Matrix – Photography and the Visual Arts

The cover of Matrix 18, Winter 1998

This article, written by Olive Cook, first appeared in Matrix 18, published by The Whittington Press in Winter 1998. It is reproduced here with permission.

Olive Cook was married to Edwin Smith and a published author, academic and artist in her own right. She did not suffer those whom she considered to be ‘artistic fools’ gladly and some of the tone of that dislike for the pretentious comes across in this article. She was however a staunch believer in the power of photography to capture ‘the genius of place’ and she devoted much of her life after Edwin’s early death to promoting his work as a photographer.

The photographer Paul Martin opens his book Victorian Snapshots, written at the end of his life in the late thirties, with a memorable description of his work as a youth in one of the many firms of wood engravers among whom the best known were the Dalziel brothers, who throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century supplied publishers with engravings of artists’ drawings and paintings for illustration. The work demanded considerable skill in both interpretation and execution, especially when the originals were as spirited and delicate in tone as Richard Doyle’s drawings for The King of the Golden River and Jack the Giant Killer, or as close in feeling to the text they illuminated as Arthur Hughes’s enchanting illustrations for George Macdonald’s On the Back of the North Wind.

The invention of photography and the development of photographic techniques of reproduction, the line block, the halftone, photogravure, the collotype and, later, photolithography revolutionised book illustration and liberated the artist from his dependence on the trade engraver. Any drawing, painting or print could now be reproduced facsimile on the page of a book. Photographic techniques have also made the whole world familiar in the form of postcards and lavishly illustrated books with the works of art of every age and civilisation.

This subservience of the camera to the visual arts, while clearly of huge importance, sometimes restricts the photographer’s role to that of slavish copyist. The making of a transparency of a painting is the least creative of tasks. But when the camera confronts a three dimensional subject the resulting image may have a significance of its own. Photography has immensely enriched our knowledge and understanding of architecture the camera in the hands of a photographer who is himself moved by the imaginative power of a great building can inspire the spectator of his print with the ardour and insight of his own response. Photography has quickened our appreciation of the extraordinary variations on the themes of nave and chancel, porch and tower, spandrel and capital in cathedrals and humble parish churches; photography has enhanced our delight in the sublimities and eccentricities of country houses, palaces and parks and opened our eyes to the diversity and vigour of the traditional farmhouse and cottage. The photographer’s concentration on a particular aspect or detail of a building or landscape garden can sometimes illuminate its whole meaning.

Versailles, Photograph by Edwin Smith © RIBA

A photograph of Versailles by Edwin Smith taken in the early morning before the influx of tourists is dominated by the image of one of the giant urns which line the immense vista unfolding behind its majestic presence. The whiteness of the marble, the fragility and precision of the ornament, the perfection of the shape and its Brobdignagian scale are of the essence of this grandest of parks. The photograph is a resounding expression of the genius of the place.

The camera, however, has a potential beyond that of paying homage to great works of art: it is of course a unique documentary device and from the time of its invention the concrete reality of its records of everyday events, of distant lands and their peoples, of the horrors of war and of natural and man made disasters have been an inescapable part of our daily lives. The commanding realism of the photograph is surely the source of its strength. Yet some photographers have from the beginning been unwilling to accept this great distinguishing characteristic of the medium and from the day when on being shown a daguerrotype Paul Delaroche uttered his famous cry of despair ‘From today painting is dead’, the line that divides painting and photography has often been blurred or ignored. Bernard Shaw even held the view that had Velasquez lived in the twentieth century he would have used a camera instead of paint. The confusion was no doubt encouraged by the fact that in reproduction there is no difference in texture between a painting and a photograph. A photograph entitled Spring Idyll taken by Alex Keighley in 1904 is almost indistinguishable on the printed page from a reproduction of a late Corot landscape. Meanwhile painters of little talent did indeed resort to the camera to fabricate images of a more convincing realism than anything they could achieve with brush and pigment. Henry Peach Robinson posed models and used five negatives to produce his well known and, when it was shown in 1858, prodigiously popular composition Fading Away, the subject of which is a young girl dying on a daybed against a partially curtained window. 0. J. Rejlander, another painter turned photographer made a print measuring 16 x 31 ins (so the size of an easel painting) which was built up from thirty negatives. It was called Two Ways of Life and is an allegory on the themes of Industry, Dissipation and Penitence. It conjures up a great pillared hall crowded with draped figures and looks like a reproduction of a painting in the style of Lord Leighton.

