The Digital Past

In this brief talk I will argue that digital technology has created a synthesis between forms of painting and photography.   I will discuss parallels between the methods employed by narrative painters, in the Western European tradition, and contemporary digital photographers.   As an example I will show the various stages in the making of one of my own images, entitled Eco Warriors, but will also argue that the implications go far wider than simply that of my own practice.

My contention is that digital applications are modelled on pre-existing forms, disciplines and practices, and an understanding of their respective histories.   Adobe Photoshop, for example, imitates darkroom procedures and Corel Painter simulates the materials and practices of the painter's studio.   But of course it doesn't stop there - other applications are modelled on the architect's office, the illustrator's studio, the sound engineer's workshop, the designer's studio and the typographer's compositing bench. The exponential growth in computing power has been utilised by software designers to increase the number of functions available in each application, and indeed many now shared the same tools.   This has increasingly led to a state of hybridity both within software packages, and between them.   To use Photoshop again as an example; the early versions did not venture far beyond the darkroom, but now sophisticated drawing, typographic and web-authoring tools have been added, there-by inviting fusional forms of practice.

In the floating world of digital technology, one discipline is distinguishes from another by virtue of its perceived history.   The histories of painting and photography are maybe more entwined than most, and the boundaries more porous.   Aaron Scharf in his 1968 book Art and Photography comments, "Through the symbiosis of art and photography, a complex stylistic organism was created.   To describe it merely as art influenced by photography, or photography by art, is an oversimplification.   There are many examples of artists deriving formal ideas from photographs which were influenced by paintings, and of photographers being inspired by paintings which contained elements of photographic form."   But even as Scharf was writing this, attempts were being made to erect high walls around photography and create it as "its own special art".  

But that was then, and this is now.   Digitalisation has fundamentally changed the condition of the photograph.   It is no longer fixed but has become fluid.   The elements within the image float as if the glue which once held them so firmly in place, has dissolved.   This state of flux is both within the picture and between pictures.   When transmitted via the internet, images can be disassembled and remade by viewers world wide - raising interesting questions about authorship on route.   Mashups, remixing, cut-ups, plunderphonics and sampling are commonly used techniques in music which have their visual arts equivalents, springing from the use of digital technology.

Susan Sontag once made a distinction between paintings, which are made , and photographs, which are taken .   This no longer holds true, as I hope to demonstrate.   I sometimes make preparatory drawings for pictures, as in this case, which involved a complex figure arrangement.   Pre-planning was essential as I only had a short time with each of the models, whom I photographed separately over a number of days in different locations. n   As you can see, the figure group was assembled much as planned, but the background is entirely different.   The drawing also helped establish the viewpoint, lighting and recessional perspective.   The image is entitled The Merchant of Venice in Graz.

But the picture I want to concentrate on today was made in a rather different way, which relied initially on the observation of places, people and events.   The series was to be about our contemporary relationship to the countryside and so I began by visiting rural fairs, events and displays.   I photographed in a documentary style, with one important proviso, that I was only interested in recording the central subject rather than considering the image as a whole.   I saw the figures in these studies in isolation from the background.

The component parts of the landscape I similarly photographed separately; crops, skies, lakes, and because my images were to be set in a quasi-Claudian arcadia, the landscape gardens of Stowe, Stourhead and Rousham.   But my arcadia was to be disrupted and so I also photographed contemporary, mostly urban, events.   The eco protesters observed on the demonstration were restaged later in the act of destroying a crop.   In fact the young man who modelled for me was an IT technician during the week and a genuine eco warrior at weekends.

Over the months I began to build up an archive of images, which I filed according to subject - this was the year 2000 and I was still using scanned analogue film

I'll now take you through some of the stages in producing Eco Warriors.   I began but making a low-resolution study.   First the middle ground; then I adding a sky; then the GM crop and finally the eco warriors.   In his paintings Claude employed a peculiarly high viewpoint, located maybe 20 ft above the ground.   Whilst this might have seemed logical in a Canalleto cityscape - the view offered from a second story window - it gives a strangely floating feeling when set in the countryside. The viewpoint is established here, but the framing of the scene needs developing, and the figures made less predominant, so that when we come upon them, it is a surprise.

And so I add more canvas, and sketch in the foreground.   The compositional device of a central tree I've taken from Claude and adding a tree to the right and the hill to the left then forms a framing proscenium.

