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Art or Artifice?


By Terry Buchanan


The Montréal Review, March 2011


"The Torment" (2009) by Terry Buchanan

Holding his head high in the proud manner of a royal prince, he surveyed those who were set to prosecute him, each one devoid of conscience or guilt. They were no greater or lesser than he, and yet, their determined pursuit of his annihilation was intensified by sacrificial torment. Perhaps life was the true definition of hell, and death, the greater blessing. He blessed them.




It can be suggested that photography is a process of reception and art is a process of transmission.

The ability of the photographer lies not in creating the image in front of the camera but in the creative ability they use in recording it. The perennial question is: can photography be art?

A camera is an instrument that enables exploration and post-event observation, and for artists' a valuable visual study aid in understanding the subject, even though preliminary drawings re-define the proposed structure for the final work. Although it is common practice, where the photographer has control over the subject matter, for them to make initial drawings to aid them in composing the photograph.

In Meaning of Art, 1931, Herbert Read prefaces the first chapter with: "The simple word 'Art' is most usually associated with those arts which we distinguish as 'plastic' or 'visual', but properly speaking it should include the arts of literature and music."

Does that mean that all creative art originates from within the mind of the artist, writer, composer, and in doing so isolates the photographer because the camera image is 'collected' by the camera from an external source.

In comparison with other art forms it could be that the camera is in fact an impediment. If, when you point your finger at an object, a line were taken between that finger and the object it would most likely co-incide. This is co-ordination, an ability inherent in most animal life forms.

Co-ordination is an essence of applied art forms such as painting, printmaking and sculpture.

To accept this you must consider as a fact, that the creation of a work originates in the mind, is transmitted along the arm, to the implement and onto the art object being created. Simplistic, but possible.

The camera does not follow this function because it relies on a disconnected visual process. Whatever the chosen composition or viewpoint, the power always remains within the subject being photographed, not its reproduced image, there is no co-ordinated physical connection.

This does not deny the immense importance in the power of photography, evidenced by the many millions of photographs published each day. Without it we would know far less of the world in which we live. Photography doesn't need to be a medium of art or in competition with art because it has a vital function in the understanding of art, without photography I would not know the difference between a Van Gogh and a Van Dyck, photographic images of their work has enlightened me.

There is a symbiosis between the process of photography and that of fine art. Our global knowledge of art is not because we have seen the original artwork but because we have seen a photographic illustration of it.

"Hollywood" (2009) by Terry Buchanan

From his penthouse suite Bruno looked down on to the tangled web of a city below.

He had conquered it; the highest paid star in Hollywood. But, without her everything was nothing. He was little more than a peanut in a pickle jar.

Photography has been an important part of my three score years and ten. It is my qualification, and absorption. But, I have other interests, in art, painting, printmaking and, if it can be called art according to Herbert Read, writing and poetry. But, it has to be rhyming poetry, not the modern forms. This is because the rhyming is in-built, its musical cadence is part of the fabric of my being. I am a Cockney, from that part of London where rhyming slang was part of the communication between school kids'.

We were war time children who listened to the bomb shelter songs, accompanied by the drone of Luftwaffe bombers, the staccato of anti-aircraft guns and the percussive 'thump' of falling bombs. We then had a vast playground of bomb shattered buildings and bomb-sites on which to extend our imagination into the realm of the cowboy.

The long term reaction to situations of war and conflict in children is a heightened visual awareness, they observe, with caution what is going on around them and pre-empt its dangers.

This is possibly why so many photographers emerged from London's East End in the post-war period. They understood that in whatever form it might masquerade, most of life is a passing tableaux and much of it is out there, on the street.

For a photographer war is a violent and aggressive task master but a brilliant tutor.

As an Army photographer, I soon realised that in any military conflict situation the photographer is presented with the actions and affects of aggression, but one emotion is difficult to capture, fear, because it cannot be precisely placed within the action and affect.

There is a photograph, taken by an anonymous photographer in 1910, of a young woman during the Mexican revolution, in which the photographer appears to have captured the moment of fear. But, has it been artistically altered to give a perception rather than a reality?

In this photograph it is all in the expression of the eyes, symbolically associated with the Hollywood expression, 'don't shoot 'til you see the white of the eyes', because at that moment the fear will show.

