Photorealism and the Relationship Between Photography and Painting

Chuck Close 'Big Self-Portrait' (273 x 212 cm)., 1967-68

Look at this image above. It seems to be a black and white photograph of a man with scruffy hair, a moustache, glasses and a cigarette. Most of that is true apart from one key detail - it is a painting not a photograph. However, it is a painting based on a photograph and in some way comments on both painting and the photographic image.

Why would an artist spend countless hours painting an image like this when you could create a  photograph instantly that looks the same?
Why doesn't most art today look like this and seems to lack the skill that this image would require?
Is photography art?

To understand these questions we have to look at the very first photograph and how the invention of photography influenced the very nature of art.

"From today painting is dead"

Paul Delaroche on seeing a Daguerreotype in 1839 (allegedly)

One Summers day in 1826 Nicephore (Joseph) Niepce created the image above. This Grainy image is thought to be the first permanent photograph and it had an exposure of over eight hours. It is too simple to say Niepce invented photography because the photographic process has undergone so many significant modifications since then (most famously Fox Talbot and Daguerre 1839).

The invention of a device that could allow anybody to record the world in perfect detail would revolutionize how we see ourselves, how we communicate and how we make art. Without Photography Modern art, film and the Internet would not exist – or at least not as we know them.

Another one of Niepce’s earliest images was of a table – a traditional still life. It is a time honoured theme in Art that would still be revisited by future artists. During the 18th century Chardin produced beautiful painted still lives of simple Kitchen Utensils. There is great poetry in Chardin’s ability to bring such importance to such humble things. Niepce was simply continuing a long tradition – what else would you do with a camera other than make images in the tradition of Painting?

Niepce’s image of the roofs outside his window seems to break away from the traditions of painting and point to something else. The image could be compared to a landscape painting but a painting had never been done of just roofs. There are harsh angles, strong contrast and an abstract nature to image that seems ‘Modern’ to my eye. It reminds me of a Supremacist painting by Malevich.

'We must expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts, thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bringing about an amazing change in our very notion of art.'
Paul Valery 'The Conquest of Ubiquity' 1928

A Pinhole camera image of Lincoln Cathedral

Why are photographs square? When we print out a photograph, look at a screen, watch a film or look at any photographic image it is square. This is not the natural way a photographic image is projected. Look at the Pin hole camera image above - it has been projected onto the photographic paper in a circle shape - not a square. We crop all photographs (including films) into squares. Why? Because paintings are square - photography just copied the traditional way of image making.

William Henry Fox Talbot 'The Villa Melzi, 5th October 1833' Camera Lucida drawing: pencil on paper 1833

The link between painting and photography is central to its invention. This is a drawing by William Henry Fox Talbot from 1833. Six years later, in 1839, he would announce his negative/positive process which became the main photographic process of the twentieth century. The image was drawn using a Camera Lucida - used as an aid for artists. The artist would see the real world and would then try to trace the scene (Pablo Garcia is an artist who still uses the technique). He was so frustrated with his inability to capture what he saw on the ground glass he experimented until he found a fixable light sensitive material. All he wanted to do was paint a picture.

Claude Monet 'Impression - Sunrise' 1872

The invention of photography was announced in 1839. The arrival of a machine that could capture the world in perfect detail - a landscape, a portrait or a building was in direct competition to painting. Painters started questioning how they approached their medium and this can be seen in the work of the Impressionists. In the painting above Claude Monet's brush marks become looser and more expressive. Colour suggests the quality of light but might not be exactly what Monet saw. Monet was an Impressionist - the first modern art movement (watch Matthew Colling's documentary here).

It is 33 years after the announcement of Photography and Monet is painting an image that could not be taken by a camera.

A photograph of a sunrise is created by light from the sun traveling and reflecting off an object. This light then travels through the camera lens onto the light sensitive material. A photograph has a direct relationship to the subject.

A painting is made by matter being applied to a surface and creating areas of light and dark. The paint is applied by hand and is a subjective response by the artist to what they see.

