Friday, May 20, 2011

Reproductive Services

Photoshop is so cool, isn't it? You can get rid of the rust on your car, the peeling paint on your house, and the crabgrass on your lawn. You can also make your wife's breasts bigger, eliminate your husband's beer belly, give your bony teenage son some pecs and biceps, and remove your daughter's overbite. As for yourself, you can have a nose job, an eye lift, lips enhancement, hair extensions, and a Florida tan, all with the click of a mouse. Why, even God never had it so good.

Just make sure you don't walk outside or look in the mirror. For that matter, don't even look away from the computer screen. All your hopes, dreams, and aspirations are right there, in digital form, if nowhere else.

The popularity of Photoshop makes me wonder if we'll ever believe a photograph again. And if we can't believe a photograph, where exactly does that leave us? It leaves us right where we were for most of recorded history. Photography, after all, is only about 185 years old. There are New England bed-and-breakfasts older than that. Before the invention of photography, if one wanted a reproduction of reality, one had to draw, paint, or sculpt it. And if one wanted a reproduction of reality but was too lazy to draw, paint, or sculpt it themselves, one had to to watch somebody else do it, and give them the benefit of a doubt that they did so with a minimum of exaggeration.

The earliest known reproductions of reality are prehistoric cave paintings. These were usually pictures of bison and horses and anything that could be found outside of the cave. No prehistoric artist ever seemed to draw or paint anything that could be found inside the cave. Such as other people. No, only animals. My theory is some cavemen were brave enough to wander outside, while others less brave stayed inside and consisted on a diet of worms and spiders while gradually going blind from the lack of sunlight. So the caveman that did go outside and live to tell about it was essentially bringing back news from the outside world when he drew on those walls, the leading story apparently being that there were a lot of bison and horses out there. Big bison. Enough to scare the other cave man from ever venturing outside. Horses are pretty fierce-looking on those walls, too. As is the case with Photoshop, there was really nothing stopping the cave man artist from turning a Shetland pony into a fire-breathing dragon with a mane. If the other cave man questioned it, let him go out and look himself. He was going blind, anyway.

Now lets jump ahead a couple of centuries or eons or millenniums or however long it took for people to exchange their fur skins for togas. By the time the Ancient Greeks and their aesthetic wannabes, the Romans came along, sculpture had been perfected. And no one in all the passing centuries or eons or millenniums or however long it's taken for people to trade in their togas for polyester, has really improved on that perfection. Or maybe the Greeks and Romans themselves did. If we just go by the artwork that was left behind, apparently nobody in Ancient Greece or Rome had love handles, pot bellies, or cellulite. Must have been that Mediterranean diet. Another thing about the ancients, they certainly weren't prudes, producing naked figures of such anatomical exactitude that I had to put my hands over the computer screen lest a vigilant librarian accuse me of pandering.

Rome eventually fell, and the Dark Ages commenced. It didn't last forever and once the Renaissance arrived, so, too, did a new way of depicting reality: perspective. Before perspective, nothing was drawn from a particular point of view. The sizes of people and things tended to be somewhat haphazard. Everybody and everything in the background was often the exact size as everybody and everything in the foreground. This wasn't necessarily inaccurate. Objects aren't really smaller when they're farther away. But that's how they look to an observer. It was the Renaissance artists who drove this point home.

Perspective was the last word in pictorial accuracy for hundreds of years. Then, in the early 19th century, came the camera. When it comes to accurate portrayals of reality, a photograph trumped anything a Renaissance artist could paint. Only one minor detail about photography wasn't realistic, but it was a long time until anybody cared about that. I'll get to it later.

The introduction of photography threw artists for a loop. For years, forever, it had been their job to reproduce reality, something that took a fair amount of time. Now, these jokers come along with their strange little boxes on pedestals, and telling people to watch the birdie or say cheese or whatever cliches they used way back when, followed by a flash of light, and less than a week later (pre-Polaroid), there's the picture. For a while, painters and sculptors and their ilk went on their way acting like the camera had never been invented. The older, more established painters and sculptors, anyway. The young radicals among them, however, began to ask this question: if a painting can never be as realistic as a photograph, then why be realistic?

