In 1856, Théophile Gautier praised photography and how it enabled artists such as Jean-Léon Gérôme to paint Orientalist images that had an absolute fidelity to real life. Gérôme and Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi (who would later design the Statue of Liberty) had recently returned from a voyage to the Middle East with over a hundred photographs, and Gautier assumed – as you or I might – that Gérôme’s highly detailed, highly finished works represented the reality of life in the Middle East. But the relationship between Gérôme’s photographs and his paintings isn’t quite so simple. Gérôme was one of the first artists to use photographic references as a tool to construct seemingly real scenes from his imagination, and was also one of the first artists whose use of photography was misunderstood. These two traditions started almost from photography’s invention in the 1830s and continue today.
Gérôme based his image of a horse dealer in Cairo on a photograph of building in Al Mukha in Yemen that Bartholdi had taken (Gérôme himself never went to Yemen). In other words, this painting is designed to deceive. This scene never happened – the image is a depiction of what Gérôme felt Cairo ought to have been like, rather than the apparently disappointing reality he had witnessed.
Let’s take a look at a few more examples. When Alphonse Mucha, the Czech artist, painted his ‘Slav Epic’ cycle of paintings, he too used copious reference photos. Mucha’s The Celebration of Svantovít is clearly an invented composition, with floating gods doing battle in the sky with enemy warriors led by wolves.
By comparing photographs found after Mucha’s death with the characters in the final painting it’s clear that Mucha based the image – at least in part – on the photographs. But it’s also clear – as with Gérôme’s painting – that the painting isn’t a literal copy of the photographs. Gérôme has painted the feet and adjusted the drapery and hair to give the illusion of flying and, of course, the painting is in colour.
Joaquín Sorolla is another artist who probably used photography as a tool:
Again, these aren’t literal copies: they are re-interpretations in which Sorolla has altered the composition, pushed the gesture and chosen the colours to create the image that he wanted.
In the middle of the twentieth century it was common practice for commercial illustrators to use photography when constructing painted images. Norman Rockwell would always start by getting an idea (he claimed he always started by drawing a lamp post) and would then come up with a series of loose sketches before finally settling on a rough composition. Then he would find models and props, pose them, photograph them, make a series of sketches and finally complete the drawing.
To create this image, Rockwell arranged the cast and props and, with a photographer, took over 70 photographs. But the image is – yet again – not a direct copy of the photographs. The figures have been slightly caricatured and he has invented the colour scheme. The two kids on the bottom right posed for Rockwell in the studio separately and he exaggerated the gawkiness of the woman on the bike by stretching her limbs and adding stripes to her shorts.
It is clear, then, that photography has historically been an indispensable tool in creating works of art. But it has always been a tool, subservient to the artist and what he or she wanted to do. Artists did not – and do not – begin with the photograph as a starting point: instead they use photography as one step in the process from idea to finished work. To use photography successfully takes great skill and a lot of training.
The human eye and the camera see things very differently. Photography presents a whole lot of issues to the painter, from lens distortions to the full range of printing shortcomings. When printed, photos tend to flatten shadows, alter colours and bleach lights. If you paint by purely copying a photograph then your painting won’t look great – it will look like a photograph, but worse. You need to have a visual idea of what you want to create, and then you can use photographs to help implement that idea. But you can only do that through thousands of hours of practice painting from life. You need to learn how light bounces off different materials, how colours change in the shadows in relation to the light, how to represent volumes turning away from the light, how to paint silk and satin and bronze and stone and skin. That way if you see a white highlight on somebody’s forehead in a photograph, you know you can’t paint that with pure white paint and instead you’ll think of the light’s temperature and maybe you’ll keep the highlight a bit more bleached than you normally would, to keep it as bright as possible, but then compensate with a more chromatic edge so some colour optically bleeds into the light. Sometimes you subtly play with complementary colours or even a combine tints of the three primary ones to give the painted highlights almost a shimmer.
Luca explains how he uses photography in his own work:
When I work, an idea pops into my head, and then I make the picture happen from that idea. To make a picture of a man slaughtering an eel I took hundreds of photographs of fish as reference, but none of them worked. In the end I sculpted my own eel, spray painted it and then took photographs. Sally stood in for the man holding the hatchet. I then worked from that photograph, but interpreted it too. If you look closely you’ll see that the perspective in my painting isn’t photographically accurate. It’s believable, but it’s not actually possible. Also, I couldn’t have invented the details of light and shade purely from my imagination. Sure, I could have got it broadly right, but if you want to paint realistically you can’t expect to be able to guess at the exact patterns that folded drapery makes, for example.
Sally Jane Fuerst, another contemporary artist, agrees:
I almost never work from life. I have an idea, and then I buy or make props and costumes. I then hire a model and take between three and five hundred photographs which I use to construct an original composition based on the best bits of each one. I might use one photograph for the general pose, another for the head, another for the hands and so on. Each photograph is a snapshot in time, but I’m trying to distil those frames into a timeless painting. I find that at the start of a painting I use the photos a lot for reference, but as the painting progresses I start to ignore them. In particular, I don’t paint the colours from the photographs – I use my own experience and instinct to guide me.
Perhaps we should consider artists more as practical problem solvers rather than ineffable, creative geniuses. They have a problem: how to represent their idea of an Egyptian horse market; fishermen landing a catch of tuna; a puppy stopping a big truck in an alley-way; a great heavenly battle; a man slaughtering an eel; a cartoon Maul. They also have a set of constraints: a magazine deadline, the cost of hiring models, their own creative and technical strengths and limitations, and so on. They will use whatever tools they can to solve their creative problems without compromising their principles, and the camera is simply one of those tools.