Read Photography versus Painting by Osip Brik

  • Do you think that Brik’s article point to a practise that was taken up by photographers or other artists to any great extent?
  • Do you find any resonances with Brik’s ideas in contemporary discussions of photography and painting?
  • Find and annotate two examples of images that demonstrate the impact of photography on painting. How do these images acknowledge the shift in visual culture that came about with the advent of photography?

Brik’s essay is an early example of a discussion around photography that has been going on since it was invented. His theorising goes some way towards establishing it as an art form, although his dismissal of painting altogether has proved false and some of his arguments, such as the one about colour vs. black and white, obviously no longer has much relevance. Of course whether we choose to use black and white now depends on our intentions, and might be used to enhance, override, or compliment other things going on an image.

Brik says photography shoves painting aside and the battle will only end when it has “pushed painting out of the place it held in everyday life”. [1] I think we can safely say that time has well and truly arrived, even though painting is thriving still, it is not as an everyday thing. Photography has seeped into our common language and is used ubiquitously by most of us. Additionally, we are bombarded with photographic and moving images on a daily basis from the moment we wake up when we check our smart phones, then throughout the day on the adverts we see on every bus that passes, on walls, hoardings and the programmes we see on what ever screen we use to watch the news and other shows. Then just before we turn out the light, many of us check our social media and see yet more images flickering in front of our eyes communicating ideals and ideas of perfection from friends on Facebook.

Tom Skipp, an art director, whose feed I recently followed on Instagram, sums up how we have absorbed photography as a quotidian language in an article on the Tate website; “Instagram has integrated perfectly into popular culture – irrelevant and important in equal measure, wholly consumable and at the grasp of westernised masses. I wrestle with this in whether to be populist or anti-culture. Images are instantly seen and spat out but also nurtured and loved by the community that you have built through a visual common ground. It’s a porthole that you can access and give to people throughout the world, whether you’re in London, Kigali, Rwanda or New York. I can’t see me giving it up soon.”[2]

Back to Brik, who ends his essay by saying, “His (the photographer, whom of course we are now very clear may also be a she, especially since we are ALL photographers today) main task is to move away from the principles of painterly composition of photographs and to find other, specifically photographic laws for their making and composition.” I am reminded here how Stanislavski was compelled to write down a new formula for acting, one which rejected the old formal, declamatory style and which was more in keeping with ideas and writings of Ibsen and Chekhov. Realism took over the arts in various ways and photography seems to have been the perfect tool for expressing some of its aims. However, photography as an art with a capital A needed to internalise and make conventions of its own. It certainly did that, and as proof of its importance as an accepted art form (despite some arguing against this fact) prints are now capable of garnering huge sums in the art world (even not terribly artistic ones sometimes).

Painting, always an art form, now seems far more reverential in comparison to the way in which photography is made and consumed in areas outside the world of high art. And perhaps would always have been so; “Even the quickest painter cannot supply a portrait in minutes.”[3] Although written nearly a century ago, people are thrilled that nowadays it is possible to set up a printer that spits out a, technically and relatively speaking, high quality, portrait taken seconds earlier and which can be sold for a tenner that very moment (a 30sec wait time for a print). I know as I worked for someone when I first started out who made a fortune sending out teams to do this round the country at various events. The joy and pleasure expressed by people who could buy an A4 sized professional portrait immediately, even in these days of Internet driven immediacy, was something that really struck me.

Brik is quite right when he states that, “The photographer captures life and events more cheaply, quickly and precisely than the painter. Herein lies his strength, his enormous social importance. And he is not frightened by any outdated daub”. [4] His attitude towards painters however, expressed in the phrase, ‘outdated daub’ is obviously needlessly condemnatory, as painting has of course survived and also gone on to be influenced by photography, as photography has by it. It turns out people quite like a ‘daub’ despite or even if made in the ‘outdated’ way. People’s tastes are varied and wide, and humans everywhere buy daubs of all manner of quality, despite photography’s dominance.

Brik does contradict his assertion that the photographer is not frightened, when he refutes the fact that painting is seen as the ‘true art’ where photography is seen, erroneously by photographers, as an ‘insignificant craft’[5], “…this confirms every photographer’s dream to achieve a painterly effect in his photographs,” or “to work on them so they look like paintings.”[6] If photographers weren’t frightened in Brik’s argument, why would they be so keen to emulate painting? It evidently and understandably took a while for photography to feel confident about its value, and about the qualities particular and intrinsic to it.

This statement precedes and makes reference to the beginnings of Modernism where each artistic discipline, criticises, embraces, explores, works with and celebrates aspects particular its own being, as discussed in an earlier post here.