Thus, modern art was born.

First up were the impressionists. Oddly enough, the impressionists insisted they were being realistic. A photograph captures only a single moment, they insisted, while the human eye captures many, many moments coming at you all at once, especially if you're in a big city. All I know is that if I take off my glasses and look at some water lilies, things can get very impressionistic.

Impressionism shocked some, and delighted others. Those that were delighted won out, and by the end of 19th century, it was an established art form. As often happens when a art form has been established, there are those who will rise up against it. Oh, these weren't traditionalists rising up against it. This new set of troublemakers had no intention of returning to the style of the Old Masters. No, they felt Impressionism was a bit too passive. "Oh, well, that's just the impression it left on me." No, these new radicals wanted an emotional investment in their art. Thus, Expressionism was born. A lot of what's called Expressionism resembles Impressionism, as well as other forms such as Cubism, which I'll get to in a second. Expressionism really seems to be more about the artist's mood than his style. And that mood just couldn't be one of complacency. To be sure, getting all emotional everytime you wanted to paint a picture could take a toll on one's mental health. Perhaps what was called for was a little introspection.

Another exciting, if sometimes puzzling, movement that both influenced and competed with Expressionism was Cubism, so called, I imagine, because there wasn't much in these paintings in the way of circles. Though one of the movement's leading lights did get around to using curves later on.

I hope nobody's basing their college thesis on what I'm writing here, because I'm skimming through these various movements, such as Primitivism, Fauvism, Dadaism, Futurism, and Surrealism, pretty quickly. If I were a rich man, I'd take the time to try to find out just what the difference is between some of them. Let's just say the artists of the early 20th century seemed to be in a race to see how far they could escape from reality. Sculpture was similarly affected. Still, no matter how wild things got, these artworks were representations (or misrepresentations) of things that existed in the real world. Then along comes Abstract Expressionism. This kind of art existed nowhere in the real world, other than on the canvas itself. Still, this new breed of artist seemed to take their work seriously enough.

Abstract Expressionism was the be-all and end-all of abstract art. Afterwards, there was a return to the real world. At least a real supermarket.

Now, what about photography, the invention of which I believe inspired all this craziness (I mean that as a term of affection; I've thoroughly enjoyed perusing all this art, and I DO think it's art.) Earlier I said a photo was more realistic then a painting, with the exception of one minor detail. That one minor detail was monochrome, i.e. black-and-white. Look around you. The world is in color. Researching this piece, I was surprised to find out that the first color photograph was taken as early as 1861! It was awfully expensive though, and black-and-white ruled for over a century. The price came down after World War II, people began buying cameras that took color pictures, pictures that accurately reflected the real world, and black-and-white gradually fell out of favor. Or did it? Black-and-white photography is now and has been for quite some time in the same place as painting was in the 1820s, outdone by a technology capable of greater accuracy. However, if black-and-white film is not longer accurate, what is it? For the arty among us, black-and-white is not a depiction of reality, but an impression of it. It's surrealistic. It's abstract. It's dreamlike imagery. After all, we do dream in black-and-white, or so they say. Like Cubism, reality is seen through a different lens, if you'll pardon the pun. Black-and-white photography is now modern art (I'd even say it's post-modern art, except I'm not sure of the difference, and suspect they came up with the term only because the original modernists are now all dead and buried.)

Now, how about color photography? As I said at the beginning of this piece, Photoshop has rendered even that untrustworthy. Sure, you can have a lot of fun with it. However, I'd like to make a case for taking pictures of things as they are. "As they are" doesn't have to stop with the human eye. You can take pictures near or far, below or above, moving or still, in shadows or in light.

You know, something just occurred to me. Maybe reality is abstract.

That would explain a lot, actually.


