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Painting, Seeing, Printing

Any fool can make a rule, and any fool will mind it.



A foolish man is always doing, Yet much remains to be done.




By creating the picture completely from a blank canvas, the painter can bring richness and life to it wholly by ‘treatment.’ Rembrandt could paint a hand with a few flicks of the brush – astonishing; Vermeer made a chair or an eye compellingly ‘real’; Caravaggio had that standard beautiful Renaissance painting technique – “form,” but nearly terrified us in the execution. Good painters astound us by how they paint.


Photographers don’t move us by how they print a negative. Paul Caponigro came closest (or tried the hardest). Maybe. Caponigro also Saw very well and with great imagination. But Caponigro was a once in a lifetime phenomenon. There aren’t many like him. In any event a good photograph is good because the image is seen well, not by how the negative is printed.




Before even attempting to achieve any richness or engrossing interest in the painting, an artist needs to master many things: tonal range, color, rendering texture and surfaces, draftsmanship, line quality, etc. Otherwise painting and drawing become childish dabbling. And sad to say, most artists are engaged in nothing but childish dabbling. An artist needs to master technical basics, and even then, he may paint a landscape ‘properly’ and it might still ‘feel’ emotionally wooden and dead.


A pianist needs to know scales and keys and how to finger the keyboard properly. Learning the correct ‘form’ takes years. Otherwise and obviously, he’s an embarrassingly bad player.


Technically - compared to a painter or a musician - a photographer needs very few things; but he needs them. They’re much easier to get than what a painter or musician needs, but he needs them: a negative that’s easy to print, a sense of tone, decent materials to print with. (That’s child’s play – I can give students a list of 6 items that take an afternoon to learn. No scales, no studying how to draw or to use paint . . . )


Brett Weston said that a camera is a machine just like a violin. That’s ridiculous. A violin is worthless unless you know how to play it. But any idiot can take a picture with any camera (or mobile phone) and claim it’s a work of art. And lots do. That’s insulting.




Unlike a painter, a photographer must See first and foremost. If he cannot see then he cannot photograph. Organizing the elements in the frame is paramount. What you need must be there, and correctly. If it isn’t, nothing that comes later will matter. The picture fails.


The moment of truth for a photographer is this – when she sees. The photographer must control the image but not kill it. There must be a freshness and liveliness and ease; it cannot be fixed and petrified. Look at Strand’s work – cemented in place, immovable, graceless – dead. Look at Charles Pratt: perfectly organized but free, rhythmic, lively – a fresh breeze.


A painting or drawing doesn’t look ‘real.’ But there’s an inherent and domineering optical correctness to a photograph that must be ‘tricked.’ If you don’t trick it, the photograph is commonplace – dull and uninteresting. And you trick it by seeing well - making something appear to be something it isn’t. This is where the skill is, the ‘labor.’ Minor White did this well.


Atget could see better than anyone else. He knew what to look at, and he knew how to organize it.




Does a painter need to see? I’d say understand more than see. You look at hair falling on a shoulder and draw it convincingly. When you paint it, you need to make it hair – the texture, body, color variations. It has to ‘feel’ like hair without question; you must make it gather properly, and it must fall believably downward. And if the painter can do that, quite often she’ll impart that ‘otherness’ – that compelling richness that breaks your heart. And when a painter does that, then you have a real artist. If the composition is a little sloppy, so what? -- it doesn’t matter much if the ability to paint is there.


‘Critics’ and ‘Experts’ err when they say that Andrew Wyeth was a master of composition. He sometimes put elements in the pictures that didn’t need to be there – they’re superfluous: Karl Kuerner dead under the melting snow, the skeleton looking out the window, the early nightmare painting. But – look at Winter Bees or Snow Flurries; there’s very little in there, and no composition to speak of. But it’s irrelevant; the paintings don’t need it. Brown Swiss is an awkward, unbalanced composition that’s painted well; remove the teeter-totter look and it would be much better. That doesn’t matter either.




Upwards of 95% of those who attempt to ‘photograph seriously’ make a fatal error: failing to ‘trick’ that photographic optical correctness. With no imagination and no seeing, their photographs possess no strange, alluring quality; no ‘otherness.’ The pictures become commonplace, uninteresting; a mere record of what was there. They are “optically straightjacketed” into the familiar. Lots of Weston’s Guggenheim and Whitman pictures are like this.




Printing in photography. Say what you will about Andrew Wyeth, he always knew when a painting was finished. One reason he was a master of watercolor was simply because he always knew when to stop. So his work has a freshness to it . . .


Photographers aren’t painters, but most could take a lesson from Wyeth. Almost always, when printing, once you have the contrast right, and the print is dark or light enough – you’re done. Walter Rosenblum disagreed with this. He said,


It is my belief that there is one definite rule that should be followed in the darkroom. . . one should always exhaust every possibility in terms of paper, developers, and exposure in order to produce a fine print.


Rubbish. Photographers don’t need to labor endlessly to make a good print. Those who never learned how to draw or paint make the mistake of thinking that printing a negative is akin to painting. It isn’t. A painter often must work hard to make the hair feel like hair, or to make water wet, or skin soft, or boulders hard and rough; however long it takes. Photographs do that automatically. The correctness is inherent. Trying to enhance the correctness in a photograph is pointless.


A photographer that hasn’t seen well cannot salvage an uninteresting picture by labored printing. Rosenblum may have made some good pictures, but he confused photography with painting. And he wasn’t Caponigro either.


Ansel Adams also made this mistake. Late in life almost everything he printed was overdone – too contrasty, too obviously manipulated, and too big - the equivalent of constantly playing music at maximum volume. And why did he do it? Probably because gallery owners and collectors like big, noisy prints. Another reason: if you don’t spend hours to print a negative, then how can you be an “master printer”? If you label yourself an “artist,” and you don’t endlessly fuss when you print a negative, then what kind of “artist” are you?


Horowitz said “perfection is imperfection”: that there should always be a little mistake here and there, otherwise everything is the same – “every trill is so perfect but everyone will be bored and go home.” If you hear Horowitz play, and he makes you weep, do you care if he missed a few notes?


A good photograph simply doesn’t need endless printing contrivance. Just like good painters don’t always need perfect composition, good seeing doesn’t require perfect prints. Charles Pratt wasn’t much of a stellar craftsman, Weegee’s prints look harsh and unrefined, and Atget’s prints are all flawed in some way. It’s irrelevant. A photograph seen well doesn’t need perfection. Print it with proper contrast and depth of tone and leave it. That’s good enough. Even good photographs with glaring defects hold up; badly seen ones don’t, not matter how long you spend printing them. A painter would understand this.


Another point is that there’s not much to it. You can easily and quickly learn to make a good negative that’s easy to print. And with a standardized method, you can make very good prints. There’s no great secret to it, no slippery eel to grasp. Seeing the picture? That’s different. That’s what a real photographer does – see well. Good photographs are made by seeing, not printing.




I perhaps owe having become a painter to flowers



Real painters understand with a brush in their hand. 

Berthe Morisot


If you want to be a good photographer, you have to work on your emotions more than your technique.

                                             Paul Caponigro



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