Some Thoughts on Photography and Painting

On Sunday night I watched a documentary called “An American Journey: Revisiting Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’” that got me thinking about my watercolor pursuit a little bit differently. There’s a brief interview in this with Frank’s printer Sidney Kaplan. He talked about Frank being the architect of the image, and he being the engineer. Frank would tell him he wanted one area lighter, another darker, and Kaplan would have to figure out how to do it. I knew from my own efforts in black and white photography how much can be accomplished in the dark room, but I didn’t really think of these being two different parts because I did both myself. To me, I didn’t know what the image really looked like until I printed it. Hearing this interview made me understand that these can be two distinct acts—the capturing of the image, and the making of the product—with distinct skill and value.

This made me wonder if I could take advantage of this distinction now, but instead of printing the image, I could paint it. In one sense, this is pretty obvious—any time we take a reference photo to make a painting of later we’re doing this—but I’ve noticed that I have a different eye when taking a photo for the sake of it being a photo than in taking a photo as reference for a painting. Take the white house painting I just did for example. I wouldn’t have taken that photo for its own sake. It wasn’t an interesting scene in that sense. It was interesting as a basis for a painting, though. What would happen if I approached the photo not as reference for painting, but with my photographer’s eye?

I wonder why my eye is different between the two mediums. Maybe it’s something about the tactile experience of making a painting being so different from that of making a print that I’m inclined differently.  Or maybe it’s because in painting I haven’t settled on a thesis or a series of questions I want to pursue. I’m just having fun with it (nothing beats plein air painting for this) and learning the medium. Then again, I did have a thesis while learning photography. With painting I’ve so far been deliberately avoiding the thesis element so I wouldn’t box myself in. Now I’m interested in splitting my pursuits into thesis driven works and fun works. In writing fiction this was hard for me—I felt I had to have a purpose, and anything that deviated from that purpose was time wasted. I don’t have that feeling with painting. Somehow it’s far more open. Maybe it’s just a time of life thing and nothing more, but there does seem to be something more pleasant about painting than writing—an open engagement with the world without the burden of expectations for myself, or maybe just that it’s easier to share and discuss a visual work than a written work that is always weighed down by expected meaning. I don’t know.

I spent this evening looking over William Eggleston photos and thinking about David Byrne’s film “True Stories,” which was inspired by Eggleston and was for some reason influential for me. There’s an odd humor in all of this. I wonder if it’s worth looking into that in painting.

No images with this post. I just wanted to start articulating these thoughts to try to make more sense of them. Thanks for reading.