From the moment that photography arrived, painters have looked at it askance.
It was a pleasant surprise for me to be asked by Mark Dober for an interview for his newsletter Castlemaine Art. Flattering, because he’s a prolific painter whose work is made strictly en plein air without the assistance of photographic reference.
We undertook PhDs over the same period around the turn of this century, he at Monash and me at RMIT, but a common interest is in how we immerse ourselves in the landscape. He shifted here only recently in 2016 but already he has sensed the genius loci of our special part of the world, overlaid with the contingency of an environmental emergency that is evident in this work.
Our 2019/20 summer fires incinerated an unprecedented one-hundred and eighty six thousand square kilometres, much of it sub-tropical bush that had ever burned before – an area equal to every inch of the state of New England in the USA — more than the entire area of Syria — destroying almost 10,000 buildings, and causing 34 deaths and 417 excess deaths from smoke inhalation.
In a view that he encompasses across two sheets of paper (many are multiples of such sheets); a finished mixed-media painting of more that a metre by a metre and a half, Dober represents that smoke which even from the heights of the lonely Nuggety Range could be seen almost extinguishing a red sun in a surreal and funereal atmosphere that, even 800km from the epicentre, we could taste at the back of our throats. Embedded in the foreground, their sparkling facets rendered in aquas and blue-greys, are boulders of granite and hornfels, evidence of a more ancient, but geologically recent (at 550,000 years ago), volcanic cataclysm. Standing sentinel, the twin skeletons of black wattle probably died after our last major drought in 2007. Time is material to Dober’s landscape.
Consequently to be interviewed by him was an honour that I felt warranted a different approach; an inter-view, in which I posed questions responding to his. We managed that to an extent, and in this transcript is the result:
Castlemaine Art, May/June 2020 Issue no. 7 Published by Mark Dober, Castlemaine, Victoria
Photography and Painting: a discussion with photographer James McArdle. In this issue I discuss photography with Castlemaine artist James McArdle. James has been a photographer since he was given a Nikon S3 rangefinder by his father in 1965. He has made it his living since then, photographing and teaching photography to primary, secondary and tertiary students. Attending Prahran College (1974-76), James was encouraged to exhibit and did so virtually annually until 2016. Since then he has devoted himself to writing about the photography and photographers that inspire him at onthisdateinphotography.com and elsewhere. James completed a PhD in 2004: An examination of the historical and practical application of superimposed and intersected multiple instants and perspectives in the photographic portrait.
Mark: I paint and draw in the landscape. There is a perceptual basis to what I do. You have said that you aim to get human perception into camera vision – what do you mean by this? How is the subjective experience of seeing manifested in your landscape photography?
James: The camera has one ‘eye’, and we have two. By using stereoscopy, which was a technique developed early in the medium, I can easily duplicate that aspect of human vision. However it’s proprioception — the ‘whole-body’ awareness — that one experiences in movement through the bush, that I most desire to represent. To do so I have had to invent my own means. Take one aspect: the way we fixate on a detail amidst the overall scene. To convey that I walk around that point in space while firing the shutter at a low speed so that the whole image appears to rotate around that point. The effect, I am told, is quite ‘painterly’. That is just one approach…I must use a number of techniques in representing other aspects of human vision because the camera lens is an insufficient analogue.
Does your innovation of continuing your paintings across multiple sheets derive from a frustration with the limitations with the restricted aperture of the conventional canvas? Are you inferring that what you are representing continues outside your work?
Mark: Most of my work is on paper using watercolour, gouache, and often oil pastel. Some of my work is made to a standard size watercolour sheet of 56 x 76 cm. But mostly I work to a 4 sheet format, or to a wall sized multiple sheet format when I am making work to install in a regional gallery. Such large sized work is pinned to walls and, due to its modular nature, makes for easy transport and delivery. Intrinsic to working plein-air, as I always do, is the aim of conveying direct experience, and the larger the work, the more it accords with the scale of landscape as we experience it, and the more the feeling of immersion for the viewer. Unlike the smaller works, where you are working the composition all over, the wall-size works are made section by section. There is less of a concern for a composition dictated by the format of “the canvas” as you say, and more a concern to get down the breadth and multiplicity of perceptual vision (inclusive of one’s movement of head and body as one faces in one direction and then another, over the days or weeks spent making the work).
Mark: Our landscape is in so many ways distinctive and unique. Viewing the bush through a European lens – I have a particular interest in French and English painting – the bush can seem quite strange to me. Questions of belonging and otherness engage my interest.
How does the “Australian-ness” of our landscape inform your photography?
