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Friday, 13 January 2017


But it's not how people see, it's how a lens sees.

Are those not a pair of lenses you see with? Granting the limitations of a small jpeg, Rørbye's painting looks an awful lot like how I see. If my vision resembled the Delacroix work more, I'd promptly make an appointment with my Optometrist. :-)

[No, it looks like the camera lens has taught us to see. We might see like that now. But before the camera showed us how, we would not have seen like that at all. That's why photography seemed so completely strange (as well as wonderful) at first. --Mike]

Well, there are painters like Robye who can make a painting that looks like a photograph, and there are photographers who can produce a print that looks like a painting. I like both kinds, as well as traditional photographs and paintings, if the result is good, whatever that means.

I think it's a simple as the human race needs and is fulfilled by beauty. Whether that's through "how a lens sees", or presented as "impressions" by Van Gogh that touch a part of our hearts or experience, or in another yet equally resonant way "becalmed by Hopper."

"Isn't that great?" Actually, no. The extract turns on the sentence, "It needs only a sense of external reality that is not other to the self but, rather, otherizing." But what is "otherizing"? It is not a word with an accepted meaning (is the author avoiding"alienating"?) but, without defining it, the author then asserts that a range of artists employ it. So vague, so dubious. But then we have,

"Come to think of it, any camera might function as an inanimate avatar of Friedrich—analogous to a brain being invaded wholly, exclusive of thought, by the uncanniness of the not-oneself"

An,"inanimate avatar"? Any metaphor here is already stretched tight but the author speculates it is , "... analogous to a brain being invaded wholly, exclusive of thought, by the uncanniness of the not-oneself." First, does the concept of a brain without thought have any meaning other than an anatomical one? And then this metaphorical concept (a brain exclusive of thought) is, we are to believe, an analogue of that "inanimate avatar" of a painter. Is this great? No, it is nonsense

[I think the worst that can be said is that he uses impressionistic language to express the ineffable. But then, in describing profound feelings or deep thoughts evoked by daubs of paint on canvas and so forth, it's necessary to ascend from the literal. --Mike]

I'm a big fan of Schjeldahl. When I'm reading back issues of The New Yorker, and passing by articles just to keep up, I never skip his.

Here is another good one from last August:

"Seeing an unfamiliar painting by Rembrandt is a life event: fresh data on what it’s like to be human."

I think there is more to the Martinus Rørbye than meets the, ahem, eye. To me it expresses a quality of light, not through the lens of a camera, but through the eye of the painter. This light is rare and worth preserving.

Your comment betrays a Romantic belief in the naturalness of our sight versus the artificiality of the camera. Hence your annoyance with photorealism. This term is actually quite ironic, as it takes the photo as the reality and any attempt to emulate it as a copy. These paintings are as realistic as a photo, which, as we well know, is a cultural construct that we must learn to read in the first place. (Then we forget we have learned, naturalising the process.)

But the painting is not accurate, nor even an attempt to be accurate, I believe. Rather, it might well represents what Jack Chambers termed "perceptual realism". It respects the embedded phenomenology of the painter. Chambers was also a film-maker, and his approach to painting was informed by, and cross-pollinated with, imaging technologies.

In that regard, it is worth recalling how constructed our vision is. The eye presents an image that is upside down with a big black dot in the middle. Cognitive processing is required to make this conform to what we would like to see. The result is "natural", give or take astigmatism, near-sightedness, anisoconia, etc. etc.

Meanwhile, the Delacroix is also "lens vision", in as much as it conforms with the empirical geometric constructions of Alberti, which established Renaissance perspectivism. Now, if you'd presented an Arp....

After reading through that several times trying to figure out what exactly that fellow was jabbering on about, I came to the conclusion that he is obviously a bit off in the head. Nobody in his/her right mind would consider being "stuck" in Butte, Montana---or anywhere in Montana---a bad thing.