I am deeply interested in Pictorialism, the practice of adding painterly effects to photographic images prevalent in the early days of photography, so I’ll briefly look at Brik’s and others’ aversion to it. It’s an attitude that still exists today, despite the fact that there are many photographers and artists using all sorts of painterly ‘effects’ in their practice – perhaps some of the source of this tension is about how the affects are made rather than if.

I have to discuss this as it has been on my mind every since the following happened. Once I was in a group and a tutor present muttered in response to someone else, with a great deal of disdain, “Uugh, never make a thing look like something that it isn’t.” It wasn’t the first time that I had picked up on this sensibility. It seems this is the ‘status quo, or rather the educated way of relating to photographic art

But when I’m just piddling about on my phone I do very much enjoy playing with painterly effects sometimes (not always!) It’s the most fun taking a photograph of some flowers for instance and putting painterly effects on it, perhaps even making it look like it was taken 100 years ago or like a painting. I recently started having these “uugh!” images printed by a friendly printer on textured paper and I sell them. I get lots of positive feedback from people – is this the ‘populist’ thing Tom Skipp refers to? I know if I was trying to build and protect a reputation as some sort of ‘serious’ artist, which perhaps I will want to do one day (perhaps not, who knows? Life at the moment is lived day to day), then these images of mine might  be frowned upon by people like that tutor, whom is a respected and successful practitioner. And I feel my other work, which is much more demanding and time consuming and needful of thought from me, is really the stuff I ‘ought’ to be concentrating on. But it’s not as relaxing as ‘colouring in’, for that is what I am effectively doing, on my phone – it’s like my TV time, sort of like chewing gum (a nasty habit to be discouraged perhaps?).

I suppose my concern about how I exist with these various creative activities is tied up with how I continue to manage rejecting an inner cruel and limiting critic (or any external ones for that matter) and allow my creativity to blossom? I think I have to ignore the “Uugh” remark or the attitude “don’t make something look like a thing that it isn’t” for now; or Brik’s, claim that in allowing myself to be seduced by my phone’s painterly effects, I am destroying my craft in some way by ignoring the camera’s “main principle”, which is the “ability to capture nature faithfully.”[7]

Which of course brings me to the very obvious observation, that Brik is wrong about that. And the well-established ongoing argument about whether or not one can trust a photographic image will undoubtedly continue for sometime to come. Don McCullin’s well-publicised assertion that modern digital images cannot be trusted is just the latest in a long history of debate. Although Photoshop has made it even easier to alter an image it’s always gone on and there are plenty of examples of doctored Victorian images, for instance. One of my favourite photographers is Lillian Bassman, who was a master of dark room magic and did all sorts of things in her process that changed and altered the original image. And what of Yves Klein’s Leap into the Void? Photographic montage was seized upon pretty as much as soon as photography was born as far as I can make out, especially by those wanting to spread ideology. So it’s a naïve and romantic notion that one can trust photographers to “capture nature faithfully”

Perhaps today there is some awareness, amongst image makers and the people who talk incessantly about image making at any rate, that a skilled photographer interprets according to his or her vision. Whereas an unskilled photographer’s image is often rendered “unfaithful to nature” by lack of skill or else the interpretation of reality is a corporate generic entity, defined by a combination of the camera maker/film make/commercial developer/software depending on which era one is looking at.

Early in Graham Clarke’s Photography, Henry Fox Talbot’s book of calotype images, The Pencil of Nature is discussed. Talbot “justifies the choice of subject in relation to painterly tradition.”[8] And the even the title of the book suggests to me that Talbot would agree with Brik about photography having the ability to capture nature as it is. However, as Clarke points out there is a deliberate and conscious aesthetic in Talbot’s photography, which points to and celebrates “beauty”[9].   In other words it’s an interpretation. As are the later highly sexualised vegetables that the f64 group photographed, staunch Modernists who utterly rejected anything even mildly suggestive of any ‘painterly effects’ such as a creamy wide aperture induced background (heaven forbid!)

But Brik existed in world where Realism was taking hold in Western and Russian art. The Industrial Revolution prompted an interest in poverty, social structures, reality of life and a collective move towards the study of the mind and inner world, driven by Freud and Jung, amongst others.

And photography was seized upon for use within the sciences to document the sudden and deep interest in how the mind and body work (or don’t), most famously in the Muybridge images. After attending a study visit at the Science Museum to see the Drawn by Light exhibition with the OCA I wrote, “And I was of course, given my interest in mental health, fascinated by the photographs of psychiatric patients by Dr. Hugh Welch Diamond who was one of the first to use photography to document science in this way – although it has to be said the portraits are very much an expression of the photographer and his time rather than merely documentation.  The still, formal poses which were necessary for the long exposure time makes for a strange dichotomy given the expressions of the patients.” So, even when used in science, interpretation (conscious or otherwise) is always going to have some impact on the end result. And it is highly questionable where “capturing nature faithfully” is ever, ever possible.