'We should remember that a picture, before being a war horse, a nude women, or telling some other story, is essentially a flat surface covered with colours arranged in a particular pattern'

Vincent van Gogh 'The Starry Night' June 1889

It is 50 years after the announcement of photography. This swirling psychedelic image is a celebration of paint and colour. The whole image vibrates and is built up of small violent stabs of paint. You could not photograph this - painting has found a new lease of life. Van Gogh is often remembered as the cliche artist - a mad genius, living in poverty, struggling for his art, nobody understood him in his time, crazy and, eventually, committed suicide. It would be a great film (and kind of is in 'Lust for Life' and here). Some of this has elements truth but it is not important and it is not why we remember him. He was a serious painter who developed his style through practice and thought (see his letters for his ideas).

"..this is the advantage that impressionism possesses over all the other things; it is not banal, and one seeks after a deeper resemblance than the photographer's"
Vincent Van Gogh (in a letter to his sister)

Degas 'Dancers pink and green' 1890

It is 51 years since the announcement of photography. Traditionally paintings were set up like stage sets with the action being perfectly choreographed within the frame. Influenced by the photographic image, Degas has cropped the dancer on the right hand side of the frame as if it was poorly framed snap shot. Not only are the marks getting looser but the composition is changing.

Paul Cezanne 'Still life with plaster cupid' 1895

It is 56 years after the announcement of photography. In France the post-Impressionist artist Paul Cezanne was creating his final paintings. What is wrong with this painting? It has the loose brush marks of the Impressionist's and objects are being cut off at the edges. However, something else is happening. The angles seem all wrong, it makes you dizzy - that cherub is going to slide off the table. In fact it seems Cezanne has abandoned traditional perspective and the table appears to buckle, as if viewed from shifting angles. Cezanne is actually exploring how we look, how we actually see. This is revolutionary.

"The father of us all"
Picasso and Matisse talking about Cezanne

Picasso 'First Communion' 1895/96
It is still 56 years after the announcement of photography. In Madrid a fourteen year old artist painted the image above of his sisters first communion. This artist clearly had talent but this painting does not have the looseness of the impressionists or the excitement of the Cezanne. In fact this is a very traditional image -we will come back to this young artist later.
Henri Matisse 'Open Window' 1905
It is 66 years since the announcement of photography and by now paint is being daubed on the canvas - almost like a child. Henri Matisse was a key member of The Fauves, which means The Wild Beasts, due to their raw energetic use of colour and rough application of paint - even leaving areas of raw canvas (The Impressionists, The Fauves and The Cubists all got their names from Critics who were actually trying to insult them). The paintings of the Fauves (or Impressionist) seem tame to the modern eye but at their time they were revolutionary - most people would not have liked any of these paintings. Today Impressionism is 'peoples' favorite period. Matisse was not a wild beast - in fact he was very controlled with colour and pattern being key in his work. Matisse famously said he wanted his art to have the same effect as a comfortable armchair on a tired businessman. Matisse and Picasso are often considered to be two of the greatest artist of the 20th century.Did Picasso have any intention of creating an arm chair for a tired businessman - 

'No, painting is not made to decorate apartments, it's an offensive and defensive weapon against the enemy'
Picasso 1945

Pablo Picasso 'Les Demoiselles d'Avignon' 1907
It is 1907 and 68 years since the announcement of photography and I am struggling to recognise the image above as a painting. Remember the fourteen year old boy who skillfully painted his sisters first communion 12 years ago. He has been busy imitating the work of the impressionists, studying the work of Cezanne, developing his own style - trying to find a new look for a new century. You can see elements of African art in what is considered to be the first Cubist painting - Picasso's 1907's 'Les Demoiselles d'Avignon'. Its collapse of perspective and combination of geometric shapes and 'primitive' styles (influenced by Iberian sculpture and African art) were a reinvention of the possibilities of art. Broken, jagged, intersecting lines dominate the picture, making the eye leap from one jutting form to the next. The fusion of figures and background was inspired by Cezanne's 'Bathers' (1894-1905) painting. Picasso looked to the past but influenced the future. To understand these developments and look deeper at Cubism look here.
Pablo Picasso 'Guitar' 1913
It is 74 years since the annoucemnet of photography and the old tradition of painting has changed beyond recognition. In the image Picasso has abstracted the image as if it has been seen from multiple viewpoints and so the guitar itself seems fractured. Segments of the 'Guitar' are cut from a variety of materials - a piece of old wall paper, a scrap of cardboard and a circle cut out of newspaper. This approach of using collage and assemblage would become a major approach to art in the 20th century. The Dada group would start experimenting with Photomontage - blending the mediums of photography and collage to create a modern approach to photography.

