The inter-relationship of different art. Want to be better in one segment? Broaden your wisdom net. See more stuff.

It's kind of funny but most of the photographic images that I like of people are lit like the pronounced chiaroscuro of Caravaggio paintings. And most of the poses I like I've seen in paintings and sculptures. It would seem to me that a lot of our photographic imagery are really references to work done in other media and in other ages. In most cases I would conjecture that the current photographic practitioners are just copying what they've seen other contemporary photographers doing (and so on) without having a real idea of what the original sources were. Without a wide catalog of cultural references work quickly becomes one dimensional and formulaic. In every field.

I'm going to make a statement here that may sound elitist but is not meant to be. Whether you are a commercial photographer or a hobbyist I think your work (and mine) can be improved in direct proportion to the amount of varied art work to which you expose yourself. If you are lucky enough to live in a cultural center like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago or even Los Angeles you have ample opportunity to see an enormous range of old masters and new, original art in many media. When you add galleries to the pot your range of selections becomes almost infinitely rich.

If you are working or living in one of the major European cities you have the same opportunities. I couldn't imagine being a photographer in Paris and not having been to the Picasso Museum, the Louvre or the Jeu de Paume. Or to live within one hundred miles of Rome and not having been to The Vatican or the Borghese Garden museums.

When our points of reference are too far removed from the original sources they are diluted and become spuriously referential at best. To copy the work and working methodology of a young, technically aimed photographer on Creative Live is a woefully thin substitute for experiencing the real power of art first hand. Standing in front of a great painting is worlds different than flipping through some 640 by 480 pixel thumbnails of a painting. Watching light move around a sculpture is a world different then seeing a two dimensional photo of the same sculpture on Wikipedia.

Often times, because we live in a technical culture, and in thrall to the ideas of best practices, and the tyranny of metrics, we look toward technical fixes when our photography gets stale or when our enthusiasm stalls. We try a different lens or a new filter. We try some "new" lighting technique that's popular on the web. But in the end these are quick fixes for our boredom and not deep fixes that could transform our love of our art. A mindless copy rarely makes for valuable growth.

Not seeing original art but being influenced by its faint and diminished echo is like playing the old game where one person comes up with a phrase and whispers it to the person next to them. That person whispers the phrase they heard to the person next to them and so on. In a small room with thirty players the message becomes garbled and meaningless in a matter of minutes. Imagine the art message in a brilliant piece watered down by centuries of the same game. The end result is a thought artifact that's been distorted, changed and relieved of all context. It becomes a cheap filter or schtick.

Our jobs as artists don't exist in a cultural vacuum. We are all subject to cultural reference points. It's our choice if we want to drink the collective spit in the bucket or participate in the actual wine tasting of art.

I know that I am renewed and recharged when I eschew pondering more and more contemporary photographs and instead sample actual masterpieces and the works that laid the foundations for our work across different disciplines. Today might be a great day to step into a museum and drink from a rich cup of work that stands the tests of time. Work that forms the foundations of our visual culturals. What a gift to be able to experience foundational work first hand. How much greater the impact.

When someone directs me toward the latest over-processed pop photography I like to direct them right back to the masters they unwittingly borrowed from. Almost inevitably they are astonished at how much they learn and how much more organically the power of the original work gets integrated into their own projects going forward.

If you are a portrait photographer you've heard a lot about Rembrandt but you need to look at Leonardo da Vinci's work and Caravaggio and maybe Edward Hopper; even Georges Braque. I love heading down to San Antonio to look at work by Renoir and Picasso, at the McNay Museum. No matter which museum you head to you'll see something new and perhaps be able to add to your own repertoire. At the very least you'll finally learn who to ultimately credit for that neato lighting technique that you saw on some contemporary's website. The magic is all out there for us to sample and subsume and use. Don't you want the undiluted version? I know I do...

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phil said...

As ever Kirk you always make me think. I'm in London in a couple of weeks - off to a gallery I go!

Anonymous said...


Jim said...

Once when photographing a painter friend I looked at the LCD on the back of the camera and my brain said "Vermeer". Unwittingly I had shot her in the "Girl with a Pearl Earring" pose. Okay, she was facing the other way but you know what I mean. I confess to enjoying going to museums alone because most other people get impatient with how long I take to look at the works that inspire me.

Kirk Tuck said...

Jim, That's exactly how it should work. I looked at one of my sloppy portraits today and said, "Pollock". You win some you lose some...

Anonymous said...

I would suggest that art, in its many forms, is a way to illuminate mental and emotional "structures" that arise from the human condition. The masters of the past lived in much more contemplative times. I try to imagine the countless hours and intense focus needed to chisel away the nonessential marble of a masterful statue, then compare it to the moments taken in the average multitude of "portrait" snaps.

I feel that your approach is about as close as is practical to the contemplative and deeply connected styles of the past, executed in the ADD Twitter driven present.

Art illuminates structures within ourselves that we rarely get a glimpse of in normal life. In a way, it reminds us of who we are. It reminds us that there is more to being human than the next quarterly spread-sheet or mortgage payment. More than the latest shiny gadget that humans love to play with.

Gadgets are wonderful, and I would suggest, also a natural part of being human.

Birds build nests.
Beavers build dams.
Humans build gizmos, gadgets and political parties.

But we are also more. We live in an age that honors the rational, linear mind above all other human aspects. Yet art still manages to survive the relentless pursuit of commerce. The world wide entertainment industry manages to allow some wonderful artistic expression to slip through the corporate fine mesh screen that tries to monetize and homogenize every endeavor. It speaks highly of the deeply seated need to explore and express those often ignored human attributes.

Cavemen developed some amazing art, without any history to be drawn upon or to be compared with. I feel that certain angles and poses in portraiture speak to us, not because we were taught by the masters to appreciate them, but because we are wired to appreciate those aspects at a non-rational non-linear level.

All the best,

Carlo Santin said...

I was in London, March 2007. I literally stumbled upon a Salvador Dali exhibit as I was walking along the Thames to London Tower. I paid the admission and stumbled out of there some hours later. I was a different person somehow after experiencing those pieces up close. I can't explain to you exactly how, but I saw things differently after that experience. Until then I was used to seeing his work in a book or on a poster of some sort. Seeing the real deal was something else.

Alan Fairley said...

Kirk, "even Los Angeles"???? Tsk, tsk. We can choose among LACMA, the Getty Center, the Hammer, the Norton Simon, the Huntington, and that's just what I can immediately think of off the top of my head for old masters. If Classical art is your bag, add in the Getty Villa to the above. Totally agree with your post, BTW.

CadenceMichael said...

I'm going along with my daughter's class to the Getty Center in Los Angles this Friday. Looking forward to it.

thequietphotographer said...

There is no better inspiration source than visiting an art exhibition, not necessary photo related. A few years ago my wife and me decided to do it at least once a month. But usually we do it more frequently. And beside the inspiration factor it is both exciting and relaxing. Living in Italy we have opportunity to visit "famous" places, but sometimes are the minor exhibitions of almost unknown artist which give us a lot of emotion. Yes, life needs emotion.

Kirk Tuck said...

Tongue in cheek, Alan; Tongue in cheek....

Barbara N said...

Thanks for the inspiration and motivation.

Matt James said...

Absolutely. When I visited Musee d'Orsay a few years ago I was struck by the colour and intensity of the Van Gogh exhibits. More recently, I was greatly impressed by the quality of the b+w prints by some of the masters in Carmel. Humbling and inspiring. Essential.