Oliver Dorrell. Painting MA. Unit One ContextualPractice Essay.
Can Painting Be Comparable To Photojournalism?
The following is taken from my travel diary and records a conversation between me and a Dagestani photographer called Shamil that took place whilst driving through the mountains of Dagestan on Christmas Day 2017
Me:Why were the graves stones in that last village shaped almost like ancient battleaxes? In that other
villagethey looked like bottleswith books balanced on top looking out over the valley.
Shamil:Every village has it’s own style; I think the flat book tops are to keep the rain off the graves.
Are you on Instagram?
Me:Yes @boring_holiday_snaps. And what are those bits of plastic and clothes tied on to
tree branches. They seem to be around graveyards?
Shamil:It’s a tradition from the old times, before Islam... 2 years ago! You haven’t added any photos in 2 years!
Me:I like to sketch nowadays; it’s better forpainting. I’m also trying to research how painting
compares to photojournalism in regards to conveying a culture, a sense of place, a people. A
Shamil:Truth in painting? I don’t really know but I do know photography can be misleading. I’ve been reading an article that is part of a book called Believing is Seeingby the documentary filmmaker Erroll Morris. It is about two versions of a famous, early war photograph entitled ‘The valley of the shadow of death’(fig 1 Bottom) by Roger Fenton taken in 1855 during the Crimean war. The celebrated version shows a road running through a shallow valley. The road is covered with canon balls. The other version (fig 1 Top) is the exact same view but with no canon balls on the road, only in the ditch beside. Morris had read about the two photographs in Susan Sontag’s book, Regarding The Pain Of Others. He takes issue with her assumption that the Photograph withoutcanon balls on the road was obviously taken first making the famous version withcannon balls on the road a ‘staged’ photograph meaning Fenton deliberately altered the landscape for the second exposureby 'scattering' the canon balls on the road(Morris, 2007).
Me:Andsheonly had the two photographs to go on?
Shamil:Right. Morris then goes to extraordinary lengths to discover the truth of Sontag’s assumption and concludes that she was in fact right. (Morris, 2007) Sontag’s notes previously in her book that we are prone to see photographs as ‘evidence’ or a ‘documentation’ of an event stating ‘we are all literalists when it come to photography’ and so can be easily mislead by a photo (Sontag, 2003). Morris is more interested, once he has established which photo came first, in the ghostly evocation of the action of Fenton ‘scattering’ of the canon balls between the two exposures.
For me, the interest lies in the way that the staged photo is more effective in echoing the human tragedy of the war than the non-staged one. Sontag describes the scene as ‘a portrait of absence, of death without the dead’ (Sontag 2003)
Me:Wow, yes, the staging by Fenton could almost be seen as a painterly action or, at least, vision.
Me:When I first saw the Fenton photograph, I was immediately reminded of the British landscape artist Paul Nash. Nash, like Fenton, was commissioned by the British government to produce images of war, Nash serving as a war artist in both the First andSecond World Wars. The subtle surrealism of Nash’s interwar paintings such as Nocturnal Landscape, 1938 perhaps bear the most outward appearance to Fenton’s photograph though it is his war paintings that are really striking in their similarity and effect.Totes Meer (Dead Sea),1940-41 (Fig 2) depicts a wreckage dump of German aircraft amid the peaceful English countryside, lit up in a ghostly pallor of a waning crescent moon. Nash had taken the image from drawings and photographs of such a dump he had seen in Oxfordshire (Grant, 2003). Roger Cardinal describes the painting as ‘a life less metallic sea, a displaced arena of death set amid an otherwise pastoral English setting’ (Cardinal, 1989). It is one of the artist’s most powerful depictions of war.
Like Fenton, Nash shows a complete absenceoflife, just the wreckages and spent metal, an aftermath. Anthony Bertram puts it best in his book Paul Nash, Portrait of an Artist.‘...in Nash’s most desolate landscapes we are…made tragically aware of man by the mark of his passage, his terrible footprint’ (Bertram, 1955). This quotation, interestingly, could equally well describe the Fenton Photo.
Shamil:You should read Camera Lucidaby Roland Barthes. You may be able to apply his way of thinking about photography to painting. In the book Barthes establishes two elements that make a good photograph for him. The first element is what he calls studium. It is the general interest of the photo; it’s historical or cultural setting for example. The studiumrelies on the viewer of the photo to have a prior general knowledge or interest in order to instantly recognize the type of scene the photograph depicts (Barthes,1980). This is an early war photograph, for example or that is a mountain village in Dagestan. Orientalist painters like you might use the studiumof a photo depicting ethnic clothes for details in your paintings...