Next I begin to make a high-resolution version, choosing a different sky, which hopefully will give the feeling of dawn. The middle ground and then foreground are established.   In response to the study I go out and photograph from a low viewpoint a rustic temple at Rousham and two oak trees at Blenheim. The sky is reworked in Corel Painter. Another version of the distant temple is dropped in, and you will notice the discrepancy between the building and it's reflection.   A question that needs to be asked early on when composing in Photoshop is 'are we attempting to imitate the unitary logic of the photograph, or allow for idiocincraceys, disjunctures and discrepancies, whilst achieving pictorial harmony within difference?'  

Two kinds of perspective are being dealt with here, recessional and aereal.   The building's perspective lines intersect the horizon convincingly, and the blue distant trees give a sense of receding space. Then I begin to build up the detail, working at high magnification and edit in natural textures from my archive. I import a softer looking field, and work on the structure of the hill. A few monuments were then scattered around and a new configuration of the warriors made. The shepard is added and the farmer elongated - as in Claude's late masterpiece 'Ascanius Shooting the Stag of Sylvia'. The final detail to be added is the helicopter, and the image is ready for the first test print.   It is printed first at A3 size to get the colour balance right, then at A2 and A1 to inspect and develop the detail, and the final print is made at A0 size. I have often hung Eco Warriors with a companion piece called Hunters.

In the time that is left I would like to draw some parallels between digital methods and those of traditional painting, and touch on the implications for the teaching of photography.   The examples chosen, from the thousands available, are simply because I particularly like these images.   I should also emphasis that the comparisons I'm making are of method, not of quality.

This is a detail from Antonio Pisanello St George and the Princess, made in the1430's. Here is a sheet of studies of hanged men by Pisanello presumably made at an execution.   The figure on the top right is then restaged in the studio using an apprentice as a model.   I would suggest this is a similar method to that used with my eco figures; firstly observed in the streets and sketched, then modelled in the studio before being incorporation into the larger composition.

Regarding sketch books Leonardo advised that one 'make a note...with a few lines in a little book which you should always carry with you... these are not things to be erased but preserved with great care, because these forms and actions are so infinite in number that the memory is not capable of retaining them, wherefore keep your sketches as your aids and teachers.'

Another reference source in Renaissance workshops were Model books , from which apprentices copied and they also provided ready templates for figure compositions.   These studies were invariably copied from other model books and not from life. A parallel might be drawn with the internet and resources such as Google Image search or Flickr.    Figures were often recycled, turning up again in other pictures.

There is also considerable documentary value to many of the studies - here for example is Pieter Brueghel the Elder's Dance Epidemic of 1564- which Louis Backman uses forensically in his book Religious Dances to argue that medieval choreomania was in fact due to ergot poisoning.

Studies were considered by artists as valuable assets, and Claude's tree drawings were as precious to him as figure studies were to other artists.   In fact he refused to sell any as he got older and less mobile, as he didn't want the 'trouble of replacing them'.

Breaking the landscape down into its component parts, which might be studied directly from nature and then incorporated into a finished work in the studio, is famously the case with Constable's sky studies.

This one is entitled '5 September 1822, 10.00 am' and his notes say that it is '...very appropriate for the coast at Osmington'

The second study was made at the same location two hours later and shows stratocumulus cloud formation.

These studies demonstrate both Constables interest in meteorology and Luke Howard's writings on cloud classification, and his ability to imagine a finished work and identify useful elements, which he could then hold in mind during the preparatory stages of a large work.

The relationship between detail, or finish as it was termed, and scale vexed Constable as the marvellous exhibition of his Great Landscapes at Tate Britain recently showed.   There are parallels here with digital methods in developing an appropriate level of detail to the output size, but nothing is comparable to Constable's remarkable practice of producing six foot, full size studies.

I would like to have developed these parallels further, but time does not allow.   I hope to have demonstrated that the manner in which a digital photograph is made has direct precedents in the history of painting.   When every element within an image can be renegotiated, adjusted or replaced, the practice of making replaces that of taking .   This being the case, preplanning, the use of studies and sketches, restaging and the autographic manipulation of the image follow directly on.

It seems to me that a student of digital photography needs to develop practical skills in drawing and autographic image manipulation, as well as a working knowledge of perspective.   I have restricted myself today to talking about method.   New media also open up new conceptual and creative possibilities.   The replacement, for example, of prepared wooden tablets in the Renaissance studios by paper, which became more widely available, opened up the field of figure composition and the artist's ability to plan cycles of images.   We should acknowledge that technical developments have creative and linguistic consequences.   Digital photography is not analogue photography by another name; it is substantively different and requires that we rethink practice.   A good starting point, in my view, is to be found in the history of European narrative painting.

John Goto

21 Oct 06

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