There has been revived an argument against the use of photography as work product in the production of traditional figurative painting and drawing.
This revival is in part the result of the recent dissemination of the ideas of British artist David Hockney, in his book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters. The book follows an article in the New Yorker, by Lawrence Weschler, that created some controversy among artists and art historians, and a 75 minute BBC production. Hockney argues that many of the old masters used the camera obscura and the camera lucida as a means of developing realist paintings.
Hockney’s claims drew an immediate protest from artist Gary Faigin, in an unpublished letter, and in an article by a “protege of Phillip Pearlstein” in the conservative American Arts Quarterly. More fuel for the fire can be found at http://webexhibits.org/hockneyoptics/post/opinions.html.
The principal objection seems to be that the artists that Hockney claims to have used these devices were such great draftsmen that they did not need such crutches. There has long been a consensus among historians that Vermeer used a camera obscura as a component of a painting’s preparation. Consequently not much is said about this old master by the naysayers. But let’s examine the claim with regard to some artists that are closer historically to the present, and about whom the record is less ambiguous.
We know from their writings that both Delacroix and Thomas Eakins openly advocated the use of photographs as an adjunct and supplement to painting practice. I doubt that any of the objectors would denigrate the capabilities of these two masters. We also know, from the evidence found amongst their effects, that Sargent, Degas, Naturalist painters such as Dagnan-Bouveret and Meunier, and many, many others used photographs. This list should also include artists like William Powell Frith, who spoke adamantly against the use of photographs, but whose estate revealed many such that were used in the production of “Derby Day” and other paintings.
And where would Meissonier have been without Muybridge? It was Muybridge’s pioneering work that taught this painter of military subjects to correctly depict a horse at full gallop.
Another argument seems to be that the camera provides but a shadow of the living breathing subject. I know of few artists that would argue against this, (the same could be said about painting itself; how many labored and lifeless, stiffly posed figures in studios have we encountered amongst the modern masters?) Artist’s who use photographs as part of their work product are well aware of the limitations of the photographic image and the apparatus associated with it. The true artist does not slavishly copy the photograph. Sir Albert Moore was known to have drawn, photographed and sculpted his subjects in wax before embarking on the final oversized painting.
There are many ways to use photographs. Most have been tried, and continue to be used by artists. Frederick Edwin Church would photograph landscape subjects, and then paint directly over the photographs in preparation for his large landscapes like The Heart of the Andes. These studies served their purpose, as did his many other studies in pencil and charcoal.
There is no need to fetishize the genius of the artist, or the subject that serves as model for his art. Art is artifice, and photography and similar optical devices share the same conceptual model as traditional realist painting, as do such devices as the perspectival grid and the sight-size method. Painting is as much about representing as it is about looking, and optics can well aid a painter in the study of his subject and the conventions necessary to its depiction.