I recently watched the documentary based upon the life of the television painter Bob Ross. The creator of countless programmes in which he would create a landscape painting in thirty minutes, the landscapes came from his imagination based on his time living in Alaska and his love for nature. Each painting utilised a wet-on-wet oil painting process, an ancient technique that Ross adopted to create his easy on the eye, non-challenging paintings to inspire others to stretch a canvas and pick up some brushes. I immediately thought of photography.
Bob’s intent was to get everyone painting using his technique and the branded paints and brushes he used. He also hoped they would sign up for one of his networked classes or buy one of his books. A fine intent with a strong commercial angle, Bob was the “happy tree” guy and his partners dealt with the business side very successfully. The images Bob created reminded me of a certain genre of landscape photography particularly prevalent in amateur photography magazines and online sites such as Instagram and Flickr, many of which feature what I refer to as ‘misty water’. I’m sure you know what I mean, images created on long exposures, often in black and white of water moving across rocks either in the woods or by the sea. This technique dominated approach to photographing water is closely followed in popularity by the pier disappearing into the misty horizon. Achieved it would appear through post-production or/and co-operative weather conditions.
These photographic images and approaches have much in common with Ross’s paintings. A reliance on technique to achieve a pre-conceived outcome, a desire to illustrate a romantic ideal, and an approach to visual creativity that is safe within its pre-ordained belief as to what constitutes a ‘good’ photograph or painting.
There is little if any room here for experimentation, despite Bob’s encouragement to accept “happy accidents”. Experimentation is not the aim but replication/imitation is. There is no issue in my mind with this work and the aspirational nature of wishing to emulate the work of a hero. This approach to landscape photography has many heroes within it for the amateur to look up too, but just as Bob limited the understanding of what painting is and can be, I wonder if the same could be true of his photographic equivalents.
The idea of perfection within the painting or photograph is an interesting starting point to consider, but in these examples it draws both the painter and photographer into an imaginary world that relies upon a smoothing out of life’s wrinkles either in oil or pixels.
Ideas of representation, and documentation are not considerations in the quest for the perfect image that in reality does not exist. It is a creation that is not seen but is imagined, an imagined outcome that validates the photographer’s ability to re-create an illustration that they have previously seen. A photographic illustration not a photographic reality. In essence a photograph that is more aligned with the Romantic tradition of British painting than a post-modern understanding of the medium. This is perhaps understandable in a country where a house filled with Victorian period details will always achieve a higher price than a similar sized house built in the 1970s, filled with light but inspired by a far less romantic ideal.
If Bob Ross and ‘misty water’ are gateways into a medium it seems to me that they have fulfilled there purpose, if the people who are inspired by both or either choose to stop at the gate that is also fine, but what a shame it would be if the gateway is found, the gate opened, but the garden beyond is never visited.
*You can currently see episodes from Bob Ross’s series on BBC4 and iPlayer. The Bob Ross documentary Bob Ross: The Happy Painter, Happy Accidents, Greed and Betrayal is currently on Netflix in the UK.
Dr. 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 working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor 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).
Grant’s 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