James: Yes it is strange, and the landscape in Central Victoria would be utterly strange to its original inhabitants too, after the destruction we Europeans have wrought upon it. That is an aspect of ‘Australian-ness’; its exploitative, colonising culture is foremost in my consciousness of this landscape. I’m likewise interested in marginal landscapes such as those that border suburban railways, an urban ‘no-man’s-land’ populated by vigorous alien vegetation escaped or discarded from the neighbouring backyards. We can only see it in passing. In microcosm, that is what we are doing in this country.
Mark: Plein-air painting does not capture one moment like a photograph, but the many, many moments of perception over the duration of time required to make the work. In what ways can time enter a photograph? Are the photos you have taken through the window of a train about bringing perception and time into photography?
James: Absolutely. Artists devoted to the landscape should be conscious of representing a subject that is not still, but in flux, through moments when clouds pass, lit variously by the inclination of the sun over the course of the days, under the atmospheric changes of weather and the seasons, and as an affect of history and geomorphology.
I want that in my photographs, and those made through the window of a train are just one representation of the temporal aspect; the operation of human vision on the landscape over time. In acknowledgement of both Schrödinger and Einstein, looking at and photographing the landscape can be shown to change how it is seen. Setting a slow shutter speed, and panning the camera on a chosen point as the train passes, produces an image in which that point appears surrounded by progressively expanding concentric streaks of blurred forms before and behind the individual’s point of attention.
You can see this without a camera as Ernst Mach first observed when riding in a carriage and recorded in his Popular Scientific Lectures of 1895. James J. Gibson named the effect ‘optical flow’, best explained in his 1979 The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. I made my pictures intuitively before I read both those thinkers while I was doing my PhD. That they had been there before me is reassuring. It confirms my conviction that art is philosophy and psychology in practice.
Mark: Painters reacted to photography in differing ways when it made its appearance. Some social realists used it as a research tool, Edgar Degas incorporated photography’s cropping of subjects into his compositions; for others it was a spur to making non-mimetic art. At the same time, conventions of the beautiful and the sublime – associated with painting – influenced photography. Is a dialogue evident between painting and photography today?
James: Yes, just as there is now between photography and painting. They are shown in the same galleries and often fetch similar prices. The art scene now is much flatter, accommodating both media, ‘photographers’ and ‘painters’ being less ghettoed.
Mark: In 2015 the National Gallery of Victoria had a wonderful David Hockney exhibition. It featured an enormously scaled plein-air painting made in Yorkshire, ipad landscape drawings, and multiple videos synchronised and presented on monitors to comprise a single artwork.
Would you like to comment on this dialogue Hockney has with photography?
James: Yes, David Hockney, who is both a popular painter and innovative photographer, famously proposed in a 2001 book, Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, that painters, as far back as the Renaissance, used optics to produce realist effects impossible to achieve just by ‘eyeballing’ the subject. He uses examples like the depiction of out-of-focus areas, unique to the use of a lens (the human eye focuses automatically), in a painting by Lorenzo Lotto (but is too kind to show how awkward are Lotto’s renderings before he started using lenses in around 1530).
He shows Aaron Scharf‘s 1968 book Art and Photography, which was first to detail evidence of the use of photographs and the camera by painters, being read by his father in his 1977 painting, My Parents. The very idea that great artists would ‘cheat’ in this way makes art historians and critics like our Robert Nelson apoplectic, but the proof stands against them.
In a rare opportunity to physically study Hockney’s works, I was impressed by the experience of ‘being in’ his Grand Canyon when it was shown at Ballarat Art Gallery, and by the Yorkshire landscapes. He shows that the painter can transcend the temptation to slavishly copy the lens image by using appropriate ‘artistic license’ to summon up the original optical sensation. In both examples he assembles a vivid experience of a particular place from photographic records made from different viewpoints and over a duration of time. Too often, painters merely transcribe a photograph. The Archibald Prize prohibits the use of photographs, but it is easy every year to pick out the entrants who defer to photographic ‘likeness’ over portrayal of personality.
How do you respond to suggestions that you use photographs to make your multi-panel works?
Mark: Yes, much contemporary portrait painting – particularly the work seen in art prizes now – is based on photographs. And this is usually to the detriment of good painting: for example, such work can lack a feeling for the tussle between form and space. Painting from life you are within the reality you are responding to. Using photographs you are outside of that reality.
Interestingly, all our current major newspaper art critics – Christopher Allen, John McDonald, and Robert Nelson – assert in their reviews of the Archibald that the heavy reliance on photography in much, or most, of the work is doing portrait painting no favours.
So far as my landscape painting is concerned, I have no use for photographs: I need to be present to the landscape – within its space – to adequately feel and respond to my subject. I incorporate what is about me on the ground, the trees and rocks in the middle distance, the distant hills and the overarching sky. The landscape is huge, and is all around me: landscape becomes environment.
