Every so often one hears people admit to have taken on photography because they couldn't paint. In this they reveal not to have understood neither photography nor painting. Unsurprisingly these characters indulge in fruitless pictorialism, or cliché’ realism, and produce work of little if any interest. This could be left unchecked, were it not for the presumptuous and polluting airs that these same authors happen to take on, to the extent that their admission becomes not so much a self deprecatory confession of weakness but a proud mission statement delivered as if it were a brilliant find. Well, it isn't.
Even though the camera can be used in such a way as to produce photographs that remind one strongly of visual formulas and effects typical of painting, it inherently lacks the direct intervention of the human hand applying the paint. Realistic as it may seem, a painting derives from an observation from a keen eye, a mental elaboration of the visual, paint and a canvas, and the skilful application of one on the other by a trained and sensible hand. This neurological connection between brains and hand results not only in an image, but also in a work of art if done by a talented person on a good day. A painting inescapably carries the trait of the maker. So photography is hopelessly handicapped if it is to be used merely as a recorder of picturesque themes, and needs quite a different approach, mindful of its peculiar phenomenology, in order to produce interesting or indeed artistic results.
Let us compare four images of a well-known personality: His Sanctity the Pope. One was made by Diego Velazquez and is a portrait of Pope Innocent X, one by Francis Bacon as a reinterpretation, and the other two are photographs - by two deservedly anonymous Vatican photographers - of respectively John XXIII and Benedict XVI.
It is immediately evident that Velazquez brushes are not only capable of realistic likeness but of great psychological insight, not to mention the strength and beauty of the whole image. It is expressive and powerful within the constraints of the times and conventions that dictated the brief to a painter of the age (1650). The photographs of John and Benedict are merely popular icons, barely adequate to depict all the superficial gilded glory of the papacy to the visually uncritical faithful masses but devoid of any depth and character. What Bacon does on the second painting is bring all the contained emotional power of Velazquez’s portrait to explode on the canvas. Something that he could afford to do some 300+ years later without having to fear the trials of the Inquisition (it is my educated guess that Francis would have been bonfire material had he been born in the wrong century) and not having been directly commissioned by the Vatican. In so doing he is successful in producing a great work of art, while the two photographers are left miserably wanting in their formally static and prudent approach.
It is perhaps telling (banish the thought that I would criticize the Vatican's modern iconography, but still) that a quick search on the web did not produce any photograph of the Pope that was truly artistic, in order to corroborate my theory as to the right way of going about it with a camera. But I did find quite a few of his Sanctity the Dalai Lama, of which I would like to show two notable examples made by an author who needs little introduction: Cartier Bresson.
So here you have it. Poignantly Bresson's example almost fits the mould of Velazquez's set up, the seated Sanctity, and has the same depth in psychology plus some of the dynamic strength of Bacon. It is the snapshot of a master, its slightly off balance composition that only makes it stronger and spontaneous. It rings authentic, every detail telling. Whether this work can be considered art as a painting is, seems to me completely irrelevant. The image is great anyhow.
In a time when many issues around photography are clouded even further by the relative ease of digital retouching, that often turns a photograph into a photo realistic illustration, it may be important to reflect humbly on the importance of a honest photograph. Meaning one that doesn't seek to attain any importance by trying to be anything else than what it is. If it looks like a painting, it probably looks like a bad one.
Of course a straight and simple approach to photography is not a guarantee of truth or art. I’d like to close with an example of how photographs can be deceiving, providing a slice of frozen time that is typically a photographic effect, but neither necessarily telling nor true.