The revolution had started.
Marcel Duchamp Bicycle Wheel 1913
1913 is the same year that Marcel Duchamp turned his back on painting and made his first readymade.  Duchamp is the father of conceptual art and there is a link between Duchamp's readymades and Carl Andre's bricks 'Equivalent VIII' (1966) or Tracy Emin's Bed 'My Bed' (1999) being shown in the Tate. Although both Andre's and Emin's are just objects, in my opinion, Andre's bricks are poetic while Emin's work is not (and to some neither are art but that is another discussion).

74 years is not, relatively, a long time but Photography, strangely, has revolutionised the older medium.

Photography itself was still in it infancy and had spent some of the early years mimicking painting. However, there were a few key photographic pioneers - Alfred Steglitz (1864-1946), Edward Steichen (1879-1973) and Eugene Atget 1857-1927 (discovered in his last years by the Surrealist Man Ray, who lived only a few doors away from him).

These photographers would influence the photographers of the future to create a unique medium - not one in the shadow of another. For example Atget's unique eye and straightforward approach can be seen in the objective look of future generations like Walker EvansStephen ShoreLee Friedlander.
Alexander Rodchenko 'Non Objective Composition' 1918
Alexander Rodchenko has painted a 'Non Objective Compostion' - there is no abstracted guitar here just two forms floating in space. It is a year after The Russian Revolution and almost overnight an entire society was destroyed and replaced with one of the most radical social experiments ever seen. There was an optimism in the air.

A new society needs a new vision - David Hockney has said that visual control equals power. The people who have power control images – and the people who control images have power. There was a new visual look for a new world where graphic shapes represent ideas.

In the middle of the 1920's Alexander Rodchenko announced he would no longer paint and instead he would focus purely on photography as a means of searching for a new visual language. He made pure photography that broke away from the traditions of painting. Photographs would be taken from unusual angles - from underneath the subject or looking down turning the world into forms. His images had a graphic quality that seemed like a new way of seeing. There were strong diagonals, verticals and areas of graphic pattern. Paintings have never been made from these angles.

"the streets are our brushes, the 

squares our palettes"
Alexander Rodchenko

Rodchenko believed the era of painting was over and a new visual era was about to begin.

Alexander Rodchenko 'Lilya Brik' 1924

Rodchenko, along with Liubov Popova, gave the visual look for this new world. Designing a humble advertisement had more worth than making a piece of art. Art is seen by a few people in galleries - adverts are seen by everyone everywhere. This graphic language, designed under Communism, gave the visual language of Capitalism to the West - the origins of the McDonald's logo began here. This look has been used and revisited by Neville Brody (at Face Magazine) to Modern album covers.

Above we can see how Rodchenko took his photographs and cut them up and resembled them with flat coloured paper and text. The colours, forms and angles are taken from suprematism and are the language of constructivismFor a more detailed history of Photomontage, Dada and Rodchenko click here.

Like Duchamp before him Rodchenko turned his back on the tradition of painting and explored Photography and Photomontage. 

Photography and painting were at the same time going in their own directions but also being combined together. Many artists at the time jumped between media - painting, photography, film, sculpture - the lines were blurring. Key artist were Lazlo Maholy Nagy and Man Ray.

Jack Pollock painting with his canvas on the floor (watch here)
It is 111 years after the announcement of photography. It is 1950's America and Jazz, Beatniks, Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" and Robert Frank and his definitive images of America. We have shifted our gaze from Europe to America. This is because the focus of the art world has moved to America due to Europeans fleeing Europe because of World War 2. Lots have happened since Picasso, Duchamp and Rodchenko. One of the key Movements was Surrealism and its fascination with the unconscious.

