Friday, February 13, 2015


Lower East Side, c.1955
Since the invention of photography in the mid eighteen hundreds, artists have always had an uneasy relationship with the camera. Is it a crutch or a competitor?
Is it an honest aid or a dishonest bag of tricks? When I was in art school, nobody admitted to using photography for anything other than occasional reference. Of course, I now know that lots of artists I admired such as Ben Shahn and Reginald Marsh were avid photographers and that might (though I’m sure they’d never admit it) explain their incredible “drawing” ability. If we go back into the 19th century when photography first developed, painters like Ingres tried to beat photography at its own game, painting hyper-realistic portraits that were sharper than any photograph, more flattering and in color! If you could afford the price, a painted portrait was the preferred way to go.

Lower East Side, c.1955
In the 1960s, a group of Photo-Realist painters rose to popularity, along with innovators like Rauschenberg and Warhol who made extensive use of photographs in their work. Rumors abounded about the Photo-Realists; were they really so technically facile that they could make a painting look like a color photograph? Viewers were impressed; artists had finally beaten photography at its own game. But, maybe there was “trickery” involved? Could these paintings really be painted prints? Or made from slides projected on canvas coated with a photosensitive gel. Who knew? Their secrets were guarded more carefully than members of a medieval guild. I remember once going to a talk by a well-known artist who painted trompe l’oeil architecture on the side of buildings. I asked him how he did it. A projector? What kind? He skillfully avoided answering me. Did he think I was about to get up on a fifty-foot scaffold and put him out of business? However, he wasn’t taking any chances.

Lower East Side, c.1955
Ultimately, my problem with photorealism is that it sees too much; doesn’t “select” the way the eye does and ends up neither a good painting nor a successful photograph. Over the years, I have occasionally tried working from photographs and while they provide me with details I might not otherwise remember, they tend to look flat and forced, not capturing the totality they eye sees. If I am going to use a photograph as the basis for a painting, I am better off trying to use it for reference, rather than actually copying it. In fact, I don’t even like painting from a model or directly from a scene; my memory provides a kind of transcendent reality that I personally prefer.

When I first went back to painting, many years ago, I drew my subjects from the local newspaper’s Society Page photographs of clubwomen, bankers, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Kiwani, etc. My favorite work from that period is entitled “Retired Airline Hostesses Arranging a Benefit” which showed two smiling ex airline “hostesses” posing for the camera. In those days, they were forced to quit when they got married, so they retired young. Also, stewardesses were taught  something called the “American Smile:” pleasant, soothing and totally vapid. My painting might have been done from a newspaper photograph; I don’t remember, but it certainly wasn’t “photo realistic.”   


  1. I know a successful artist, who is credited with literally dozens of covers for NEW YORKER magazine. She started with a photograph, which she took,then removed many of the unimportant details, and the result was stunning,simplistic, and very effective. After publication, she would sell them for big-bucks.
    To keep a record, I used to photograph them for her,on 4X5 Ektachrome, before they departed, then she learned to do it herself & I was out of a job....DGP

  2. Actually, shortly after the development of photography a number of artists used it, as a reference, as something to be transformed (their perception of its "flatness" might have been seen as an asset), and as something to be practiced. As to the latter, Degas is especially noteworthy (great photos). Others using it include Cezanne, Gauguin, van Gogh, Lautrec, Picasso, etc. Bruce G.

  3. I agree with the above comments and want to add the obvious: the camera can do things that painting can't and vice versa!
    Indeed, many artists in the 19th C. have used photos as a point of departure/inspiration for their own work and not to COPY what it had arrested. Figures in MOTION, for instance or in a specific pose (like some of Degas' ballerina's) could ONLY be captured with a camera! It also revealed that what previously had been painted as a "galloping horse" was all wrong.
    Degas apparently did use a camera and one was found in his studio after he had died. He could have never made a dancer "hold" some of those difficult/transient positions long enough so he could paint them.
    Even today, the camera is useful in many respects and put to use for many creative visual efforts. And as the 20th century unfolded, photography carved out its OWN place and so did painting....however, artistically, there were/are still many overlaps, think Cindy Sherman, Chuck Close, etc. Their work would be impossible without the use of the camera. (Be careful with over-simplification!)