[Woody Allen might. I understand he hates leaving New York. --Mike]

Something about that bird cage seems a little off. I think he may have faked a bit of it, since it would spin slightly in the breeze as he was painting. I think what really gives it away as a camera painting is the trimmed off bits on the right. The knob or medallion or whatever that you'd either carefully include or omit if you were painting by eye. Likewise, the perspective is very much a long-normal, the relative size of the ships in the harbor vs. both the entry to the harbor and the foreground flowerpots suggest a narrow-ish angle of view. (55mm-e to 85mm-e, maybe?) If he'd used multiple camera obscura, or even multiple different viewing frames (e.g. a cardboard cutout) you'd see something a little more like what the mind sees. (A bit wider for close things than reality, quite zoomed in for interesting distant objects.

Anyway, the light he captured is really very nice. Exactly the kind of photo I would take, were I there. Painting that without an aid would be a week long exercise in tedium. (I speak from experience as an art major. That is a lot of dull perspective drawing to do with one eye closed. It would be very fast to block most of that in if I was "going from flat".

There are many conditions that have an effect on vision. The image may well be from a Camera Obscura just as it may be a good representation of what the painter viewed with eyes less than perfect. Many eye problems change color and intensity. Then again, maybe the painter sees the world this way even with perfect vision?

Mike, you have been around this block before. Your tastes are certainly not 'romantic'. With good reason too, at this point, the style is overused and extremely popular , especially on social media. The present popularity of romanticism is a question of interest as it may represent the some yearning for the real that the virtual can not fulfill. But that is a separate topic or three. Your preferred style is realism and perhaps modernism. Realists use every technical aspect of their equipment to display the world around them. Bokeh, perspective and COLOR THEORY, tonality et al. are part of the whole that makes the work. I think of a modernist as a pessimistic realist. Often the modernist creates images that have a disturbing quality or comment on life. This can be part and parcel of the technique - since often unusual perspective, hyper-focus or narrow depth of field looks unnatural. Finally we also know that you do not have much respect for the post-modern style like Cindy Lauper no wrong one... Shumer .. no ... Sherman - that's the one!! (Pop culture references also have a disturbing level of popularity on social media.)

I veered off to look at Caspar David Friedrich's work because I didn't recognize the name. I found one of his better known works named "The Tree of Crows" which I have seen before and really like. That prompted a quick tuck and roll into the rabbit hole of art and I ended up at Linden Frederick's site looking at his painting "Porch". I've never seen Frederick's work before and I guess you could call it a fastidious copy of a camera image, but the magical dawn/dusk light he paints is really nice. After years of photography I do appreciate a looser style of painting than I did when I was younger but there are always exceptions.

You need only look closely between the flower pots to see something's afoot.

Just watched the movie Tim's Vermeer which shows the discovery process used to create a reproduction of Vermeer's painting "The Music Lesson" by Tim Jenison.

"No, it looks like the camera lens has taught us to see. We might see like that now. But before the camera showed us how, we would not have seen like that at all."

With all due respect, I disagree. I think you're getting it backwards. The camera obscura (and later the camera) gave artists a chance to create realistic looking representations of the world around them, but before then people could still see reality - they just had no way to create a realistic looking representation of the world.

In other words, a camera obscura might have made possible for an artist to finally put down on paper exactly what he or she was seeing, but people didn't just start seeing flowers or buildings in sharp detail after the advent of photography (or of the camera obscura). It's not like people were seeing blurred, rough "impressions" of the world (as in the Delacroix image) before there was a camera obscura - it is just that they had no way of putting on paper exactly what they were seeing. They've certainly tried - but they lacked the technology.

I'd really like to know how you figured out that this was done with a camera obscura. There are certainly more "accurate" paintings than this one done without a camera obscura (and that continue to be done even today) and that fact that this has so many standard symbols in it that it seems unlikely that he could have assembled them all in front of a camera, and there are an awful lot of parallel lines...but maybe he did, what do I know?

To my eye, the bird cage appears to be levitating right out the window.

Sorry, Mike, I just thought it was a bunch of pretentious twaddle.

