Recently I've begun writing posts for the blog over at PhoPa Gallery, a photography and print gallery near the brewery end of town (that's not the only reason I go there...). After writing about their historic processes show, I've been thinking about photography as a fine art form. I've also been working for Joshua Langstaff's atelier classes for well over a year now, enjoying a lot of insight into classic painting strategies. The commitment to quality of medium and technical skill inherent in the atelier program has taught me about technical aspects of painting I've had little exposure to.
Through finely honed powers of eavesdropping I hear about different ways to thin paint, the origins of different pigments and canvasses. Langstaff has an incredible wealth of knowledge on the subject, and is more than willing to answer questions. He's very dedicated to going about painting in the "proper" way to get the highest level of purity out of the pigments, prepare them for varnishing and make sure they last. It's incredibly scientific; Langstaff's dedication to natural materials showcases the versatility of our planet's resources and the ingenuity of those who developed the technique.
As I wrote on their blog, PhoPa's Salt, Silver and Sun serves a similar purpose on the photography front. I knew the pioneers of photography had developed many different ways to capture an image on light-sensitive material, but the only photographic process I understood in depth was the classic silver gelatin. Researching other, older, forms of photography made me think more about parallels and tensions between contemporary fine art photographers and the resurgence of classical realism purported by the atelier program, quickly increasing in prominence and popularity.
Painting is a universally accepted fine art form, from Estes' photorealism to the orderly color arrangement of Mondrian. The rise of atelier-level realism brings awareness to what, for a long time, was a primary goal of painting; that is, depicting reality in visually accurate fashion. The Dutch especially are known for rendering texture in ways I find breathtakingly beautiful (where I get my love of still life). Many artists' talents for naturalism were put into portraiture, documenting clothing, decor, and faces of the age. The demand for accurate representation continued to increase. The camera obscura allowed an artist to project real-world images onto walls to be traced and painted, and scientists and artists began attempts to capture the image itself.
They managed to capture it, on silver and tin, paper and glass. I would never claim photography completely freed painting from a commitment to realism, but the medium could claim relative ease and lesser expense compared to traditional portrait painting. Photography quickly became the most popular choice for capturing likenesses and moments. Painting moved to fiction and fable, developing to abstraction and avant-garde in the 20th century. Painted portraits were generally reserved for those who could afford them, and the two media seemed to diverge, one relegated to the bourgeoisie, the other granting a new accessibility to a rising proletariat.
Of course, technology has changed significantly since the birth of photography. Silver gelatin printing is now considered somewhat antiquated, and smartphones allow us to take and share photos within seconds of seeing something remotely interesting (or not). Digital technology lowers the stakes in photography, to where we can focus on simply communicating information or experiences through images. Apps such as Instagram, Tumblr and other image share platforms give "laypeople" the power to further explore the expressive side of imagery. The show at PhoPa suggests that this digital revolution has opened the world of the physical photograph to develop primarily as an art form, as painting once did. Freed from an obligation to documenting reality, photographers delve into the chemistry of photography for new takes on visual communication. The look of fine art photography and classical realism may diverge, yet both disciplines involve a tireless dedication to the intricacies of their chosen craft.