Do you think Brik’s article (Photography versus Painting, 1926) points to a practice that was taken up by photographers or other artists to any great extent?
The advent of photography as a new technology and a new means for capturing images of the world caused one of the traditional functions of western oil painting to become almost obsolete. Photography could capture portraits with precision, speed and more inexpensively than oil painting could. According to Brik this caused a backlash from painters who asserted the merits of their medium based on its great historical tradition, its skill and its use of colour. Photographers for their part wished to share in the prestige of the artist painters, seeing themselves as mere artisans, and began to create photographers that looked like paintings or which looked artistic. Brik saw this as an enormous disregard for the social role of photography with its capacity to transfix the vividness of everyday life. He recognised the need for photographers to develop their own specific purely photographic language completely separate from painting.
In the history of photographic movements Pictorialism was the name given to those early photographers who attempted to make fine art photography based on the artistic and aesthetic language of painting; it was this movement that Brik seems to be criticising in his article. This experimental photography was popular at the beginning of the 20th century but was to be eclipsed by a sharp focused modernist movement that celebrated the unique power of photography through its capacity to capture realistic and precise forms, as well as the textures and contrasts in lighting of real and found subjects. This movement was known as Straight photography. According to the group f64 from San Francisco, who were strong advocators of straight photography,:
“Pure photography is defined as possessing no qualities of technique, composition or idea, derivative of any other art form…The members of Group f/64 believe that photography, as an art form, must develop along lines defined by the actualities and limitations of the photographic medium, and must always remain independent of ideological conventions of art and aesthetics that are reminiscent of a period and culture antedating the growth of the medium itself.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Group_f/64#Manifesto)
Moreover, the members of this movement saw the potential for their photography to send a message about social reform. I think this is what Brik was referring to in his article when he talks about its enormous social relevance:
“His 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. And this must after all interest everybody who does not see photography as a pitiable craft but as a subject of enormous social relevance…” (Photography versus Painting, 1926)
It seems clear that the practice Brik was espousing in his article was shared to a great extent by photographers in the 20th century, furthermore it has gained recognition as an art form in its own right, separate from painting.
Do you find any resonances with Brik’s ideas in contemporary discussion of photography and painting?
In the writings of John Berger and Susan Sontag I’ve found some in depth analysis of photography with some references to painting. In the article Understanding the photograph (1972), Berger makes a very interesting distinction between photography and painting:
“Painting is the art of arrangement… the true content of photography is invisible, for it derives from a play, not with form but with time.”
He goes on to say that the composition of a photo is only perceived as good when compared to a painted image, but the true function of photography is to capture a moment from a continuum. I think this idea of capturing a moment in time resonates with Brik’s idea of capturing the vividness of everyday life as well as highlighting a very significant difference between painting and photography.
Berger also explains that painting translates the world by interpreting it with its own language but photography cannot share this language because its true language is the language of events. This reaffirms Brik’s view that photography needed its own language and theory separate from painting.
Both writers point to the highly political role of photography, however Berger also highlights the possible threat of photography as an ideological tool:
“Every photograph is in fact a means of testing, confirming and constructing a total view of reality. Hence the crucial role of photography in ideological struggle. Hence the necessity of our understanding a weapon which we can use and which can be used against us.”
Susan Sontag wrote in On Photography that paintings are interpretations of the world where photographs pieces of it or miniature of reality. Painting represents a selective interpretation of the world where as photography represents selective transparency. However, as photographers, whilst seeming to capture reality, are always imposing standards on their subjects through choosing what is appropriate for recording, their photographs become just as much an interpretation of the world as paintings are. Here Sontag highlights the subjective nature of photography and how this subjective aspect can be masked by photography’s capacity to capture such accurate images of its subjects. Herein lies the trap that Berger alluded to; photography is just as interpretive and subjective as painting but if we are tricked into believing that its messages represent unquestionable truths then it can be used against us.
Brik recognised that photography has a different role as well as a different power compared to painting. I think this idea has been mirrored in more contemporary discussions about photography and painting. However, writers such as Sontag and Berger, with the benefit of experiencing the aftermath of the photographic age attempt to deconstruct photography to understand it politically, sociologically and psychologically. Brik’s view of photography seems naive and idealistic compared to theirs.
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 if photography?
The impact of photography on painting can be seen in Edgar Degas’ painting Ballerina and Lady with a Fan. The significant function and characteristic of photography, as mentioned above, is that it can capture a moment in time, and this phenomenon has had a huge impact on painting as, often with the aid of photography, painters could do the same in their paintings. This is evident in Dagas’ painting, here not only has he captured a moment from a continuum but the angle from which we are viewing the scene seems quite spontaneous, we are pressed up against the lady in the foreground and looking over her shoulder, she is even partly obscuring our view of the spectacle. Everything in the painting points to the capturing of a moment in time. Even the expressive mark making used indicates movement making the image very dynamic.
The accuracy and realistic nature of images captured in photographs meant that painting no longer needed to represent subjects in this way. If we look at the work of the Impressionists for example it is clear that photography released them from a need to represent things realistically in their paintings. Painters were left to investigate other things through their painting such as their interior worlds. In this painting by Monet it is clear that the artist no longer feels the need to describe every minute detail of the scene before him but can give mere hints of forms leaving us to experience the emotion and beauty of the artist’s interpretation of his subject.
These images demonstrate how our view of the world changed with the advent of photography; from that moment we were able to capture moments in time, and take a glimpse of things in motion, moreover, we could begin to look at things from different angles and perspectives and distort our image of the world.