Saturday, January 18, 2020

Art History and Photography

I've been reading snippets of stuff about Art History for a long time now, and as a result probably know enough to get myself seriously hurt without actually knowing enough to say anything sensible, but what the hell. I'm gonna go for it anyways.

The most recent book under my eyes (and still in progress) is Arnheim's dust-dry tome Art and Visual Perception which has underlined a number of things I kind of already knew. Berger helpfully reminded us in his supremely weird 1970s BBC TV show that perspective drawing is a relatively recent, local, thing. In the grand sweep of Human Art it's pretty much a blip. It happens to be a blip invented by a bunch of people who took over the world while the blip was going on, so perspective drawing, and perspective painting, have developed a kind of hegemony. We're taught that this is "correct" which is, when you laboriously disassemble it as Arnheim helpfully does, hilariously wrong.

Anyways, you can draw a pretty straight line from the realistic/perspective-drawn European Renaissance painting to photography. Most of the optical ideas worked out and placed into service for that tradition of painting long before the chemistry was worked out. The chemistry was worked out specifically because that kind of painting is pretty hard, and there were plenty of slobs who wanted to do it more easily. And, here we are.

Contemporary visual understanding, across much of the globe, is that perspective drawing and photography are "accurate" representations of the world, they are "right" and everything else is "wrong" or are least weird and incomprehensible.

If we rewind a bit, and consider visual art made outside the European Renaissance, we see all kinds of shit. There are genres of painting that work like comic strips, with various things in the painting occurring as a sequence of time to relate a story. Both Cubism and Egyptian wall painting (apparently) integrate multiple angles of view into a single subject to show us more of whatever it is than a single perspective can reveal. An engraving of two animals in conversation, illustrating one of Aesop's fables renders a small bird the same size as a fox, because to do otherwise would be ridiculous — they're conversing, the two characters are narratively equals.

Photography, culturally, is simply the endpoint of Renaissance painting. Many other cultures and traditions of Art would never have invented photography not because they were dumb or limited, but because they wouldn't have seen the point. They might have said well sure that's what it looks like, but that's not what is is or something of the sort, why would you even want a picture like that?

More importantly, from my point of view, we come to see perhaps just how limited photography is. The single point of view, the perspective drawing, has really only one trick up its sleeve, which is this visual realism. All the other tools of visual communication get jettisoned, and with a photograph you don't even get to cheat (the painters cheated a lot).

I think that this is a way to understand certain thought among painters around the end of the Victorian era: thank God, photography has finally put and end to this stupid relentless perspective shit, we can abandon it to those guys and get out of this rut and then we get all manner of stuff, some of which is quite familiar if you just look far enough back/away.

Anyways, my slowly accreting thesis here is this: among the many tasks of the photographer, a large one is to claw back, somehow, some of the power of visual communication held by the wildly varying schools of drawing and painting over human history.

Even today in the west we have comics, we have graphic design, and probably other things I cannot think of at this exact moment. These are tools of visual communication which are completely separate from perspective drawing. While I do not think photography ought to directly emulate these forms, perhaps something can be learned from them. Perhaps some of the same effects can be, in essentially photographic ways, worked into the medium.

I have no specific technical/procedural recommendations, or even ideas, here. All I see is an enormous lacuna of which I was not previously aware, and I have a desire to fill it up.


  1. What a wonderful post! I thoroughly enjoyed it. I think you are absolutely correct. Years ago I put together my thoughts on the subject on a blog post somewhere. To me ‘film’ photography is the way it is because of optics and chemistry. Digital photography, on the other hand, is totally a construct that tries to look like ‘film’ photography because that’s what sells. It seems to me, and I know nothing about programming and related work, that digital ‘cameras’ could just as well produce music/sound when aimed at a ‘subject’ instead of a perspective image. To me it follows that digital photography could easily have features that instead of producing perspective images, could let the ‘photographer’ select options which would, for example, amplify/enlarge certain areas within an image that the ‘photographer’ deems important, thus blowing a hole into the entire perspective rendering concept of photographs.

  2. These methods have been tried, with varying degrees of success, depending upon how subtly they can be integrated with an essential photographic (for lack of a better word) quality.

    A couple of examples that immediately spring to mind are: the use of a tilt-shift (aka perspective control) lens to impart a toy-like perspective, and 'hd' - high dynamic range, both swiftly abused into debased currency by legions of wannabe photo-artistes.

    There's a very thin line to cross what may be accepted as a photograph, and photo-illustration.

    The best of such attempts (IMO), ones that may hold their ground as legitimate artistic works rather than technical freaks, are the 1920s - '30s photo-collages of e.g. Hannah Hoch, Raoul Hausmann et al. Herbert List is another who understood the creative potential -- and limitations -- of exploring fine art ideas other than Renaissance perspective in photography.

    1. Yeah, I thought up Hoch and Man Ray last night walking the dog (and there were quite a few other weirdos, there was someone who did a lot of light paintng in the 1930s?). The Euros hung around with painters, who were probably laughing at them "enjoy your perspective you dumb mooks, we'll be over here with the hash and hot girls"

      I think the Americans never really tried to break free, possibly because they mostly hung around with one another instead of painters?