I processed some of the work of Larry Burrows when he visited Cyprus during the EOKA conflict, the one thing that appeared to make him stand out, amongst other photographers that I dealt with, was his ability to capture the atmosphere of conflict, which made it more of an experience to the viewer rather than just the record of an event.

The camera records the action and the consequence, as if recording historical evidence, to record the emotion the photographer has to have a sensitivity towards their subject and not be an impartial observer.

With art, the artist can interpret the action as a combined and continuously evolving event, as in Picasso's Guernica, but with an artist who has lost a child in war the art comes as a direct action of emotion. Kathe Kollwitz was an artist who could, with a few lines, depict the affects of grief because she had been affected by it, unfortunately her work was sometimes rejected because Europe was going through political upheaval during the inter-war years.

With the advent of National Socialism, unless art could be used as propaganda it did not fit the political agenda. Kollwitz work appears to be searching for the darkness, an important characteristic of her work is its blackness. Photographers are always searching for the light because that is the principal element of their medium.

The main requirement for the photojournalist is a sense of timing, waiting for the crucial moment when the pinnacle of an action will be reached, pre-empting the moment of exposure.

I do not take photographs that have a pleasing quality in the subject, a sunset landscape or an artistically inclined composition. Although I have immense respect for those such as Ansel Adams who are masters of the film technology, my objective is, in that fraction of a second, to capture what is before me as if making a forensic record from which I, or others, can later extract an evidence of intent. My architectural photography was concerned with the history of a building rather that its pictorial qualities. My photographs needed to be documentary evidence from which historians and academics could define the history and structure of a building, a straight joint between two phases of development or a beam stop could assist in the dating of a structure.

"Horror Story" (2009) by Terry Buchanan

Giant, grotesquely garbed figures, were pressing in on the moving walls of his dungeon cell. The space was getting smaller and he knew that he would soon forcibly emerge: like paste out of a tube. He screamed, but no sound emerged. Then he saw that each face on each figure was his own. This was self torture.

Perhaps the best way to describe a link between photography and art is to outline a project I originated whilst Chief Photographer with the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England.

It was intended to be a sample survey of a selected and widely ranging group of contemporary artists' studios, from which historians could evaluate their working environment un-altered by the photographer.

A major problem is that too often the photographer, on entering the artist's studio wants to become the artist. Camera angles are chosen to produce a more pictorial composition, objects are randomly moved to emphasise to the viewer that this is an artist's studio.

Research will show that accurate photographic records of an artist's studio are rare. We concentrate on the artist as a personality, a celebrity, even though there are many portraits, professional and family, in the archives. Evidence can be extracted from the work itself by scientific analysis. We will know what the palette was and the construction in the under-painting. However, the important evidence of working methods and even the character of the artist is seemingly ignored by disregarding the working environment, the studio, untouched by the photographer and just as the artist left it at the end or beginning of a days work.

"The Sad Tale" (2009) by Terry Buchanan.

For Bernard, the question remained perpetually unanswered. How could he sound the clarion to others so that they could hear the beating of his lonely heart; the metronome of life that timed every living second of his loneliness.

Paula Gillett, Associate Professor of Humanities at San Jose State University, in her book, The Victorian Painters World, New Jersey 1990, writes that Thomas Carlyle's niece remarked on Millais' studio in Palace Gate, "All this from a paint pot".

The studio, forty feet long by twenty-five feet wide and twenty feet high was considered "none too large" by Millais.

Such grand studios in the Victorian manner, including Millais', were illustrated by J. P. Mayall's photographs in Frederick George Stephen's Artists at Home, New York 1884.

Joseph Parkin Mayall (1839-1906) was the second son of John Jabez Edwin Mayall who was an early Daguerreotypist working in the United States in the 1840's, later gaining his reputation from a display of work at the 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition. J. P. Mayall followed the style of his father's photography of famous personages at home, as published in the Illustrated London News.The artists in these photographs are carefully posed in front of an equally carefully arranged background, the photographs show nothing of the working environment that one might expect in an artist's studio. Posed photographs, such as these, form part of the visual record of Victorian artists; today some of the more important studio houses remain but the working information has been removed.

Although archives now collect and preserve relevant material, to have recorded the studio then as being a subject that might have extended the knowledge of the artist today, would have displayed a considerable level of foresight.

In such situations photography was a cumbersome process, highly formal in its approach to the human subject and restricted by the labours needed to overcome the limitations of its technology.