Cheers, Geoff

[And I think it's spot on. How can you read art criticism at all? Or do you? Try to read a bit less rigidly; try to not simply dismiss it. --Mike]

[Incidentally, this comment illustrates the difficulty of moderating comments generally. I don't allow people to insult others, or to be insulting generically; but the line between being insulting and just expressing oneself spiritedly is often very fine.

It also depends on who's listening. If Peter Schjeldahl were "in the room" so to speak (i.e., potentially reading TOP and even hypothetically able to see Geoff's comment) then no, this would be unacceptably boorish, and I wouldn't allow it. But he's alive and working all the same.

Also, public figures can be treated more shabbily than private individuals. I would never allow Geoff to say this about another TOP reader, but I've said similar things myself about the pronouncements of, say, George Bush. (The comedian Louis C.K. says we should have elected Hillary Clinton, because an important function of a President is for half the country to endlessly heap sh*t on them, and Trump is hypersensitive to the merest slight whereas Hillary can take it all day and come up grinning as usual.) As a working critic, Schjeldahl is somewhere in the middle between these extremes; surely more apt to be treated impolitely like this than the average citizen, but at the same time, a serious writer and not a politician or a celebrity.

Finally, if I get too fastidious about enforcing ordinary politeness, then I run the risk of censoring people needlessly. Or even of biasing the discussion my own way. Geoff is not alone in our comments in finding nothing of value in the quote I liked. I disagree emphatically, but an excessive strictness in moderation also aligns with enforcing my own opinion in this case, and that wouldn't be good to do either.

Oddly enough, I've found over many years of comment moderation and hundreds of thousands of comments that the simple word "sorry" in a comment telegraphs that the commenter is about to be an ass. It's a trivial sign, but quite a reliable one. Another such sign is a commenter beginning a comment (or an email) with "Mr. Johnston." Although there have been exceptions, those almost never go well; it almost always means I'm in for it. Finally, I've learned to have an extremely low tolerance for the word "silly." Generally, I've found that the use of the word "silly" in any comment very reliably telegraphs that the writer is about to send us sliding down the slippery slope toward mudslinging. Or try, anyway.

Overwhelmingly, TOP enjoys the creme de la creme of Internet commenters--intelligent, well spoken, informed and insightful. I wouldn't think to complain in general. There is still a lot of difficulty in everyday comment moderation nonetheless. --Mike]

Vermeer already used a camera obscura, you can see this obvious lens view in his paintings. And David Hockney wrote a book about this subject.

Learning to see the way lenses project is another tool for cognition and understanding. Is that unnatural? Was learning perspective unnatural?

As for Delacroix, there aren't many painters who can compare, regardless of technique. One of the greatest.

And Friedrich? I remember when he became popular (again) in the '70s and posters of his work began showing up in head shops.

Mike, in this post you write that using a camera obscura "must have been a sensational and cutting edge technique at the time" (1825). The painter David Hockney wrote a book about the use of optical devices in painting, and claims that the use of such devices dates back to at least the Renaissance. It's an interesting read (David Hockney: Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the lost techniques of the Old Masters).

[Right. I have an art degree. As an aid to drawing it might have been common enough, but such exacting Trompe l'oeil of a groundglass image was nevertheless not common in my opinion. --Mike]

Mike: The "rabbit hole" you describe is precisely the type of trap that many large, encyclopedic art museums work so hard to lay for unsuspecting visitors of all ages. Which one-damn-thing will lead people to another? Will looking at Abe Morell's fabulous camera obscura photography lead someone to an interest in a Danish painter who used a camera obscura technique? And could that ultimately lead that same person into contemporary painting when they see David Hockney's treatise on camera obscura?

These are exactly the types of curiosity freight trains that museums try to facilitate with exhibits and other programs. Happy Easter!

There must be some kind of Photoshop filter I can use to add craquelure to my photos . . .

Andrew Molitor makes a very good observation about Frank's photo of the mining town, but in my opinion prefers a picture that could have been that says far less than the one Frank took and printed.