Camille Silvy, unlike Robinson and Rejlander, had never been a painter at the time when he abandoned a career as a diplomat for that of a portrait photographer. He was a master of the popular and lucrative carte de visite. Yet while it was the realism of the photographic image which had inspired Robinson and Rejiander in their efforts to rival the academic painter, Silvy was one of the earliest photographers to turn to manipulation and trickery to give a photograph the appearance of a painting. He adjusted the composition of his photograph River Scene, France by adding a figure or two and by painting on the negative to enrich the drama of the sky and the density of the foliage. This hybrid creation has some affinity in reproduction with the work of artists of the Barbizon School but its substance remains that of a photograph, a photograph which fails to show the river scene in the fullness of its actuality.

The attempts of these and other Victorian photographers to invade and usurp the painter’s domain seem ludicrous to us today. Painting and photography are both two dimensional but the language of painterly representation is quite different from that of the camera. The gulf that divides them is strikingly illustrated by the comparison of a photograph Bonnard took of his wife Marthe sitting on the edge of that legendary bath at Le Cannet with the great series of his paintings of the same subject. The photograph, beautiful in tone and composition is an arresting image but its overriding interest is that it enables us to look through Bonnard’s eyes at the living woman, waif like and elfin, with whom he spent his claustrophobic life. The camera, in the hands of the artist, reveals all the vulnerability of this little creature and casts a new light on their extraordinary relationship. The painted figure, of whom sometimes only the legs are seen, is no longer part of the everyday world. Ageless, her features suggested rather than defined, she has been absorbed into Bonnard’s miraculous transformation of a pallid, ordinary tiled bathroom into a vision of reflection and colour more radiant, more intense than any effect of nature, and all the more potent because allied to strange spatial thrusts and sudden pictorial allusions to the formal kinship of bath and sepulchre.

The distinction between the two forms of expression was as emphatically demonstrated by the author of the one or two photographs used in support of the present argument. Edwin Smith who was both a painter and a photographer took the photographs for a book on Pompeii by Marcel Brion. A proof copy in which the text was missing gave the painter the chance of confronting each of his photographs with a drawn interpretation of the same subject While the photographs record the astonishingly intimate and revelatory detail and the beauty of the incredible remains in all their poignant reality, the drawings embody the apocalyptic view of the inward eye.

The publisher of Pompeii, the Glory and the Grief Paul Elek, had himself underlined the contrast between photography and drawing as methods of illustration in an interesting series of volumes, Vision of England, dating from 1948, in which the text is embellished with both drawings and photographs. Unfortunately because the latter were the work of a number of photographers of varying skill and sensibility the full impact of the contrast was not realised.

Meanwhile numbers of photographers throughout the present century, seeking to escape rather than co operate with the camera’s supreme virtue as a recording agent and seemingly unaware that they are the counterparts of the Victorian pictorial photographers) have experimented with all manner of manipulation and adjustment double exposure, lazy shutter, photomontage, tone tricks, pattern screens and the photocopy in the production of novelties that have echoed all the rapidly changing fashions of the art world, every form of abstraction and even the installation. As early as 19 23 Moholy Nagy started a class at the Bauhaus for the study of these trick techniques in photographic image making; and at about the same time Man Ray, who had been a Dadaist painter, perfected the process known as ‘solarisation’ which by exposing a fully developed negative to the light for a few seconds and then continuing development invests the resultant print with the semblance of a line drawing. A semblance only, for the line, uniform and mechanical, is wholly wanting in the life giving rhythm, staccato and abrupt or slow and ponderous, of the pencil in the hand of an artist. A contemporary of Man Ray, A. L. Coburn was inspired by the Vorticists to work with mirrors to create a broken, multiple faceted image which he named ‘vortograph’. Francis Bruguiere, a masterly photographer of daily life, sometimes used his camera merely as a means of recording carefully lit abstract paper cutouts of his own fashioning. The Welsh photographer, Norman Tudgay, took shots of patterns he had scratched on glass.

The accelerating quest for novelty in the eighties and nineties has encouraged ever more extravagant ways of evading and distorting the realism of the photograph. In the most extreme of these contrivances the connection with the camera has almost ceased to exist. Helen Chadwick, for example, near winner of the Turner Prize, used what she called ‘photocopies from life’ in a collage showing a woman, a child and a placenta, and the photocopying machine was the tool with which she built up her complicated installation, The Oval Court. These and many other instances of the manipulation of photographic procedures in the making of assemblages on the frontiers of art are almost justified by the triteness of much reportage and by the flood of utterly commonplace imagery brought into being by universal camera ownership. Nonetheless it is with the straight photograph that the witness with the lens makes his special contribution to the visual arts. The triumphant straight photograph, with which so much can go wrong, is not achieved simply by the press of the button. The photographer’s choice of lens, filter, developer and paper are decisive and even more important are his skill and judgement in the developing and printing of the negative. But success depends most of all on the eye behind the lens. The creative photographer is a ceaseless watcher, he lives through his eyes, he sees things to which others are blind, and he knows how to tell what he sees. He transfixes the fleeting, meaningful effects of a split second, sudden unexpected manifestations of the oddity, the humour or pathos of the human condition, the momentary effulgence that proclaims the whole spirit and configuration of a landscape.

