A recent visit to some major art galleries enabled me to put into practice a long held conviction that viewing the originals of much loved artworks is important to understanding their value as classic images.
Whilst my interest lies strongly in photographic images, I am also very conscious of the motivating power that other genres of art hold over photographers.
A recent visit to New York gave me an opportunity to view art works ranging from Salvador Dali to Garry Winogrand, from Ansel Adams to Matisse, Manet and on to Monet. To my amazement I found that Dali’s The Persistence of Memory, (more commonly known as The Melting Watches) is quite small – 24.1x33cm!
Having documented the human form over many years I was delighted to view Auguste Belloc’s 1858 Nude first hand at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). This small albumen silver print is more delicate showing rich detail, when seen first hand, than is apparent from reproductions in books or on-line. What can be gleaned from this photograph by contemporary photographers is the tone and colour that sepia can deliver as opposed to the sickly yellow shade conjured up by inexpert software manipulation.
Cecil Beaton’s 1927 portrait of Edith Sitwell is a masterstroke of rule breaking and quality monochrome printing – showing that a well printed image can still be alive over 85 years later.
Staying with portraits, the penetrating stare of Carl Hoefert, unemployed black jack dealer, Reno, Nevada, August 30, 1983 delivers the power, the quality, and the dominating presence that is the trade mark of the large format, monochromatic skills of Richard Avedon. It also demonstrates the descriptive power of a title!
The concept of a middle-aged, scarred, corpulent, white, anglo-saxon male doing nude self-portraits resonated with me in a totally unexpected manner. John Coplans’ Untitled Study for Self-Portrait (Upside Down no. 6) was a confronting monochromatic tryptych of large format Polaroid prints. The vertical construction was unusual, but created a strong and valid story. This turned the sexist attitude to photographs of the nude on its head – figuratively!
A complete change of pace brought me in front of Paul Outerbridge’s 1936 colour photograph Images de Deauville. This tri-colour carbro print is large, (40×31.1cm) complex, and was one of the first abstract images that I struggled with early in my photographic career. The interplay of soft colour, conflicting shapes and deliberate shadows, illustrated how sophisticated it was to create a striking visual image using many of the objects used in old-fashioned first year photography classes teaching light and shade.
The Empire of Light, II; by Rene Magritte was a strong indicator of how close artists and photographers can be. This almost photo realist painting would not be out of place in a photographer’s portfolio if it had been created within a camera. I was struck, yet again and for the umpteenth time, by how important it is for photographers to be aware of great paintings and great artists in order to have the widest illustrative frame of reference possible.
The thrust of this essay is the importance of being aware of the original physical manifestation of the photograph (or painting of course) as opposed to a digital or printed illustration. And yes, I do recognise the apparent contradiction of including links to the online digital manifestations of the images referred to in this article!
I had to go to New York to re-discover this obvious fact, but you can do the same by looking for original photographs of admired work within your community. We all have access to galleries, museums and even libraries that hold original photographic pieces. Make a point of seeking them out and studying their nuances and details.
Then plan a bucket list trip to one of the great galleries of the world and seek out some photographic heroes. I did – and I certainly wasn’t disappointed.
This essay was first published in f11 :: for PHOTOGRAPHERS AND AFICIONADOS (August 2014, page 137)