Photographic vision and the modern print
31 Jul 2004—7 Nov 2004
Photography was invented in the 1840s and ever since then people have marvelled at its ability to capture life in all its manifest detail. Such is photography’s supremacy in this regard that it has become unquestionably the dominant image-making form of the 20th century.
The exhibition Printed light is not, however, about photography in its pure form. What it seeks to do, instead, is to examine how photographic material, and, in particular, how photographic ‘ways of seeing’, have influenced 20th-century artists who also work in the print medium. Some artists have actively set out to use, manipulate, appropriate and/or subvert photographic imagery in their work. For others, the influence of photography has been more subtle, more tangential. Perhaps, for them, it’s the way in which photographic framing has conditioned a particular way of seeing.
At one end of the spectrum are works, such as Jennifer Bartlett’s Untitled I, II, III 1979, which one would not at first glance associate with photography at all, while at the other are the photo-realist works of Chuck Close and Richard Estes. And, as Printed Light demonstrates, there is much that is fascinating in between.
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Photography was invented in the 1840s and ever since then people have marvelled at its ability to capture life in all its manifest detail. From the personal to the forensic, the news to the nude, the celebratory to the salacious, the documentary to the divertissement, photography’s evidentiary supremacy is such that there has always been the temptation to substitute a photograph of a thing for the thing itself.
Sometimes it is all we have left. And in a way unique to it we see into a photograph, beyond its surface, into a cherished, sacramental space — whether it’s our life or someone else’s; whether it’s the now or the never, the before or the after; or whether it’s the intimate here or the elusive elsewhere. Photography’s essential, aching melancholy is that while it appears to cheat the ephemeral, it does so in a way that tethers us inescapably to one side of the ever-widening abyss between what is, and what was.
Photography’s greatest putative asset is that all you have to be is there — at, in Cartier Bresson’s famous words, ‘the decisive moment’ — to fix history forever in the silver halides of photography’s molecular base. With photography, what painting had aspired to since the Renaissance could be delivered to us effortlessly, and with minimal expense, by any kid with a finger poised over the button of a Box Brownie. Ultimately, however, photography’s most radical contribution to the development of western art was that it unshackled it once and for all from any necessary aspiration to representational fidelity, and it is no coincidence that a mere 30 years after its invention the face of art would be irrevocably changed with the appearance of a new painting style called Impressionism.
The exhibition Printed light is not, however, about photography in its pure form. What it seeks to do, instead, is to examine how photographic material, and, in particular, how photographic ‘ways of seeing’, have influenced 20th-century artists who also work in the print medium. For some artists, the relationship between their work and photography has been symbiotic — they have actively set out to use, manipulate, appropriate and/or subvert photographic imagery in their work. Their work may, for example, refer back to a hyper-realism that predates photography. For others, the influence of photography has been more subtle, more tangential. Perhaps, for them, it’s the way in which photographic framing has conditioned a particular way of seeing.
At one end of the spectrum are works that one would not, at first glance, associate with photography at all. Jennifer Bartlett’s Untitled I,II,III [Graceland] 1979, for example, harnesses the formalism of a Sol Lewitt-like vertical and horizontal grid to produce a recognisable image. The subliminal echo of the work, however, clearly relates it back to Monet. Bartlett’s ‘house’ and its shadowed footprint are almost identical to that of Monet’s famous haystacks. And while Graceland’s formal mechanisms are quite different, the underlying intent is essentially the same — to document the effect of light on a structure at varying times of day.
At the other end of the spectrum are Peter Blake’s appropriated 19th-century postcard erotica, the status of which remains profoundly ambiguous simply because they are presented as found objects, contextually dispossessed, unglossed and uninflected, apart from the fact that they have been enlarged.