Jackson Pollock has placed his canvas on the floor of his studio and he is dripping paint from above and allowing the drips to build up to create the purely abstract image. If it is an image of anything it is the traces of Pollock's movements and gestures - the act of painting itself. To create all art is a performance of some kind an the actual art object is the record of that performance. This way of thinking could only come from questioning what art is - this questioning was escalated 111 years ago with the announcement of photography. You could see Pollack moving around his painting as a type of performance art.
Jackson Pollock 'Autumn Rhythm' 1950
Pollack's work was also championed/inspired by the ideas of Clement Greenberg. Clement Greenberg believed that art, and painting in particular,  should be clear and pure - independent of any subject matter -Pure abstraction. This image above is called 'Autumn Rhythm' (1950) by Jackson Pollock. The drips and spills reflect the actions of the artist as he moves around the canvas. 
Pollock's  'Action Paintings' are like Otto Steinert's photographic light experiments - expressive marks documenting a persons movement through time and space.  Otto Steinert's  image seem to reflect the work of the abstract expressionists. Steinert was part of a post war movement that wanted to revive the experimentation and creative spirit of the 1920s (see Man Ray and Moholy-Nagy). This expressive approach was stopped with the rise of Hitler in the 1930's - this saw many important artists emigrating to America. During the 1950's he set up Fotoform to explore these themes (key members Toni SchneidersChrister Stromholm (website) and Peter Keetman). Often photography is seen as an objective art and many great photographers have created 'pure' images based on this philosophy. Steinert saw photography as an expressive art and his images have a subjective quality (Subjektive Fotografie).
Mark Rothko ' White Center' 1950
Mark Rothko was another abstract expressionist who created large scale abstract images. Two rich, warm red rectangles float and hum underneath a hovering earthy white rectangle. His earlier work is much more colourful - the colours affect you on a visceral level. The paintings have formal eelements such as depth, composition, colour and balance. When you stand in front of one of these works their size and colour engulf you. The bottom image is a late period Rothko, created a year before the artist committed suicide. It displays the dark color palette the artist primarily used during his last years of life, a period that was said to be increasingly lonely and isolating for the artist.

There is no reference to the outside world, mid twentieth century American painting has become something else - abstract, large-scale and authoritative. This art could be described as timeless - there is no clue, in the image, of what was going on in society. At this point in time abstraction was the dominate style in painting.
A jpeg -of a photograph -of a slide taken of a Mark Rothko painting (used as evidence in court)

All this would change. At this stage it may seem that painting was triumphant but if you looked around in 1950's America you were not surrounded by cool abstract images. There were films flickering at drive in movie theaters and cinemas, giant advertising billboards, colour technolour magazines and cheap kodak cameras for amateurs to make their own snap shots. The dominant way of making images was, and would continue to be, photography.

'Through the mass media and the amateur it was photography that seized the everyday. But by permeating culture so thoroughly it almost relinquished its claim to the critical distance of art'

Artist reflect the world around them - and that is what happened next.

Warhol 'Triple Elvis' 1963. Acrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas
In 'Triple Elvis' a promotional photograph of Elvis is overlaid three times using the silkscreen process. This creates a visual Jump - creating movement in a static image. It also suggests that celebrity is shallow - that stars are turned into products to be consumed by the viewer. When you see a Warhol in the flesh you notice that each silkscreened image is slightly different to the next. Little imperfections give the initially mechanical image painterly qualities.

Andy Warhol 'Orange Car Crash' Silk Screen print on Canvas 1964
Apparently in his final years Rothko would cross the street so he would not have to see Andy Warhol on the New York streets where they both lived. Rothko and Warhol, like Van Gogh, both wrote (Andy Warhol's Philosophy from A to B and Mark Rothko's 'Philosophies on art) and their ideas are worth looking at. The pure abstraction of the abstract expressionist has gone. Instead Warhol celebrates all that is common, everyday, vulgar and mechanical. Coke bottles, soup cans, movie stars, adverts, newspapers - they were all up for grabs for Warhol. This is Pop Art - Pop because it is popular or Pop because you get it in a instant - like an advert. He did not paint these images by hand - instead he used the silkscreen process so he could reproduce the images again and again. In his Car Crash series he repeats an image found in a newspaper, again and again, until it becomes meaningless. We just stare, like we would at a TV screen, and let real life tragedies become wallpaper to our world.

