Peter J. Blackburn’s reflections on brush vs camera… now and then.
As I was printing a few gum images some months ago, an impetuous echo resonated through my mind which gave rise to further thought and some fodder for this blog. The echo took the form of a quote uttered in reaction when news of the “mirror with a memory” (the photograph) hit the street. “Painting is dead.” I suppose the repetitive thought generated in my mind as I browsed the many gum images drying on the floor, glistening with their glowing watercolor hues.
Then my thoughts went to the many subsequent painters who, far from digging a grave for their paintings, took brush in one hand and grabbed a camera with the other. Well, perhaps grabbed is wishful thinking. Wet plate and salt prints weren’t exactly produced with iPhone ease. Nevertheless, Delacroix, Degas, even Van Gogh all took note of photographic possibilities in their work. They all made revealing comments exclaiming the good, the bad, and the ugly of this novel, upstart medium.
Delacroix resorted to the camera to explore its effects with portraiture. Degas took pleasure examining the dynamic contrasts gas lighting produced in his images. Vincent, however, seemed to have a more ambivalent opinion of the silver print. He complained that his mother looked dead in those black and white photographic tones. I found it fascinating to discover how the alternative processes so admired today were utilized and evaluated by the modern artist at the time those same processes were mainstream.
Today, of course, as witnessed by the immense site of AlternativePhotography.com, we embrace and celebrate the nuance, textures, tonality, and visual virtues of the handmade print from yesterday, the technology and techniques of the nineteenth century.
But here’s where I begin to scratch my head in some bewilderment.
As I read the letters and notebooks, and researched the conversations by artists of that era, the allure of photography, if there was one, was primarily that of utilizing the photograph in pursuit of a better painting, a better etching, a better sculpture. It appears that while some employed the photographic technology of their day with the same gusto we utilize PhotoShop, they didn’t seem to see or appreciate the subtle, tactile qualities we see and celebrate today.
And with that, I will close to resume a bit more pondering and head scratching.