Me:What? I’m not an orientalist! But I get your point. Interestingly, by 1839, less than three months after the first photographic processes were revealed, two orientalist painters were photographing scenes in Egypt instead of sketching (Scharf 1968).
Shamil:Interesting. Barthes’s second element is the punctum. This is something that ‘will break (or punctuate) the studium…itis the element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me…this second element will disturb the studium’ (Barthes, 1980). So the studiumof the Fenton photograph for me is it’s age, it’s place at the beginnings of photography. The punctum, on reflection, (and any golfer would tell you this) is that rolling of flying canon balls would never come to a stand still on the higher level of the road. They would end up in the ditch. The scene is therefor uneasy to look at; it somehow looks wrong. The second, more powerful punctumsoon follows when we realize the horror that must have come before.
Me:And the stadium of Nash’s Dead Sea painting is that is that Nash was commissioned as a war artist, for propaganda, and the punctumis that is the tragedy of war that is evoked. Or is the stadium the English pastoral setting and the punctumthe invasion of the twisted German metal that Nash has placed there? Or is the Germen wreckage the studiumand the grim and silent sea that it has turned into the punctum? There is perhaps another way of looking at it.
Me:In Professor David Ferris’s lecture ‘Why Painting Matters’ he talks about the painter Francis Bacon’s relationship to Photography. Bacon has said he has ‘always been haunted’ by photographs and that this haunting is due to ‘their slight removal from fact’. What he means is that photographs do not quite show things as they really are, ‘not exactly that indexical that is an image of a fact (Ferris, 2007). Robert Storr also eludes to a similar quality of photography in that ‘the photograph’s static quality is always at odds with the fact-actual or potential-of movement’ (Storr, 2003) while Barthes talks of ‘death is the eidos –the essential form- of photography’ the ‘that-has-been’ (Barthes,1980)Bacon’s response to this element of photography is to take the image he wants out of context, to ‘isolate the image much further, to take it very much away from the photograph’. The heads of many of Bacon’s portraits are ‘isolated’ from all perspective. His screaming popes, scream in silence(all the more violently as they are 'out of context'), they reference Sergei Eisenstein’s close up cut away from his silent film ‘Battleship Potemkin’ depicting a screaming woman (Ferris, 2007).
Shamil:Are you saying that the emotional force of Fenton’s canon balls derive from them being moved by Fenton, slightly 'out of context', closer towards Bacon’s ‘fact’?
Me:Possibly. Perhaps it is more relevant for Nash’s Dead Sea painting. The punctumlies in the wreckage of the aircraft being 'out of context', not only to the surrounding landscape, but also to the sea that they have become and the propaganda that commissioned the painting. Like Bacon’s portraits, we are shown this wreckage, or maybe even the war, as it really was, the truthful account.
Fig 1.Valley of the Shadow of Death. R. Fenton 1855.
The top view shows road withoutcanon balls, the bottom view shows the road withcanon balls.
Fig 2. Totes Meer (Dead Sea)Paul Nash. 0il on Canvas. 1940-41.
Barthes, R.1980. Camera Lucida, translated R. Howard. London: Vintage. pp 25-27, 76-77
Bertrum, A. 1955. Paul Nash. Portrait of an Artist. London: Faber and Faber. page 99
Cardinal, R 1989. The Landscape Vision of Paul Nash.London: Reakiton Books. pp. 94-103
Ferris, D 2007. Why Painting Matters. available at http://www.lse.ac.uk/website-archive/newsAndMedia/videoAndAudio/channels/publicLecturesAndEvents/player.aspx?id=1836
Grant, S. 2003. Paul Nash: War Artist, Landscape Painter. In J. Montagu. ed 1 Paul Nash: Modern Artist, Ancient Landscape. First edition. London: Tate Publishing. page 46
Morris, E. 2007. New York Times online. Which Came First, The Chicken Or The Egg? Part one, Two and Three. Available at : https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/09/25/which-came-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg-part-one/
Scarf, A. 1968. Art and Photography. London: The Penguin Press pp 54-55
Sontag, S. 2003. Regarding the Pain of Others. London: Penguin Group. pp. 42-46
Storr, R 2003. October 18, 1977. Moma. ed 1. Gerhard Richter: Doubt and Belief in Painting. New York. Moma. pp 241-242