Mark: I seek beauty in my painting, even if I also seek strangeness or otherness. But beauty, being a quality rather than an issue, is not much acknowledged as content in contemporary art. Do you think beauty is something to be valued in photography? What are we to make of Susan Sontag’s observation, in ‘On Photography’ (1977), that photography makes all subjects beautiful?
James: Oh, how I love to hate that book! You can be certain that Sontag’s comment will be disparaging — her whole tract is a smear campaign on the medium that she latterly disavowed — and yes, while I can’t find your quote exactly in On Photography, there she is, contradicting herself;
‘Photographs create the beautiful and — over generations of picture- taking — use it up. Certain glories of nature, for example, have been all but abandoned to the indefatigable attentions of amateur camera buffs. The image-surfeited are likely to find sunsets corny; they now look, alas, too much like photographs’,
[then goes on to say]
‘Nobody exclaims, “Isn’t that ugly! I must take a photograph of it.” Even if someone did say that, all it would mean is: “I find that ugly thing … beautiful”.’
One may justifiably make such comments ‘on photography’ only if acknowledging that it is true of all media. Sunday painters have done just as much to devalue still life, especially old boots à la Van Gogh, as amateur photographers have sunsets. And yet, it takes an artist like Tracey Moffatt to make sunsets grotesque or foreboding in her Adventure Series (for which she hired a painter), or in her widely misunderstood and undervalued Venice Biennale show My Horizon.
I agree that the sublime, if that is what you mean by ‘beautiful’ (like sunset pictures, overworked and debased irretrievably) is something to be valued in any art form. This is because, especially in landscape, it contains elements of both the exalted and the terrible, the strange and the ‘other’.
When Ronald Haeberle photographed the My Lai massacre, he had no intention to make it beautiful. Let’s not forget that, unlike painting, photography has many other purposes than art-making.
Mark: From time to time the Art Academy pronounces painting to be dead. Then, as recently, we’re told it has made a comeback.
Do you have any comparable gyrations in the world of contemporary photography? How has the ‘digital revolution’ changed photography?
James: That French painter Paul Delaroche actually said ‘From today, painting is dead’ is still moot, but many commentators at the advent of the daguerreotype echoed those sentiments. To a large degree, they were right; portrait painters, especially the silhouette cutters and ‘miniaturists’, found themselves ruined, as historian-photographer Giselle Freund documents in gory detail.
The advent of digital imaging might be equated to the adoption of oil painting in the 1400s; a new technical development that made ‘improvements’ that some, but not others, took up. In 1994 I attended, amongst some very scared professionals, a conference ‘Still photography?’ that asked whether the medium would ever be the same after ‘the digital revolution’, but it is.
No, the big challenge to photography that was of the scale of its own impact on painting was that of the moving image…cinema.
Debates over whether photography ‘is art’ have waxed and waned; now it is accepted as such by most.
We still take photographs, and you still paint, not because of what our media cannot do, but because of what they can do better than anything else, if you’re good, and if you work at it. There will always be connoisseurs to ogle the stillness of photographs, to pore over the ‘facture’ of paintings. It’s not for everyone. All the others can go watch YouTube.
Mark: Can photography be over-burdened by technique? You have mentioned an ‘anti-technique’ impulse in photography – what is this? In seeking to extend the range of what photography can do and comment on, do you think that some contemporary photography – including prize winning photography – risks gimmickry?
James: I’m afraid so. There is a multitude of – mostly guys – with their ‘head under the bonnet’ instead of under the dark-cloth. Techno-wizardry drives obscenely profitable brands to bring out yet another newer, bigger-megapixel, lighter, faster camera, flog expensive subscriptions to software for constant, trivial updates. Their customers, countless ‘camera enthusiasts’ (as opposed to ‘photographers’) show off the latest results of their purchases on social media…cool effects, new app ‘filters’, ‘HDR’ ad nauseam.
Photography might simply be one’s pleasure in the little ephemeral image projected from a magnifying glass onto a wall, or the discovery of pale shadows of objects left on a piece of fresh plywood tanned by the sun. There’s a counter-movement back to chemical photography, the desirability of old film cameras is sending teenagers to ferret them out of the op-shops and grandma’s wardrobe. They love the novel delayed gratitude of seeing how their pictures have ‘come out’ only after developing the film using a mysterious alchemy, and they still marvel over the magic of their picture revealing itself in the developer tray under the red light. Cyanotype workshops abound.
But any effect for effect’s sake, in any medium, is bankrupt.
A committed artist acts out of a desire to understand and to feel, and they may steadfastly, even obsessively, pursue the one idea or emotion all their lives, investing everything to get it. Depending on their conceit or humility, they might steer between the vainglory of being respected and revered for it, and the ignominy of being completely misunderstood and ignored.
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