Much of what remains from the Victorian period has been well researched and documented by those such as Jeremy Musson in his, Guide to the Kensington and Campden Hill area, Victorian Society 1991; or can be drawn from The Survey of London, North Kensington Vol. xxxvii.

In the Phaidon Companion to Art and Artists in the British Isles, 1980, Michael Jacobs states that the environment in which the artist lived, "can affect the whole development of his work."

The studio is no less important in showing the technical environment supporting this development. But even here there are differences, by the use of common phraseology within this statement, "his work", the implication could be that the environment is singular and male. Some years after publication such statements are no longer acceptable, but they do illustrate that female art has continually had to re-establish its identity. The history of successive periods has always preferred to view the female contribution to art as less than that from the male and to be subjugated by romance.

A Dictionary of Artists of the English School, Samuel Redgrave 1878, recorded Angelica Kauffman, (1740-1807) as having a "reputation as a painter" and in 1769 she was nominated as one of the foundation members of the Royal Academy.

The reference publication, A Dictionary of Art and Artists, Peter and Linda Murray, Penguin 1959, records that Angelica Kauffmann(sic) (1741(sic)-1807) "became friendly with Reynolds (there were rumours of a romantic attachment) and imitated his style in her portraits." Her work is treated equally dismissively as "rather anaemic little decorative history pieces," although it is recognised that she was a Founder-Member of the R.A. (Royal Academy) in 1768(sic).

I have visited the studios of both male and female artists and there is nothing to distinguish the difference in their approach to professionalism. There is no washing hanging on the line.

A Dictionary of Art and Artists, at its first publication in 1959 did not mention Bridget Riley, an artist who was working as yet un-acclaimed, in its year of revised publication in 1968. Bridget Riley was the first British Artist to win the painting prize of the Venice Biennale, there was still no mention when the publication was reprinted twice in 1971. Obviously such a publication in 1959 could not foresee the explosion of modern art that was to set the age in the 60's and by the start of the 70's be recognised as an element in the new expressive freedom of society.

Much of this modernism had been recorded as social documentary, the personality within its social environment was forming the historical record, little thought was given to the possibility that the icing might not represent the cake and that beneath the public image something was happening that deserved a more informed level of record in which photography could play an important part.

The relationship of - the artist - to the art - to the studio, has a complexity that is not adequately defined for this period, although it was tried with previous schools of art. But even with those schools of art, such as the one at Newlyn in Cornwall, the fragmentation of evidence is there but documentation of it concentrates upon the artist and the relationship of the personalities within the entourage, romanticism is allowed to cover the gaps in knowledge of technical processes and working environment. Some evidence did remain, in particular at Bateman's Meadow, Newlyn, but studios and evidence of their occupation vanish through neglect or alteration. A major problem in making an accurate photographic record, is that on the death of an artist commercial plunder becomes a priority, the history of the artist's studio isn't even on the list and photography of a studio, re-arranged to satisfy editorial demands, might produce a pleasing postcard or two.

The way in which an artist's professional technique was used to support the creativity was given little acknowledgement in the past, they are treated as separate elements, present academic understanding studies the personality through its documents and technique through its artefact, the palette has to be extracted from the work.

The studio environment could give depth to this knowledge, the way we choose to live or work is to some extent a revelation of our character and the materials that we use are there to be examined, the display, providing it is not tampered with, is prime information.

R.H.Wilenski prefaces The Modern Movement in Art, Faber and Faber, 1935revised, by stating "it is widely assumed that all the arts and all forms of each art are the result of the same kind of human activity; or in other words there is one special kind of activity that produces works of art. The nature of that activity has never been finally or satisfactorily defined. I believe that each art and each form of each art is the result of different activity on the part of the artist."

Later, when discussing post-impressionism, he states, "Every original modern artist has, by the fact of his originality, a separate technique."

There could be no greater plea than this for the need to photographically record, in an academically disciplined way, the artist's studio.

"Do I Exist?" (2009) by Terry Buchanan.

It was rapidly approaching, the big day, end of an era, the gold watch, his retirement. For forty years he had subserviently manned the haberdashery; socks, ties, collars, handkerchiefs. Disdainful customers would have had the shirt off of his back if he had turned it for a second. The boring monotony of an uneventful life. Do I exist, he asked himself, as he pinched his ear lobe, seeking reassurance.