A tighter shot would have focused our attention better on the "action", sure, but at the cost of missing the drama--the "big picture"--of a town laid out like a grubby, subdued congregation before the shining altar of combustion. Or is it a burning bush? Either way, it's a sacramental relationship glimpsed by an outsider from a superior (multiple meanings), concealed and sheltered vantage point (that "otherizing" character of Romanticism).

The plume is indeed a key point of visual interest, but the subject of the story is the town and its unseen denizens. The curtains--obscuring, revealing, guiding, both intimate and distancing--are vital to the telling, not mere compensation for a too-wide angle of view. I won't belabor their multiple visual and psychological functions; Schjeldahl mentions just one.

One isn't meant to see the plume right away, at least not before one has seen its effect over land and people and grasped, consciously or not, our point of view.

Those curtains, by the way, are the least beautiful lace curtains I've ever seen, but they are just vague/distinct enough to evoke the *idea* of beautiful lace curtains.

Peter Galassi, in his fascinating book, "Before Photography," argues that painters were already using key visual strategies characteristic of photography before photography was even invented. In other words, pictures "caught by the eye rather than composed by the mind" were already a feature of painting's internal evolution. His argument places the rise of photography in the context of art history and aesthetics rather than just the availability of a new technology.

Ha, ha -- fair response, Mike. You are no doubt right about the "sorry", but in my case, I suspect it is more a matter of me thinking in the local creole, Tok Pisin, because I use it most of the time, and "sori" = "sorry" but more, pops up all the time.

I find a lot of art criticism and discussion pretentious -- the critics use words, including made up words, to say things that are quite normal and quite normally and effectively communicated. They get to be like the Red Queen for whom words meant what she meant them to mean. Communication is when others understand what you mean.

But they have the problem that they are talking about things that are better expressed in other ways, in art.

Picasso said: "There are a lot of fake Picassos out there including some I did myself" (or words like that -- the old memory is developing holes!). In other words, there were times when he ripped himself off for an image to sell for lunch money. But I have never seen an art critic call that. I love Picasso's work, by the way.

Let me tell you this. Back in the day I went to the first exhibition of beaten copper by a New Guinea Highlands artist who had transitioned some traditional approaches to that form which was totally new to him and the country, and it was new to me too. I walked in the door and was confronted by an image that nailed me to the spot. I stood there unable to draw breath, with tears streaming down by face, totally overcome. By what? I don't know. Some of the other images were very good, I admired them, but that one spoke to my deepest emotions. There is no way to put that into words. And there's the rub -- words are not well adapted to expressing a lot of things, that's why we have art, and that's why criticism that tries to describe in words what the artist did in his picture or whatever, tends to fail.

For me, at any rate.

Cheers, Geoff

Mr Johnston, I'm sorry but it would be silly to suggest you're anything other than a first rate writer and moderator. So there.

When a student of technical drawing and then Architecture in perspective drawing the establishment of vanishing points was critical. Alas I fear that the artist's camera was obscured because those points have vanished.

Andrew Molitor's comment - on the main discussion page - about Robert Frank's photo of the view through the curtained window "..The white-engulfed headframe in the distance is the beating heart of the picture, even so small.." made me think instantly of "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus" by Pieter Brueghel the Elder.


[If you're wondering, the legs of Icarus can be seen in the water just below the ship's stern. --MJ]

I like the idea of photography having changed the way we see. I think it has merit, and would be fascinating to explore further.

For me a dead giveaway that this painting is a copy of an image in a camera obscura is that, similar to a tracing, it lacks the fluidity of line you'd see in a freehand painting.

A better artist might have been able to pull it off. I'm still not convinced of the Vermeer camera obscura hypothesis, precisely because he was a better artist, his line being nothing if not fluid.

Mike, you didn't fully explain why the painting by Martinus Rørbye annoys you.

Perhaps the painter didn't like to spend his time getting the perspective bits of an image looking just right; he'd rather jump to the parts involving colour and tone. Using a camera obscura was a convenient tool to provide such a short-cut.

In a similar manner, some photographer's like to skip the colour aspects of a scene and shoot in B&W. Or some photographer's prefer shooting with a shallow depth of field to simply the composition.

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