“The only way to continue in the spirit of the avant-garde is to experiment with your relation to tradition.” – Jeff Wall
The hawk-eyed among us will have spotted the rise in population of a strange creature during the past 188 years. Copying its surroundings to the finest level of detail, sometimes even bettering them, the photograph has come a long way since its arrival in 1826. The invention of the photograph has brought the proverbial mountain to Mohamed, but many would argue that by doing so it has irreparably changed the way we get to the mountain the first place. If photography brings you that mountain, what use is a map?
It was not always this way, however. When Nicéphore Niépce created the first documented photograph in 1826, it would have been difficult to see the full effect it would eventually have on painting as a medium. The idea in itself was not new: it could be said that many paintings pre-invention of the camera were photographs in a way, having been drawn mostly in camera obscuras. Besides, the photograph took days to make and the image quality was abysmal; it would have been easier to simply have painted it.
For years, the difference between the two art forms boiled down to a question of representation vs depiction. Photography was seen as a representative form of art, meaning it
- Served only to look like something or resemble it,
- To stand in for something or someone,
- Or to present something for a second time; to re-present it.
There is a viable argument that this could be the reason that Niépce’s View from the window at Le Gras is so underwhelming for such a technological achievement: precisely because it is a photograph. In the modern world, photographs are seen as cheap – they often take less than a second to create and can easily be replicated. Therefore they are disposable. If the silver plate of View from the Window at Le Gras was lost, Niépce could easily have positioned the camera in the exact same place and taken another photograph with the exact same settings and ended up with largely the same result. Paintings on the other hand, are priceless because they aren’t disposable – months, often years worth of work go into creating a great painting. If a painting were to be lost, it would be virtually impossible to recreate it completely, therefore painting is seen by many as a higher form of art than photography.
Take Edouard Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, for instance. This is an instantly recognisable painting, painted by one of the key figures in the transition from realism to impressionism. But just what is it that makes this painting so special? The immediate thing that strikes you about this painting is the melancholy air conveyed by its model, Suzon, a young woman who worked at the bar of the Folies-Bergère. Her placement by Manet right at the centre of the piece ensures she is the first thing the viewer notices; the second, her facial expression. Her eyes point slightly downward, portraying her as so engrossed in her melancholia that she fails to even engage directly with the viewer. Manet expands on this, depicting Suzon as wearing a locket, a symbol of better times, and through the placement of a bowl of oranges almost directly in front of her (bowls of oranges are used by Manet as symbolic of prostitution in many of his paintings). However, the most important part of this painting is the background. Suzon stands alone in a room full of people, separated by a pane of glass. She is imprisoned behind this bar, and her loneliness is emphasised by her being the only figure in the painting represented outside of this mirror: she is not part of the crowd she craves to join.
It is left ambiguous who the man reflected in the right hand side of the mirror is. Is it Manet, separating himself from his model? Or is it the viewer, a sinister Jack the Ripper lookalike walking up to a lonely girl behind a bar? Through this ambiguity, Manet raises questions on the nature of humanity and the trust we place in appearances. This painting is also important because it expands on the theme of the viewer as subject in the painting, famously depicted in Diego Velázquez’ painting Las Meninas. In this painting, Velázquez explores how others perceive the world they live in. The painting itself is a royal portrait, however none of the figures the eye is drawn to at first glance are remotely royal. The artist is depicted painting on the left hand side, and the group of people on the right are courtiers. It is not until the viewer looks to the background of the painting, to the mirror right at its centre, that they see themselves cast as King and Queen of Spain. Once again, the viewer is forced to question both how they see themselves, and how they are seen by others.
Another way in which it could be argued that painting is a higher form of art than photography is that we are constantly exposed to photographs like nothing else: they pounce at us from advertisements, from television screens, from books, from our phones. Paintings on the other hand are far more exclusive a medium: seeing a famous painting requires the effort of a journey and the possibility of paying for admission to a gallery. They are not only set on a wall; they are set on a pedestal thought to be unachievable by the same medium as the holiday snap and the selfie.
