Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Evening by the creek

click photo to enlarge
When the early photographers - Daguerre, Fox Talbot, Niepce, etc - composed their first images it was inevitable that they often drew on the conventions of painting. Images of people would be posed, often with props and carefully balanced backgrounds. Views would be composed like the landscape paintings that they knew so well. It was only when photographers became comfortable with their cameras, and the technology developed, that photography expanded its repertoire into candid shots, reportage, etc., and developed compositional styles of its own.

This much is fairly well known, but what is appreciated less is the extent to which traditional painting fed off the upstart art of photography. In his illuminating book, "Art and Photography", the writer Aaron Scharf, discusses some of the artists who made use of photography. Edouard Manet's painting of the "Execution of Emperor Maximilian (?1867), for example, makes use of photographs to give portrait realism to several figures. Edgar Degas referred to photographs extensively in his portrait work - see "Portrait of the Princess de Metternich" - and even for his famous ballerinas. His paintings with people entering and exiting the frame, or cut off at the waist also echo the type of composition common in photography, but rarely found in the traditional arts. Even the Pre-Raphaelites and John Ruskin, a group dedicated to resurrecting the methods of the past, were not above basing paintings on photographs. Art historians are still making connections between individual photographs and particular paintings and artists.

I am not aware that any such link has been made with reference to the English artist, John Atkinson-Grimshaw (1836-1893), who painted some particularly impressive evening and night scenes. However, the skeletal trees and the hint of yellow in the cold, water-laden, evening sky of my photograph reminded me of this artist whose paintings I admired recently at the Harris Art Gallery in Preston. I took this photograph in fading light at Skippool Creek, Lancashire, for the atmospheric qualities I saw that evening. The camera ISO was increased to 200, the aperture opened up to f4.5, and the long zoom at 240mm (35mm equivalent) was rested on a post to ensure a sharp image. This image has been sharpened, as usual, for presentation on the web, but the unsharpened version has much more of the painting about it.
photograph & text (c) T. Boughen