That aside, Brik certainly can’t be castigated for suggesting that photographers should value their work as something valuable in its own right.

Art and painting growing together

Another of my favourite photographers is Saul Leiter who was a painter before becoming a photographer. His formal painting background heavily influences his work and his use of colour, composition and painterly effects derived through slow shutter speed are original and highly expressive. Brik’s assertion that one discipline should win over the other is a redundant position to take, and Leiter’s work is a good example of the two being combine to express something fresh and exciting. They both influence each other and evolve in their own right according to the place they hold in society. At the end of part 1 in the assignment section I shall discuss Man Ray in more detail as he is another photographer with a painting background who manages to combine the two disciplines in his overall work, allowing each to affect the other.

A quick Internet search reveals that as early as the 1880s photographic practice was affecting painters too. The impressionists in particular are said to have absorbed much from photography practice and there are lots of articles about Degas in particular. In an article in the Economist we are told; “Neither Vuillard nor Bonnard, with whom he shared a studio, actually copied photographs in their resonant, small-scale paintings of domestic interiors. Instead, both tried to replicate the immediacy of snapshots (or instantanés as they were called in France) often catching their subjects mid-gesture.”[10] So the photographic image, and its mechanical flaws in relation to “faithful nature” would be perceived as more in keeping with the quest for realism of the time, conversely encouraging greater expressionism than had been witnessed since before the Renaissance where grand godlike perfectionism became the norm.

Henri Evenepoel 

Orange Market, Blidah, 1898 

I do like this painting very much. Although Evenepoel has used colour here, perhaps as some sort of collective roar against people like Blik who said photography is more relevant than painting because it’s black and white so colour can’t distract from the subject, both subject and composition for me are very definitely influenced by early street photography. Here is a scene that is not grand or set up, or posed in any way. No one is even looking at the viewer. Evenepoel is capturing life as it is happening, and as he is one of the photographers mentioned in the article above, who used snapshots as a reference I can really imagine he would have done that here. The interplay between light and shadow is exactly what I like capturing with my camera and its great for me to see how Evenepoel has retained so much detail in the shadows. I would dearly love to take a photograph like this and would certainly embrace the colours with gusto. Evenepoel, one of the Fauvists, has gone one step further than the Impressionists here and celebrated painterly traditions, but he has also combined them with the newer emerging traditions of photography. There is a great deal of early modernist expressionism in this painting, which can be seen in the way the figures and their clothes are represented. He’s also given the painting a shallow depth of field as the foreground has so much more definition than the background, which he has blurred slightly. I really like this work and think it’s a great example photography and painting being influenced by each other!

Pierre Bonnard

In the Bathroom

“Bonnard in turn photographed his slender, round-faced mistress and muse, Marthe de Méligny, naked in a glade, as inspiration for his illustrations of “Daphnis and Chloé””[11]

I really, really don’t like the whole male gaze on women’s bodies thing – it irritates me immensely (little boys in adult bodies aggressively and powerfully entranced by a pair of mammary glands throughout the ages) but I can see in this image a big a step away from the idiotic languid bodies posed and lying on chaise lounges with sultry looks in their eyes. Perhaps there is something loving and intimate in this image, albeit a paternalistic and objectified vision of women, it is at least one that is imbued with something tenderer than earlier counterparts. However, the poor women is busy trying to get dressed in her bathroom and the picture is very much like one that might have been caught by a camera – candid, voyeuristic, mid action, intimate, her eyes averted away from the watcher.

It is a painting that shows a good example of having been influenced either directly or by the general style and content of photography. I can see the light in this image, which comes from the window, is photographically accurate. And the mood in the photograph is one that might not have been considered before photography. If you compare this to Vermeer’s women where they are more ‘placed’ then this looks positively un-staged. Would we today take a photograph of a women getting dressed in her bathroom – well, why not? We are driven to photograph and record every moment of our lives so this is fairly modern – although the nipples may pose a problem on social media. And it’s not even remotely as intrusive as this one here! Do you know, I am not really sure this is what Brik meant when he said, “ And this (emerging conventions of photography) must after all interest everybody who doesn’t see photography as a pitiable craft but as subject of enormous social relevance” [12]

[1] Art in Theory, 1900-2000, An anthology of changing ideas, Edited by Charles Harrison & Paul Wood, Blackwell Publishing, Published 2003 New Edition Page 471

[2] The Art of Instagram, Tate Website, Tom Skipp

[3] Page 471

[4] Page 472

[5] Page 272

[6] As above

[7] As above

[8] Page 42, The Photograph, Graham Clarke, Oxford History of Art, Oxford University Press, 1997

[9] Page 41 as above

[10] Point and Paint, an article in the Economist, Nov 26, 2011

[11] As above

[12] Page 473


2 thoughts on “Project 1.6: Photography the new reality

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