'Buying is more American than thinking'

Abstract and expressive painting did not just disappear after Pop Art - there are still important developments - for example - Colour Field Painting, Post Painterly Abstraction, Minimalism, Neo Expressionism. But painting no longer was painting the dominant media - it had to battle with Film, Video, Photography, Performance and Conceptual art. 

And figuration came back. Not just any figuration but a kind of figuration influenced by the now dominant means of making images - Photography.

Richard Hamilton 'My Marilyn' 1965 Screenprint
Richard Hamilton 'Swinging London 67' 1968-69 Acrylic collage on aluminum on canvas

many different ways in which the act of painting a photograph transforms its meaning and the information we can get from it.
Gerhard Richter 'Woman with Umbrella' 1964
This is a painting based on a photograph - not on life itself - but a reproduced image. We experience so much of the world through photographs, second hand experience. Where once artists portrayed the world before them, then reacted against the announcement of photography, they now just copied from mass produced images. However, if most of experience comes to us second hand then it make sense for artists to work from it.

This is not just an anonymous 'Women with an Umbrella' but a reworking of a media photograph of the grieving Jackie Kennedy. It is almost real apart from Richter's feathered brush strokes taht could be rain on the lens or the image seen through crying grieving eyes.

When Warhol and Richter started using photographs as their source material it seemed shocking and strange due to the subject matter and their approach to photography.
Vija Celmins 'Time Magazine Cover' 1965
Malcolm Morley 'On Deck' 1966 Magna on canvas
Richard Estes 'Gordon's Gin' 1968 Oil on Board

'When an artist translates an image from one medium to another, how it is painted is as important as what is painted'
The Telegraph Oct 2007

On the left is Francis Bacon's 'Two Figures' and on the right a Edweard Muybridge reproduction found in his studio speared with paint.

The British painter Francis Bacon worked from others photographs throughout his life.  Bacon grew up on a farm and claimed he rarely saw images. All the paintings he did see were reproductions found in books and he would refer to these reproductions, not the originals, to appropriate for his paintings. Read David Sylvester's series of interviews with Bacon here.

Marilyn Minter 'Purple Haze' Enamel on metal 2005
Marilyn Minter 'LA to NYC' 2003 Enamel on Metal
Marilyn Minter 'Stepping Up' 2005

These paintings are clearly influenced by photographic images. The shallow depth of field, resulting in only one section being in focus, is a characteristic of photographic images. Figurative paintings, traditionally, can be explored from corner to corner due to everything being in focus. Marilyn Minter's images look at faded glamour sweat on top of make up, freckled flesh and dirty heels on glamorous feet.
Marilyn Minter 'Stepping Up' 2005

After the triumph of photography, many real people have seen hand-painting as a weird and unnecessary activity. George Bernard Shaw, propagandising for the camera's impersonal accuracy, spoke of "The curious element of monstrosity which we call the style or mannerism of a painter." And the conceptual artist Victor Burgin has derided the "anachronistic daubing of woven fabrics with coloured mud".

In my opinion the announcement of a device that could capture the world in perfect detail forced painters to question the nature of painting, ask what an image was and what the nature of art is. As a result paintings changed - creating images that could not be created by a camera. Eventually artists questioned the act of painting and many moved towards other ways of working - for example performance and conceptual art.

Further Reading -

The link between Painting and photography has come full circle - Now contemporary photographers are inspired by the history of painting or aspire for photography to be seen as high art. Tom Craig's contemporary photograph has the feel of George Seurat's 'Bathers at Asnieres' 1884.
George Seurat's 'Bathers at Asnieres' 1884
Craig discusses how he had Seurat's painting and Henri Cartier-Bresson's photograph in mind when he took the photograph (see article here). Cartier-Bresson himself initially wanted to be a painter and his painterly use of the Rule of Thirds runs through his images.
'Venus of Urbino' Titian c.1538
Manet 'Olympia'1862
Richard Billingham 'Rays a laugh' 1997