Alone or within a community artists have distinctly different working methods and studios are a range of equally different working environments. The art 'commune', such as ACME studios in the East End of London, is a development of the former 'schools' and an experimental initiative in forming an art community. Artists need feedback and active discussion with others as a regenerative process.

Catherine Lampert, in her Foreword to the 1990 Whitechapel Open catalogue, East End Open Studios, suggests that even within a community studio, boundaries exist - "The complementary side to the Open is seen in the artists' controlled spaces of the studios where work is shown in its everyday environment."

The Whitechapel Art Gallery collected some photographic documentation of these estimated 800 artists and it is the galleries who have set themselves the role of archivist although their main activity is to display the work, conservation and record is essentially supportive to this activity. The Tate Gallery photographic archive has an estimated 50,000 photographs in its collection, many of these are of contemporary artists and are directly associated with the art work curated by the Tate. The photographs illustrate formal presentation and finished work, where they are of an informal nature they exist mainly as a photographic print unsupported by the primary source material, the camera made negative.

The St Ives, Cornwall, group of artists are represented amongst this material, Ben Nicholson, Peter Lanyon, Patrick Heron, Barbara Hepworth, Terry Frost, all of these are of particular interest to the development of British Art. One artist, Alfred Wallis, an amateur painter who worked with a naivety of understanding the main principles of art but with a passionate desire to record what he saw, has photographs of him painting at his kitchen table. We can decipher his working method. Why should this be, when the working methods of the professional artist within the environment of the studio, appear neglected.

Photographs of the Cornish artists are usually a singular, or group portrait of a casual nature, enjoying the companionship of their friends, others are by the widely exhibited photographer Roger Mayne, Shell Guide to Devon, London 1975. Photographs by Ida Kar (1908-1974) are in, Portraits of Painters, Sculptors, and Writers, Virago, London 1989.

There are more recent contributions to this collection, and it is evident from this work that the photographer is involved to the extent where they cannot resist giving their own interpretation of the subject to meet the editorial demands of a voracious popular press.

The Tate also had a project to photographically record private view celebrations at other galleries, but this was abandoned because its extent was far greater than imagined.

Records such as these are of undoubted importance and would be made more so if there also existed a factual record of studios, a factual record in which the artist had arranged the work area to suit his daily routine and the photographer was not allowed to re-arrange for the sake of their own artistic expression, the scene is then documented for others to interpret.

In 1993 a record such as this was welcomed by the archivist at the Tate Gallery, the proposal was regarded as being of considerable value especially as it did not conflict with their own collecting policy but would form a source of information, supportive to their collection and to which others could be directed. Those photographic records, produced during the small sample survey, are now in the National Monuments Record under the directorship of English Heritage.

A most informative and accomplished publication, which synthesises artist, work, environment, is Contemporary British Artists, St Martin's Press, New York 1979. The photographs by Saranjeet Walia and others, are straightforward records, and although each portrait is within a tight border, the natural atmosphere of the surroundings is retained because there is no imposition of the photographer's interpretation. In his introduction to this book Norbert Lynton, Professor Emeritus Sussex University, write, "Though the photograph almost persuades us that it tells the truth and nothing but the truth, we know that some photographs are truer than others. Also, some photographs are more informative than others, and information need not only mean the data gathered via correct exposure and a good lens".

Discipline is essential in the gathering of this information because he also states, "The portrait photograph, as opposed to the snapshot, is a conscious act and in some measure a collaboration that often turns into a con trick". Was he thinking of those early works by Joseph Parkin Mayall?

R.H.Wilenski, artist and art critic, (1887-1975), in the publication The Modern Movement in Art, Faber and Faber, 1935revised, makes a statement about the artistic element within photography. "The so-called 'artistic' photographers of the present (1926) do not realise the character or significance of the camera's records". "they refuse to accept the camera's records, preferring to distort them into hybrid imitations of various forms of art". Although the camera is an instrument of record, a 'pictorialist', and photographic club members, will manipulate the results with artistic intent for the purpose of exhibition.

In The Meaning of Art, Herbert Read, Penguin 1949, it states that, "The true artist is indifferent to the materials and conditions imposed upon him. He accepts any conditions, so long as they can be used to express his will-to-form".

For the purpose of making a preliminary record the studio can be described as an architectural space in which artists', painters', sculptors' and printmakers', use their practical creative ability to form works of art.