Appropriation, then, is the underlying strategy of many of the works on display here, although the fundamental intent and effect of the works varies considerably. And often their impact, their meaning, has changed over time. Eduardo Paolozzi — one of the artists at the forefront of English Pop art in the 1960s — for example, cannibalised photographic imagery that he had collected over a 20-year period from a variety of popular ‘low-art’ sources — magazines, films, posters, advertisements, sci-fi comics — to produce his now famous 45-piece work Bunk 1972. Given the title, Paolozzi was clearly conscious of its contemporary, historical significance. Here is a work that humorously and ironically documents post-World War II society’s burgeoning obsessions: with consumerism; with the new scientific exploration of space; with a new kind of celebrity based on television; and the emerging cultural domination of America. To the modern viewer, however, Bunk is a wonderful time capsule — an ironic, mordant, gloriously nostalgic tribute to a time irretrievably lost to us.
Rather than a compendium of images that somehow characterise an age, it is sometimes the simple apposition of two iconic symbols that becomes fertile in terms of an implied cultural commentary. In 1980 the expatriate Russian artist Alexander Kosolapov, then living in New York, produced a painting based on the juxtaposition of a famous photographic profile of Lenin and the logo ‘Coca-Cola — it’s the real thing’. The consequential reading is intentionally ambiguous. Is this political aphorism, or commercial endorsement? It’s hard to tell. And therein lies its iconic and iconoclastic humour. In 1982 Kosolapov distributed the image as a postcard. Then came a silkscreen version. And then came the law suit. Coca-cola sued Kosolapov for breach of copyright — and lost!
The relationship between a work and its photographic underpinnings is sometimes tangential, indirect, or attenuated. Three or four artists in this exhibition have independently explored the implied narrative possibilities of ‘the encounter’. RB Kitaj’s Pogany 1966, for example, presents us with an almost literal sequence of cinematic stills documenting an encounter between a prostitute and her client. Similarly, Kitaj’s A life 1975 recapitulates an endless series of similar film-noir encounters from the cinema of the 1940s. On the other hand, Martin Lewis’s Chance meeting 1940–41, with its deep-focus echo of foregrounded action, both emulates and informs a number of emerging cinematic strategies of the time. In contrast; that Edward Hopper’s Night shadows, with its gantry-like elevation and its filmic lighting, was actually produced in 1921 comes as a shock to us, and makes it seem to foreshadow a new and modern cinema.
Of a completely different order is the work of Robert Rauschenberg. Two works on display here, Booster 1967 and Sky garden 1969, are huge in scale. Booster is a self-portrait, but in this case it is literally a portrait of Rauschenberg’s inner self. The print has been derived from a life-size X-ray of Rauschenberg, naked but for his hobnail boots, that has been transferred to a lithographic stone. So like van Gogh, the boots are there, and so is the chair but the sitter is literally absent in the flesh.
In 1968, Rauschenberg used a similar technique of filmic overlay to produce another of his works whose cinematic heritage is made explicit by its title Still. This work belongs to a series of works produced in homage to one of the greatest gangster movies of all time, Bonnie and Clyde, produced the year before and starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. The work is based on a selection of superimposed ‘stills’ from the film and true to its title, all is stillness here: the car has stopped; Warren Beatty as Clyde Barrow lies dead at our feet; Faye Dunaway stares immutably out at us … Despite this, despite that fact that it is all over, Rauschenberg’s image still seems to ask the one lingering question implied by its sorrowing title — Still in the sense of ‘and yet’?
Photorealism usually dominates exhibitions devoted to the influence of photography on art of the 20th century. The impulse towards photorealism, however, predates the invention of photography itself by centuries. Indeed, there are apocryphal stories from antiquity that document its use. Parrhasios, for example, is supposed to have outdone Zeuxis’ birds pecking at his painted grapes by fooling Zeuxis into trying to lift the (painted) veil from one of his paintings. And there are actual examples of architectural trompe l’oeil in the ruins of Pompeii. Similarly, details from David Bailly’s Self portrait with vanitas symbols 1651 — vanitas, indicating the transience of life — or Hans Holbein’s Georg Gisze, a German merchant in London 1532 could easily be mistaken for the photorealist works of a number of 20th-century artists. Indeed, the folded cloth and knotted-rope works of Wolfgang Gafgen on display here can be traced back to the hyper-real, still-life letter-rack works of Wallerant Vaillant [1623–1677] amongst others.