  1. One vote for reality trumps abstraction all to hell. Just sayin'.

    Kirk, this was wonderful! Having just had to do an in-depth crash course about art, I tip my hat to you, because you went very much broader in scope than I did. On the other hand, I had to deal with Steve. :~{

    Your piece hit a couple of chords with me. First, I'm blushing at all the time I recently spent learning and then executing digital manipulation of my own poor photos so they'd almost look like something. Second, I got a most fabulous book at the library - a coffee-table-sized edition of Matthew Brady's Civil War photographs. I'm avid about anything to do with the Civil War, and I've seen most of these pictures, but for 3 weeks, I get to revisit them right here in my own home. I don't think they were manipulated, which makes them even more abstract. And darkly beautiful.

  2. if i could rein in my thoughts enough to make them comprehensible, i would take off into a riff about how photoshop is the darkroom of digital, how all photos have been manipulated in the darkroom, how reality is nothing but perception, never mind whose, and how reality isn't OUT THERE, it's in here, just like a box camera holding all that is, which lens do you want to use.
    but i can't.

  3. I wonder how even what is seen from one person to another changes... perception is everything.
    From what I see to what the camera sees it so different and when you add in the printer, OMG !

    Interesting post today.

    cheers, parsnip

  4. I would have a lot more use for photoshop worked on the real world like it does on the digital. I also figured that the impressionists were almost blind and just painted what they saw which is what I would do. Nice essay Kirk.

  5. @Leslie--Thank you, Leslie. I just hope you don't consider THIS an in-depth crash course on art. It's really a meditation on art, than an actual history. Your comment inspired me to include a couple of Matthew Brady photographs among the links. They're in the 7th and 8th paragraphs going down. I've also replaced a couple of links that were marked either "Forbidden" or "Internet explorer cannot find this page". You're right, Brady photographs are darkly beuatiful, without him even really trying. Remember, he saw himself as just documenting a war. Photography wouldn't be considered an art form for another generation. Maybe his stuff helped make it so.

    @rraine--I'd say your thoughts were pretty comprensible. I understand people have been retouching photographs since long before Photoshop. The bigger the venue (Playboy, say) the more the retouching. But now average folks can do it with snapshots. I guess there's a populist argument to be made for that. I just fear conversations like this:

    "Here, let me show you a picture of my daughter. It's right here in my wallet."

    "Gee, Mr. Spears, Britney sure is pretty."

    "Oh, my name's Schlabotnik, and my daughter is Agnes. Heh, heh, that's all right. Everybody makes that mistake."

    Having said that, I really have no problem with Photoshop. I just needed something to bookend the essay with. Is reality only what we perceive? If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound? (Well, if you define sound as a series of vibrations...) Thanks for commenting, rraine.

    @angryparsnip--Know what camera REALLY sees reality differently? The one they use at the License Bureau. Talk about abstract photography! Thanks for the comment, parsnip.

    @Tag--You'd need more than Photoshop. The real world is stubborn as a mule. Thanks for the comment, Tag.

  6. In my response to rraines comment, "and no one is around to hear it" should follow "if a tree falls in the forest" and precede "does it make a sound?". Obviously, if you are around to hear it, it'll make a sound. If the tree falls directly on you, it may be the last sound you ever hear.

  7. I just took another walk through the Brady book. I don't want to overstate the obvious, but the technology of the day added so much to the grit of those photos. It was a freezing (or roasting), hella dirty, stinking, frightening place to be (any locale of it). I think today we're so sanitary and we have so many things to make other things "better". We don't go out onto a dirt battlefield in clothes that are not correct for some reason (too hot or cold) that will then be tossed into the washer. We don't stop to tear the boots off of a dead comrade and steal his pipe tobacco because we don't have any. I think his photos are utterly perfect captures of just exactly how bad things were right there and then.

  8. I believe that was the first war in history to be photographed that thoroughly.

  9. Yes, for sure, "that thoroughly" and it seems to me I may even have read "the first, period". I'm not sure how strong a case could be made for that, I'm just repeating what I think I read.

    WV-cophyder. No. Not true. I wouldn't hyde one even if he asked.

  10. There's nothing smart left to say, so I'll just say, "Hi Kirk."

  11. I'll take it. Thanks for dropping by, Erin.


In order to keep the hucksters, humbugs, scoundrels, psychos, morons, and last but not least, artificial intelligentsia at bay, I have decided to turn on comment moderation. On the plus side, I've gotten rid of the word verification.