Wednesday, 19 February 2014

As the Crow Flies

I enjoy making strong, simple, graphical images like this one.  It's really a way of using the photographic process as a means of drawing.  I can happily spend an entire evening fiddling around, experimenting, and trying to re-work something fairly mundane into something with a little magic. Some would regard this degree of manipulation as against the spirit of true photography, which they see as essentially one of witness.  I saw this, I recorded it, I share it with you.

Every year around this time, ever since the advent of digital photography, there is a scandal about photojournalists re-touching their work.  Apparently this year 8% of entries to the World Press Photo Competition were disqualified on this basis.  It seems the cloning out of an inconvenient twig is as unethical as pasting a smoking Kalashnikov into the hands of an innocent bystander.

Technique is not generally an ethical matter, in art.  A typical artwork -- let's say a painting -- is all about the personal skill and choices of the artist, and the miracle of creating something out of nothing.  If I wanted to paint a Kalashnikov in the hands of a child with the head of Tony Blair (which I don't), then that's exactly what I'd do.  But a "straight" photograph mainly excites and flatters the viewer's own acuity of vision, by presenting a crystallized, buffed, but recognisably authentic moment of reality. I'm actually seeing this! This really happened! The currency of photojournalism is radically devalued, apparently, if that naive trust is ever put into question, even over the smallest twig.

Pure photography is rather more like driving than painting: it's all about  manoeuvering a mechanical apparatus into the right place at the right time, and deploying the right combination of instinctive and trained reflexes.  Anyone can master the basic skills, and nearly everyone does.  But few come to regard photography as a potential means of personal expression; it is seen as a medium of documentary record, an accessory of modern life.

In fact, it seems never to occur to most people that a means of personal expression of any kind might be something that would have a place in their own life.  This makes it much harder for them to recognise and acknowledge the aesthetic achievements of others as achievements, and not just more stuff that happens.  In my more cynical moments, I'd say that 90% of the population lives in a disengaged cargo-cult dreamworld, where all stuff self-generates on shop shelves overnight, or flows bounteously and spontaneously out of pipes and wires.  The fact that everything is made in China these days rather than Birmingham doesn't help.

Artworks that start out as photographs but end up as something else occupy an interesting middle ground.  They're easier to acknowledge as "art", but are somehow tainted with the suspicion of having taken a shortcut, of "cheating".  To many, working from photographs is only one level up from painting by numbers.  Of course, there is a big difference between quietly using your own photographs* and ostentatiously stealing ("appropriating") someone else's, especially if that image has been published in its own right and is still in copyright.  The ethics and legalities of this are a hot topic, as there's a lot of sampling and appropriating going on and a lot of money being made by those who do it.

There's a press buzz at the moment about the upcoming Richard Hamilton exhibition at Tate Modern.  His variations on the "Swingeing London" image are famous -- Mick Jagger and Robert Fraser handcuffed together in the back of a car -- but the image is discussed as if Hamilton had cleverly chosen to paint them repeatedly in that pose, hands raised to their faces, cuffed together in parallel.  But it is, of course, closely based on a photograph.  A press photograph, in fact, of the pair's instinctive reaction to the flashes of the press pack, frozen in time by those very same flashes -- Mick!  Mick! Hey, Mick! -- and turned into a moment of post-modern mise en abyme by its re-rendering by Hamilton. Who knows or cares that this striking image was actually captured by John Twine, and published in the Daily Sketch in June 1967?

I wonder, did Hamilton presume that Twine couldn't possibly understand or appreciate what he had made, and therefore didn't really deserve to "own" it, the excuse of aristocratic thieves down the ages?  Or was his appropriation a sort of pop-culture homage to in-your-face tabloid values?  Hey, Mick!  Whichever it was, he clearly had a lot of fun in the studio, repeatedly transcribing the photo, colouring it in different ways and reworking its textures, so that something fairly mundane acquired a certain magic.  I have a lot of sympathy with that, and soon hope to spend my days, not just my evenings, doing little else.

* I recommend the fascinating book edited by Elizabeth W. Easton, Snapshot: Painters and Photography, Bonnard to Vuillard (Yale University Press, 2012).


Huw said...


Maybe it's because I'm a photographer (however amateur) but one of the reasons I enjoy it is because this 'mechanical' process can produce such different visions. This is where the personal expression comes in; it's the rare talent that creates magic from mundane subjects. Most of us (me!) struggle to do justice to what we see.

Drawing and painting may be fundamentally more personal but I think few people have the skill to do their ideas justice.


Mike C. said...


Yes, that is the problem with "hand and eye" art, like painting -- aspiration usually far exceeds execution. At least with photography (or "lens-based" art) there's never a problem with accurate representation...

I do recommend a look at the "Snapshot" book mentioned in the footnote if you can find a copy, esp. if you like Bonnard, Vuillard & Co.


Martyn Cornell said...

I wonder if the purists ever recognise that manipulated photographic images can give us stunning views of the "real" world we couldn't see and appreciate without the manipulation - as in the fantastic night sky pictures here for example, two of which are composed of multiple shots.

Mike C. said...


I think purists know that "impure" methods can deliver stunning results, but simply disapprove. There's a puritanical element in some areas of photography that is comparable to, say, printmakers who disapprove of digital imaging and inkjet printers.

Of course, looked at from the other side, there is a real need for taste and restraint in photo-manipulation -- nothing looks more naff than overcooked colours, and I've never really liked the sort of album-cover surrealism that guys like Jerry Uelsmann go in for.

I'm told there are those among us who reject alcohol as a false path to happiness...