footsteps of the mid-20th-century Photorealists while choosing to apply their skills to the faithful representation of gleaming automobiles and motorcycles (fig. 9). As in the work of Richard Estes and Robert Cottingham, the reflection of light off shiny surfaces is particularly well-suited to Photorealism and reminds us that the effect of light still occupies artists in our times as it did in the early 19th-century. Chrome, steel, glass, and vibrant enamel paint now are featured prominently in our post-industrial era and provide perfect source material for artists seeking to conquer photography on its own terms. The circle is complete and yet, somehow, there is certain to be another chapter yet to be written in the ongoing role reversal of photography and painting. 


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