When it comes to portraiture, the contemporary practitioner of photorealism par excellence is undoubtedly Chuck Close. Unlike his vanitas precursors, Close’s enterprise has little to do with the flawless, bravura rendering of reality. Reality for him is the photograph. So we see the tiny photographic distortions, the shallowness of focus, the reflection of the photographer’s lights, the blurred edges, all in their hyper-real, hyper-enlarged painted or printed glory.
In this context it is useful to compare Close’s work, which is almost always photographically based, with Philip Pearlstein’s hyper-realist nudes, which are almost never photographically based. See, for example, his Two nudes on a blue coverlet 1977 at the top of the stairs to this exhibition. Paradoxically. Close’s portraits have an electric vitality, while Pearstein’s nudes have a cadaver-like lifelessness which undercuts their obvious realism.
By way of contrast, the works of Richard Estes and Ed Ruscha mine the hyper-realist photographic possibilities of their adopted urban landscapes — Estes most famously for his images of New York, and Ruscha, for Los Angeles. Closer scrutiny of Estes’s work, however, reveals that this is a strangely static, synthetic and sanitised account of New York — there are no people, no trash, no rain, no decay. And perhaps this brings us to the realisation that Estes’s rarefied, motionless and emotionless, hyper-crisp, people-less uniformity has more to do with minimalism and conceptual art than it has to do with landscape painting.
And similarly, while the hyper-real knock-out gloss of Ed Ruscha’s comic ironic take on pop-art still lifes, such as Open 1975, OOO and Lisp (both of 1970), is without doubt conceptually and aesthetically cute, it is the exploration of a more humble and forgotten territory that contains much of Ruscha’s best work; his artist’s books Twentysix gasoline stations 1962 and Thirtyfour parking lots in Los Angeles 1967, with their deadpan, uninflected, heartbreaking emptiness, are Ruscha’s own, affectionate homages to the visually godforsaken, and they have about them an aura of almost quasi-religious historical pathos that is paradoxically moving.
The urban landscape work of Robert Bechtle’s Sunset street 1982 exhibits another quality that seems to undermine its photorealist origins. If the supreme achievement of photography, for some at least, was its capacity to fix the fleeting and the ephemeral forever, in Bechtle’s work there is a sense of unearthly stillness, as though time has been suctioned out of the world. There is a feeling that the moment depicted is the same as the preceding moment, and the moment that preceded it will, in turn, be identical to the one that follows. Bechtle’s work has little to do with capturing the fleeting, and has, in fact, a lot to do with depicting the forever.
And there are other territories to be explored. Richard Hamilton’s quirky Mother and child 1984, for example, is based on a family photograph shown to him by a young Italian lithographer in order to ease the embarrassment that both of them felt because neither could speak the other’s language.  It is a photograph he insisted on Hamilton keeping. Which Hamilton did, and which he turned into a series of paintings and prints of quintessential tenderness. Similarly, in A dedicated follower of fashion 1980, with its title appropriated from the song by The Kinks, the central image is based on a photograph Hamilton picked out of a wastepaper bin while visiting a photographic company in Hamburg in 1969. 
And then there’s also the macabre: George Bellows’s work Electrocution 1917, for example, or, more horrifically, Daniel Spoerri’s Nine kinds of death c.1975. On the other hand, there’s also the lyric: Tom Phillips Ein deutsches Requiem 1971, for example, is based on cutout images taken from postcards Phillips collected while on a visit to Cologne in 1971, and which he set to texts taken from Brahms’ Op. 45.
The exhibition Printed light documents the fertile intersection between photography in its pre-digital form and the modern print. Here is photorealism and social realism, the erotic and the macabre, still lifes and landscapes. There are personal histories and cultural histories. There are portraits, narratives, meditations and illustrations. There is humour and pathos. And, as indicated above, Printed light goes some way to showing how a number of 20th-century artists have used photography as a vehicle to celebrate, subvert, transform, ironise and cannibalise photography’s imagemaking possibilities. And, with the dawning of the digital age, there is undoubtedly more to come.
International Prints, Drawings and Illustrated Books
 Richard Hamilton London: Tate Gallery Publications 1992 p.178.
 Richard Hamilton: Prints 1939–1983 Waddington Graphics, Stuttgart, London: edition Hansjörg Mayer 1984 p.79 n.111.