Donald Short is an artist working in the UK

Notes on Photography versus Painting: From the Untitled Project.

I watched Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract again recently. The eponymous draughtsman uses a mysterious frame device divided into squares, which he places at an angle to his easel: his support has a similar dimension and squares. Accordingly, he is able to fix his binocular view more easily on the object of his attention, a distant house and gardens. Monocular perfection versus binocular imperfection.

In the 1930s Thomas Eakin’s widow commented that her husband – whose extraordinary work bares a strong resemblance to photographs – ‘only used photographs when impossible to get information in the way he preferred, painting from the living, moving model’. Recent research has proved this statement to be at best disingenuous and at worst obfuscation. Easkins clearly made great use of magic lanterns to project his large archive of photographs. Beneath the paint surface, simple outlines can be seen; and later – similar to the positioning markers used by Coldstream and Euglow – ticks and dashes.
So why was Easkins’s wife was so determined to hide this truth? In Mark Tucker and Nica Gutmans’s essay on Eakins they write, ‘ The advantage and attraction of using photographs proved irresistible to many 19th Century artists, despite the risk and stigma, and the reliance on photographs as substitutes from drawn or painted studies or aid during painting became even more commonplace.’ (Thomas Eakins, Photographs and the Making of Painting, M.Tucker, Nica Gutman, 2001, Yale) Later in the essay…‘Such painters faced the fact that their creative use of photography would not be widely understood as rising to new challenges but rather as ways of circumventing conventional ones.’ Circumventing is the key word here and from this point onwards, the essay becomes a sort of apology with a sound argument at the end to support the notion that working from projection involves much more that just copying, stating that ‘the process was conceptually far removed from straightforward mechanical transcription. Eakins exercised specific choices both in the making and editing of source images. There is also an interesting allusion to Eakins using more that one source for a single painting, creating a collage, if you like. 
Returning to the PG’s draugtsman and his optical device, there is a telling sentence in the aforementioned essay that states that lenses ‘helped artists isolate and analyze qualities of visual experience, countering the eye’s too-willing accommodation to distortion or the tendency to overlook detail of grand design.’ Which brings us back to the mad, bearded, Provencal, en plein air, although somewhere in his madness he created a truly monumental grand design that became the basis of Modern art. My early attempts with projection were simple. I copied. Soon though I began to realise what I was doing – wanted to do/achieve – in the new work, was going to involve a lot of decision making – much of it learnt from previous non lens based work.‘Rising to new challenges not circumventing old ones’.
Contrary to what people might think, using a projector was a difficult and continually evolving process. It was a new way of drawing not a way to avoid drawing. This is what Eakins’s found to be true, but his wife was keen to suppress this for fear that it would be misunderstood.

If one goes back to the point when photography was invented there was for instant a moment when photography and art (painting) occupied different academic spectrums. Photography, like film 60 years later, was initially a branch of science, brought about predominantly by an interest in science rather than art. H.F.Talbot was in fact an amateur artist (it has even been suggested that it was his failure to adequately bring his drawings to fruition using as a camera lucida, led him to look for a way to fix the projection created by this device) but nevertheless he presented his discovery of photography to the Royal Institution, a prestigious scientific body; while the French scenic artist and inventor of the Diaroma, Louis Daguerre’s (in collaboration with Nicephorore Niepce) own virtually simultaneous discovery of photography was announced by the French Academy of Science.
In Susan Sontag’s essay ‘In Plato’s Cave’ (Sontag.S, On Photography, Penguin,1977), she makes the point that ‘ the point of taking photographs was a vast departure from the aims of the painter. From its start, photography implied the capture of the largest possible number of subjects. Painting never had such a scope.’ Did art (painting) therefore lends its artfulness to photography and give it a new direction? Or did the art of photography emerge naturally, at the point when the science was exhausted and a new purpose suggested itself, in the process lending its scope to painting, which at the time was reduced to slavish depiction of historical subjects.

When the painter Sandford Gifford travelled West in 1870 in search of new motifs with fellow artists, Worthington Whittredge and John.F.Kensett, he eventually joined Colonel F.V.Hayden’s geological survey of the southeastern tip of Wyoming; a party that included the photographer William Henry Jackson. One wonders what the photographer and the painters talked about over the camp fire? Colour (or in the case of the photographer, the lack of it), light, composition – almost certainly. What is certain is that they became good friends, Gifford known to help the other man with his heavy and cumbersome equipment. According to Hayden’s log of the trip ‘During the day Mr Jackson, with the assistance of the fine artistic taste of Mr Gifford, secured some of the most beautiful photographic views which will prove of great value to the artist as well as the geologist.’ (Harvey.E.J, The Painted Sketch, American Impressionism From Nature 1830-1880, Abrams, for the Dallas Museum of Art, 1998)
The science of photography became the art of photography very quickly and with it came definitive artistic decisions, as Sontag put its of, ‘preferring one exposure to another’ and ‘ imposing standards on their subject’. Photography was soon about interpreting subject matter much as painting was. Inversely, ‘Preferring one exposure to another’ and ‘imposing new standards’ could easily be a criticism aimed at the first exhibition in1874 of the Societe anonyme des artistes-peintres, sculpteurs,graveurs, etc, which later became known as the Impressionists. Fittingly, this exhibition was held in the Boulevard Capucines, in the fomer studio of the photographer, Nadar.
What is certain, is that a kinship emerged between photographers and painters in the 19th Century – tacit or otherwise – which created a mutual discourse and important mutually advancing both art forms, Impressionism being a notable example.
These thoughts serve as prelude to my discussion on painting from photographs – a subject initially touched on with the mysterious exactitude of the paintings of Thomas Eakins. My intention is to sketch out some form of lineage and in doing so put my own use of photography and projectors into a wider context. Why is this important? For a start, it does beg the question. Is what I am doing a repetition of what other artists before me did, or is there a difference, possibly because the technology is more advanced. Is my digital projector any more different than Eakin’s Magic Lantern or Caravagio’s make shift, ‘on the run’ model, camera obscura? Furthermore, the very act of copying from a photograph merges two art forms, which can clearly be shown to have been influenced by each other. This marriage – as Hockney shows in book , ‘Secret Knowledge’, is a dirty secret with a somewhat startling conclusion: namely that for 400 years or so before the invention of photography, the projected image not only dictated the way that paintings looked but was in effect being fixed in paint – not chemicals. Painting and photography may in fact have been the same thing all along.

Feb 18, 02:50 PM by Donald Short