It is always the convincing realism of the image which sets the significant photograph apart from other forms of visual expression even when pattern, purely abstract in some cases, is the subject of the picture as in Edward Weston’s photographs of the curious marks on crumbling rocks and Hans Hammarskiold’s studies of fissured tree bark. And though the spectator may be struck by the surrealism of a composition such as Edwin Smith’s portrayal of cloud reflecting flood water spilling under rusty iron railings onto flagstones, the photograph makes its effect because of the reality of its strangeness.

Photography has made the late nineteenth century more vividly present us than any other age and the degree of realism in some of the images is so arresting that they have entered our minds and hearts with a force as compelling if quite other than that of the great paintings of that time. Eugene Atget’s evocations of early morning Paris are of their number. Those haunting pictures of mist invading silent squares, of a lead pump attesting to the existence of the unseen inhabitants of a dim courtyard, of an empty alleyway instinct with the life hidden behind its closed doors have become as much part of our view of the city as Balzac’s unforgettable delineation of its obscure and seedy backwaters. Alfred Stieglitz created an equally atmospheric though totally disparate portrait of a vast capital city with his countless photographs of New York. His theme, in sharp contrast to Atget’s, is the rush of life in streets and squares and railway stations, by the docks and on teeming industrial sites, all seen as a grand and turbulent drama of chiaroscuro, changing with every season and with every passing hour. An anonymous photograph of East~ enders in the hopfields of Kent summons up all the pulsating life of that vanished tradition of annual emigration.

The strong physical presence of the nameless people in this photograph makes a deep impression. The studio portrait, if the subject is posed and artificially lit, is technically closer to the transparency of a painting than to the more creative forms of photography and sometimes conveys as little of the sitter’s personality as the passport snap. But when the photographer captures the piercingly expressive look of the eye, a characteristic stance or inclination of the head, when he highlights the telling details of the features and the marks left by emotion and the passage of time, the photographic portrait can surpass the painting as a likeness. To look through the eyes of Julia Margaret Cameron into the very faces of Tennyson, Dickens and Browning, to meet the searching and troubled gaze of Sir John Herschel is a momentous experience; and the masterpieces of Delacroix, Rossini, Daumier and above all Baudelaire take on another dimension when we are confronted by Nadar’s extraordinarily perceptive renderings of the physical appearance of their creators.

In our own century, which has been documented with intimidating thoroughness, the portraits of the famous taken by Henri Cartier Bresson brilliantly understanding, inventive and full of warm humanity, rival Mrs Cameron’s achievement in this field. The same photographer’s profoundly affecting record of the people and landscape of Europe made a few years after the end of the last war makes an enduring contribution to our understanding of that era.

An early Edwin Smith photograph, 1930s, before he had settled on the style for which he is best known.

Among many less acclaimed but remarkable examples of contemporary straight photography are Eudora Welty’s riveting and compassionate pictures of her native Jackson, Mississipi, thrilling to those who admire her writing; Enzo Sellario’s marvellous portrait of Sicily, harsh and searing in its subject matter but pictorially exciting and James Ravilious’s sensitive and encyclopaedic documentation of life and work in a corner of Devon where precious traditions of farming and shepherding survive with little change.

The qualities inherent in these and all photographs which could be called works of art are, in conclusion, characterised by two of Edwin Smith’s prints, chosen almost at random. In a photograph of Blackshore, Southwold he has seized the moment of pause, just after sunset which is most poignantly and most completely expressive of the limitless expanse of the mudflats of the Blyth. Familiar landmarks such as the church tower and roofs of Walberswick have been engulfed in a misty, monochrome infinity. Infinity indeed is the subject of the picture. In another print the photographer is looking with a passionate intensity of witness at the shabby vendor of second hand junk in one of London’s poorest street markets. Truculent, suspicious, battered but unbeaten in the battle of life, meeting the sympathetic eye behind the lens with the ghost of a dawning smile, she stares forever out of the photograph with the full force of that unsheathed and mysterious realism which is the hallmark of the photograph in which record becomes both art and revelation.

Olive Cook

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