Monday, October 31, 2011

Why I Tend To Avoid Photography When I Make Art

I was sitting at a cafe with my Dad, who had been mulling over a project I'm preparing for next year as artist in residence at the Museum of the Riverina.  I'll be producing an identikit of people in the Riverina area who visit the museum as part of a ongoing investigation into portraiture.  My Dad had been thinking about whether it would be useful to take photographs of people's facial features as a means to collect the variation of people's visual identities.  I knew I didn't want to involve photography in the production of the work, but I wasn't sure why.

I've worked in several projects which involve drawing from life as a means to study and record a visual likeness of something to be then re-used and incorporated into a larger body of work.  Many people have asked why I produce drawing studies and not photographic studies.

This has turned into a critical crisis within my work - it lingers as an aspect of my practice, unjustified or unexplained beyond the fact that I just like to draw rather than take photographs.  So I thought I ought to probe the issue a little more to see what my motivating force for the drawing was at the expense of photography.  I wrote the following:

Photography is ubiquitous.  Therefore I don't want to produce more of it, there is little I can contribute to the aesthetics of photography, particularly because I am untrained in it.

I am trained in drawing.  Drawing incorporates for me a union between my thought and movement, recording my response to what and how I see.

I am interested in using art to understand the world.  By taking a photograph the visual field becomes encoded on a medium that is outside of myself and depends on the parameters set by its manufacturer.  The camera is not only a different medium to drawing and painting but every camera has its own technical features and quirks that to study a subject with a camera, the subject is further alienated from me by the details of the lens chosen as well as details of apertures, focal points and depths of field.

To use drawing as a tool for study, understanding the subject occurs during the process of drawing.  Using photography to study, the understanding of the subject occurs upon looking at the photograph - thus the knowledge is encoded into a linguistic system reshaping the information which I reference.

To use a camera means that I would cease to be studying the subject and instead would study the photograph of a subject biased by all my expectations around seeing photographs.

Drawing on the other hand records two things:
  1. How I see
  2. How I draw
The choice is then made about whether the drawing reflects what or how I see.  Therefore every drawing if edited sufficiently will, as a process, show my understanding of a subject while at the same time show how I came to that understanding of a subject.

I also thought I ought to go beyond me, that I ought to look at some writing about drawing and photography.  I made some interesting discoveries in John Berger's Selected Essays.

In Berger's Essay Drawing (1958, p10-14) he describes drawing as a process of visual dissection,an autobiographical record (10).  Where as painting is about replicating a visual experience, drawing is an act of studying it.

"But Nevertheless the fundamental distinction is in the working of the artists'mind.  A drawing is essentially a private work, related only to the artist's own needs." (11)

For Berger drawing is a process of recognizing and feeling the subject,(13) through scrutiny seeing the shapes, the rhythm and visual form of the subject rather than simply identifying what it is.(14)

The photograph on the other hand as Berger writes in The Uses of Photography (1978, p286-293) is to document for testimonial.  The photograph has been considered the arbiter of objective truth since the mid 20th Century.(286)  The photograph is a trace of the real - it does not replace drawing or painting but replaces memory, prolonging the moment as a trace to be referred back to.(287).  According to Berger, photography is a tool for capitalism providing spectacle for the masses and surveillance for the ruling class.(290)

In Drawn to That Moment (1976, p419-423) Berger distinguishes between drawing, painting and photography:

"The drawn image contains the experience of looking.  A photograph is evidence of an encounter between event and photographer.  A drawing slowly questions an event's appearance and in doing so reminds us that appearances are always a construction within history.  (Our aspiration towards objectivity can only proceed from the admission of subjectivity.)  We use photographs by taking them with us, in our lives, our arguments, our memories; it is we who move them.  Whereas a drawing or painting forces us to stop and enter its time.  A photograph is static because it has stopped time.  A drawing or painting is static because it encompasses time."

When I draw, I want to produce a raw document of my engagement with the subject.  I want to study it, to make sure I've seen as much of it as is necessary for the purposes of the engagement.  But this is only one of three types of drawing that Berger mentions.  In Drawing on Paper (1987, p559-564), Berger discusses:  The study, the sketch, and the memory.  The study is the visual dissection, the sketch is a visual invention and the memory is the depiction of a memory made tangible.

However I have not abandoned photography completely. I continue to use it as a documenting tool for exhibitions, digitizing drawings documenting them in space as proof that the works exist and have been completed.  These are administrative processes which do not bleed into the artistic work.

Drawing is a tool which requires a pencil and a piece of paper.  It depends on the relationship between my body, imagination and perception and the subject which is either scrutinized, recollected or invented in the process, by my whole self - body and mind, through a series of moments, gestures and gazes until judged to be sufficient.  There is little place for photography in the production of my art when considering the opportunities drawing provides.  This is why I tend to avoid photography when I make art.

Berger, John.  Selected Essays, edited by Geoff Dyer.  New York, USA:  Vintage Books, 2001.

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