Look to the Masters of Painting and Photography

The title of this article says everything I want to say, but perhaps I should add a little meat to the headline bone. Portrait, landscape, documentation, abstraction, still-life and multiple forms of visual storytelling, its all been done before. In paint, gesso and ink, scratched, layered and applied, photography is not dealing with anything new. Photographers are the new kids on the block and it is worth remembering that.

Of course there is now a rich history of photographic practitioners to turn to for inspiration and it is important to understand the makers who came before us but it is just as important to understand who influenced them.

Peter Galassi, Associate Curator in the Department of Photography at The Museum of Modern Art, argued that photography “was not a bastard left by science on the doorstep of art, but a legitimate child of the Western pictorial tradition.” The liner notes to Galassi’s book Before Photography: Painting and the Invention of Photography state that “It is not separate from painting or drawing it is closely related. Ever since the Renaissance invention of linear perspective, artists had considered vision the sole basis of representation. But only gradually did they formulate pictorial strategies capable of suggesting the immediacy and relativity of everyday visual experience; only after centuries of experiment did they come to value pictures that seem to be caught by the eye rather than composed by the mind.”

But how often do we as photographers turn to painting and painters as part of our photographic learning?

I saw the image below by the photographer Niall McDiarmid the other day on a social media site. It instantly reminded me of the work of John Constable, the English landscape painter in the Romantic tradition. Then another image of Niall’s appeared on my timeline – this time of the train tracks of East Croydon – that instantly reminded me of Walter Sickert of the Camden Town Group of artists, with a Turner sky.  Constable focused on painting the area surrounding his home – now known as “Constable Country” – which he invested with an intensity of affection. McDiarmid has a similar relationship with South West London. Sickert often favoured ordinary people and urban scenes as his subjects. So does McDiarmid.

McDiarmid is a well-informed photographer and I would not be surprised if Constable, Sickert and Turner where not part of his photographic thought process when creating, or reflecting upon these images. Of course I may be wrong. Looking at and commenting on photographs is a very personal experience.

These are just two images that suggested particular painters to me when I saw them. This happens to me a lot and I enjoy that process of recognition. It’s like listening to a band or singer and identifying their influences, it provides context and narrative. It presents a journey of knowledge that has led to a final artefact.

To dismiss the exploration of painting, drawing and sculpture as part of an engagement with photography is either arrogant or foolish. Just as writing informs our understanding of narrative, so the established arts educate our understanding of visual language.

Many photographers today refer to themselves as artists rather than photographers, and by doing so aim to frame their work and practice within the context of the art community/market/world. Photography is an accepted art form but it does not sit outside of the traditional forms that it thought so hard to be accepted by. Alongside film, performance and digital art practices photography references what has come before as it attempts to reflect upon the now and the personal experience. There are many contemporary photographers whom I could reference as clearly identifying their art based influences, but to do so would turn this article into a list of names.

Suffice to say that there are many and my use of the two images above by McDiarmid are just starting points and illustrations of how the work of a multitude of artists can be seen in the work of contemporary practitioners.

According to Peter Galassi, we are looking at an evolution in art, not a revolution, we are part of that evolution as photographers and must therefore be aware of our role and place in art history. A revolution suggests a forcible overthrow of a government or social order, in favour of a new system. An evolution is a process by which different kinds of living organism are believed to have developed from earlier forms during the history of the earth.

I think that gives enough meat on the bone.

You can see more of Niall McDiarmid’s work here www.niallmcdiarmid.com

Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a podcaster, BBC Radio contributor, filmmaker, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019).

His book What Does Photography Mean to You? including 89 photographers who have contributed to the A Photographic Life podcast is on sale now £9.99 https://bluecoatpress.co.uk/product/what-does-photography-mean-to-you/

© Grant Scott 2021

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