Project Photography: the new reality

Osip Brik’s article Photography versus Painting was written in the 1920s well after photography was invented but at a time when it would have been possible to consider what impact it had had on painting and representational art. Brik’s thesis is that representational painting had been outmoded by photography which is more accurate,  faster and cheaper. He spends some time discussing the issue of colour as it is his view that some painters  believed that the absence of colour from photography is a major weakness in its ability to portray reality. Brik counters this argument with the view that colour in painting is not in fact accurate and is the artist best approximation to reality. Below I set out my response to the article under a series of headings.

Have Brik’s points been taken up by photographers or painters?

Early art photographers made great efforts to emulate painting. They staged photographs. They used soft focus and other effects at the development and printing stages to demonstrate how the photographic medium can be used as a creative artistic tool. In the early 20th century there was a growing sense in Modernist photography that photographic images could be art forms in their own right. Paul Strand was one of the formative photographers working in this manner. Strand experimented with photographic abstractions evolving an aesthetic based on the objective nature of reality .

Wall Street, 1915 by Paul Strand

Strand’s work influenced a later group led by Edward Weston and Ansel Adams – Group f/64. The members of Group f/64 believed ‘that photography, as an art form, must develop along lines defined by the actualities and limitations of the photographic medium, and must always remain independent of ideological conventions of art and aesthetics that are reminiscent of a period and culture antedating the growth of the medium itself’. This quotation from Edward Weston illustrates the views of the Group, ‘The camera should be used for a recording of life, for rendering the very substance and quintessence of the thing itself, whether it be polished steel or palpitating flesh’. It seems to me that Group f/64 were truly operating in the spirit of Brik’s ideas.

As Modernist art photography developed curators such as John Szarkowski at MOMA in New York continued to stress the importance of emphasising ‘photographic’ qualities in photographic art. He championed photographers such as Garry Winogrand and William Eggleston, whose work was based on the camera’s capacity to capture slices of reality in a democratic way. Once again Brik’s idea that the camera has replaced painting in representational art seems to have been central to the thinking.

Throughout the 20th century photography has played a dominant role in the documentary genre. Photojournalism and more recently film documentaries and news have played an important role in the news media. Images have been used to create a sense of authenticity or reality for news stories. With the birth of digital imaging and the internet there has been an exponential explosion in the volume of images in circulation.

In the late 20th century post modernists began to question photography’s capacity to represent reality and Brik’s views on photography began to be challenged.

Resonances with Brik’s ideas in contemporary discussions on photography and painting

There is an ongoing debate about photography and reality. Today there is a broad consensus that photographs do not accurately represent reality. Assuming that they have not been digital altered at best they are a representation of a person or event which has been mediated by a photographer who determines what is included in the frame, the exact timing of the exposure, the viewpoint, the lens used, the lighting conditions etc. It is also now accepted that the context within which the photograph is viewed and the background and disposition of the viewer will both determine how a photograph is read. So when we talk of reality we need to ask the question who’s reality?

Digital enhancement and alteration is now prevalent, particularly in the worlds of advertising and celebrity. Most people these days do not assume that the perfect complexions of the celebrities they see in magazines is anything other than ‘air-brushing’.

The fact is that photographic reality is under question these days. That said photographs in the news media still hold on to an aura of reality. In the case of reliable sources people are still inclined to hang on to old adage that ‘the camera does not lie’.

Paintings influenced by photography

Francis Bacon – Portrait of Pope Innocent X

Francis Bacon made extensive use of photographs as a source of inspiration for his work. He had a particular interest in photographs concerned with movement. He clearly recognised and valued photography’s capacity to freeze motion and thereby allow the viewer to see things which might otherwise go unnoticed. He was particularly interested in the way photography reveals the subtle movements of the human body. Bacon like many modern painters used photography as an encouragement to distort reality or to represent it in purely symbolic terms. But he also studied photographs as a means of gazing at  the real world with greater intensity, which in turn allowed him to represent it with greater emotion and power.

The painting Study after Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X is a good illustration of this. The subject is the pope seated on a throne. His purple cloak and the chair are clearly discernible. The lower half of the figure is incomplete with the pope’s body merging into the background. Very clearly this is not a photographic representation. Nevertheless the influence of photography is strongly present. The most striking element of the painting is the pope’s mouth or more specifically the sense that the pope is screaming.  The influence for this was a photographic still from the Eisenstein movie Battleship Potemkin which shows a nurse screaming after being injured in the eye. By copying the mouth in the photograph Bacon introduced a figurative element which in my view is the most powerful and important motif in the painting.

Study after Velazquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X by Francis Bacon

Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948) Still from ‘The Battleship Potemkin’ (1925)

Gerhard Richter: Woman Descending the Staircase

Gerhard Richter made many black and white paintings which look from a distance just like black and white photographs – so-called photo paintings. On closer inspection the paintings are blurry with the fine detail obscured as would occur when a photograph is poorly focussed or if there is excessive movement.  Richter used black and white  ‘because all the newspapers, the daily diet of photographic material, including television, was black and white, …That’s why it imbued a sense of reality into painting that represented something completely new.’ In essence Richter was trading on the ‘camera does not lie’ adage. In practice his paintings are deliberately made blurry. From a distance they look like photographs, but close up much of the detail is obscured and invites the viewer to add their own interpretation to what they are looking at. The painting Woman Descending the Staircase is illustrative of Richter’s Photo Paintings. In this instance the painting also references an earlier painting by Marcel Duchamp Nude Descending a Staircase No.2. The Duchamp painting could be regarded as an illustration of how painters had moved towards more abstract figurative representation in the early 20th century. The work depicts the movement of a woman as she descends the stairs and is influenced by cubist and futurist painting. It is rather ironic that Richter takes this work and represents it in a photographic form using a medium which is not photographic.

Woman Descending the Staircase by Gerhard Richter

Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 by Marcel Duchamp


Schmied, W. (2006) FRANCIS BACON Commitment and Conflict. London:Prestel

Harrison, C. and Wood, P. (eds.) (2002) Art in Theory 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Oxford:Blackwell

Richter, G.Website, 15/11/11