The studio can be a purpose built construction or an existing space that has been utilised or adapted for the particular requirements of the artist, within this area the artist has a spatial relationship between their work in progress and the method of working.

Barbara Hepworth for instance, was an artisan artist, the important element was the hand skills needed to extract the art work from its basic material.

Closeness to the material being worked upon limited the amount of space needed, and this can be seen of what remains as a studio in St Ives. The Tate Gallery Archive also has a photograph of her working in a room with a bed taking up part of the space.

Closeness is also part of experiencing the work by the viewer, the surfaces of the sculpture invite touch to appreciate the craft.

Sir Anthony Caro, in contrast, requires a large spatial element because his constructions do not need closeness to appreciate the craft but distance to consider the artist's intention.

This relationship is a direction of the working method and consequently the working space. The artist is distanced from the work in controlling its creativity and directing others in its fabrication. These comparative studies are a valuable product in the recording of the artist's studio.

Bridget Riley's studio shows the intensive preliminary work and meticulous planning that goes into each painting. Gillian Ayres' studio exemplifies the vigour and vitality that is so appreciated in her work. Ken Howard works in the former studio of Sir William Orpen, an impressive space, probably very much as it was in Orpen's day. Ghisha Koenig worked in a small area that had once been the studio of Naum Gabo.

Photographically recording such differences helps in the comparative evaluation of the artist's intention towards their viewer.

The proposed use of photography should be to provide a record, from informed observation, on the way that a studio is used rather than a record of isolated architectural fittings. Some photography does provide an architectural record as part of a need to assist the building of, or conversion to, a studio.

Some architects specialise in this type of work and are often a source of associated photographic material, but the restraint of client confidentiality often prevents material such as this being accessible as part of a public archive,

A further restraint is that such photography is usually commissioned as part of a commercial contract with a photographer who might see the commercial value in his photographic coverage as higher than its historic value.

When contacting prominent artists for access to their studio it often happens that the pressure of working towards an exhibition, or their need for personal privacy means rejection. This is part of the celebrity of being established and would most likely control the number of studios that could be recorded amongst this group. Of far greater importance is in enlisting assistance from informed opinion so as to direct a project towards those artists who are as yet unrecognised, but who have observable promise.

The reaction from those artists who allowed access for the Royal Commission's pilot project was surprise, surprise and enthusiasm that an organization outside of the art establishment should suggest a record that did not concentrate on them or their work alone, in fact there was no need for them to be present whilst the record was being made. They accepted it as part of a triangular composition, artist, work, workplace.

Peter Thoene in, Modern German Art, Pelican 1938, write, "The inner and formal expression of art is just as much a subject to the laws of change as the process of labour. But the consciousness of an age does not like to take note of the changes".

But, such changes have also happened in photography. Early photography was based upon a negative emulsion that, because of its metallic silver content, was ideal for archival conservation. We have now, through colour and chromogenic emulsions entered into the digital age, where film is no longer part of the photographic equation.

Could this suggest that photography is not only distanced from a form of art but is also distanced from the correct definition of photography. No longer is it a direct replica of the subject by means of a visual image on film, it is a blind evolution of science.

There was a time when you could pull a dust covered box of negatives from under grandpa's bed, hold each one up to the light and see grandma as a young woman.

Today, all you might see is a shiny disc with a hole in the centre.

In the beginning, photographers constructed their own cameras from mahogany and leather, now they are completely under the control of the technologist. The simplicity of a dish filled with chemistry has gone forever, it would seem.

The technologists only allow you to see your results by the use of their complicated electronic gadgetry and they can change its specification without any intervention by the photographer. When the market becomes saturated to its commercial limit, profit demands that it moves on to a newer system, leaving the expensive preliminary equipment as part of the detritus of human society. 'Betamax', VHS, CD, DVD, SD, are the symbols of progress, and it will not end there.

Visual history has been relegated to the ether of invisibility, after all it is not reality that we are seeing in our photographs but a combination of numerals, zero and one.

Perhaps photography has now become art at last, painting by numbers.


Terry Buchanan studied photography at the South-East-Essex Technical College. He was a Senior Photographer with Army Public Relations in Cyprus in the 1950's. His book Photographing Historic Buildings was on the reading lists for building conservation courses at universities in the USA and Canada and was a best seller. You can see his art and photography at: http://www.axisweb.org/seCVPG.aspx?ARTISTID=6196


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