So where does Jeff Wall come into all of this? Wall is a Canadian photographer and art historian born in 1946, known for not only fusing elements of art history and social commentary, but also bridging the gaps of the very natures of painting and photography themselves. It has been argued that his work and contribution to the start of the conceptual photography movement has been a huge contributing factor in the growing dominance of photography over painting in the last few decades.
In an effort to make his photographs as like paintings as possible, Wall does away with the disposability of his images; he doesn’t make any prints, and presents them as huge light boxes, much like the large frames often attributed to famous paintings. Without replicas, and having been presented in this unique way, his photographs have gone on to sell for upwards of $3 million dollars. The absence of prints also makes his work like paintings in that to see them in the flesh, one must go to a gallery: they gain the exclusivity of paintings.
One of the best examples of this fusion can be found in The Storyteller, a photograph that uses classical compositional techniques to provoke discussion on contemporary issues. The photograph itself is about progression of time, and the negative effects it can bring. The title refers to the cultural paradigm of the storyteller, a role that has become obsolete in a world of books and television, and also to the way the painting is meant to be looked at: from left to right. Forests and greenery dominate the left side of the photograph, broken up by the ship-like mass of motorway overpass and concrete that takes up the right hand side of the photograph. However, this serves only as a background to the true subjects of the photograph: the groups of Native Canadians dotted around the picture. As the photograph progresses from left to right and time moves on, the number of people in the groups diminishes, signifying the declining population of Native Canadians in Vancouver. This harks back to the painting from which the photograph borrows some of its compositional elements, Dejeuner sur l’herbe by Manet, which was greeted with shock and distaste when it was first shown to the public. There are parallels to be drawn between the prejudice caused by the naked woman in Manet’s painting daring to look the viewer directly in the eye, and the prejudice experienced by Native Canadians as their population falls.
Described by art critic Jed Perl as Wall’s signature piece, Picture for Women takes the themes offered by Manet in A Bar at the Folies Bergere and expands them for the 20th century. Borrowing its composition from A Bar, Picture for Women presents an image of the relationship between the 20th century artist and his model. Both pieces use the motif of the mirror, but the reasoning is far different in Picture for Women. In this photograph, the viewer sees only the reflection of the artist and his model: they are the ones cut off from the subjects of the painting, much like the experience of watching television.This separation adds a feminist angle to the photograph: the model exists only in a world that Wall has created: is Wall using the situation of a photo shoot to satirise the perceived dependence of women on men? The model doesn’t seem to be complying with the photographer’s demands: is this a symbol for the empowerment of women?
However, the most important part of this photograph is again, placed directly in the centre. If this is a mirror, where is the reflection of the viewer? The replacement of the viewer with a camera is a play on Velazquez’ changing of perspective: during a trip to Europe in 1977, Wall’s observations of paintings by Velazquez and Goya led him to the conclusion that the prevalence of photography and film has changed the way in which we as a species see the world, and therefore the artist will never be able to create paintings like the great artists again. With this in mind, it completely makes sense why Wall has replaced the reflection of the viewer with the camera: because we now see the world as a camera sees it, not how people who lived pre-photography saw it. Wall raises an ironic point on our species’ artistic regression at the hands of the photograph, through the use of the a photograph.
So where does that leave us? Photography is a medium that develops by the day: compared to painting, it is still in its infancy. It cannot be denied that whilst it may not be seen as some as the highest form of art, it is swiftly becoming the most popular, opening the door for contemporary phenomena such as the rise of video art and media installations. Having been proved as a viable medium for social commentary and continuation of the themes prevalent throughout art history, photography has become a very exciting medium. Whereas almost all of the conceivable movements of painting have been exhausted over the past thousands of years, and the idea that painting is redundant now that technology has changed our world-view so much (and how we see painting), the rise of digital manipulation has taught us that there is still so much more about photography that we are yet to learn. Photography is here, and it is here to stay.