Perhaps 1 in 10,000 still photographers can draw or paint a fairly decent, realistic image. It is much easier for the herd to engulf everyday realities with a camera. In one second, a reflected blanket of light enters a lens and creates an honest image instantaneously across the entire rectangle. A still photograph starts and ends in the blink of an eye. Exceptions occur, of course. Edward Weston used a very long exposure to record his dark, b&w image of a muscular pepper (brought to him by his girlfriend).
Pablo Picasso, a Spaniard, painted Guernica in about 2 months. There were 45 preparatory drawings, and he used still photography to document its evolution. It is a political statement in response to the stupidity of Francisco Franco, the asshole who overthrew Spain’s democratic republic in the Spanish Civil War (1936–39). He was often a brutal dictator. On 26 April 1937, Franco ordered German pilots to bomb and kill the defenceless people and animals of Guernica (pop. 7,000). Six days later Picasso began work on the painting. Guernica is 3.5 by 7.8 meters large, painted in various shades of gray, with plain, anguished figures of people, a horse, bull and architecture. Various symbols enhance the image. Most of this information on Guernica came from Picasso’s Guernica, a 60-page illustrated book by Anthony Blunt. It was published in 1969 by Oxford University Press.
Picasso’s imagery is greatly simplified, especially the people, compared to an overly detailed still photograph. His imagination is pronounced and perfectly suited to implant the horror of Guernica in our collective mind. Artists have generally been painters for the first two World Wars. Today, still photographers risk their lives to capture emotional images for people back home watching hockey on TV. Fiction and facts are easily combined. Picasso can isolate, improvise, and create a certain mood and look, more easily than a still photographer chained to her camera with the tradition of the medium hanging like a dark cloud above her head. Guernica is a messy, fragmented painting organized around a triangle, set to rules particular to Picasso.
A Sudden Gust of Wind, by Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), a Japanese artist, is a woodblock print (1830–32), of ink and color on paper. It is a slight 25 x 37 cm, which has now been copied too many times.
A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai) 1993, is a composed / staged still photograph by the Canadian, Jeff Wall. The documentary image, 2.5 by 4 meters is a large back-lit photographic transparency which depicts four humans caught in a gust of wind in the open near a receding dugout pond. Wall took about 5 months to organize and photograph the scene, making numerous collages with photocopied images of its components of paper and people until their placement was right. Then the hours of work on the computer began. This is my favorite image by Jeff Wall because it depicts natural movements, which is how I create my pure abstract photographs, by drawing with a hand-held camera.
Wall’s Sudden Gust is contrived and controlled with everything positioned according to classical and photographic rules. There is a clean elegance to Wall’s documentary photograph, which painters, even in the most realistic style, cannot surpass. Will any photographer in the next 100 years reference what she can from Guernica to make its photographic analogy?
In Wall’s Gust, the wind is depicted by leaning trees, ripples on water, stances of people, and an arch of white papers travelling upward from left to right. In both the print and still photograph, the leafs of paper leaving the woman are rather flat like cards in a deck. In reality, the wind would immediately twist and curl the leafs. The well-dressed woman and man are out of their safe, indoor working environment. The gust of wind catches them by surprise and the positions of their bodies shows their lack of awareness of natural forces. The two men, outdoor workers, are able to lower their heads and bodies to cope with the gust. They blend with the daily forces of nature better than the suits. The numerous leafs of paper, in the wide expanse of gray sky, might represent the fragmentation of habitats, which seems to be our religious destiny as we destroy the ability of the planet to sustain us and the millions of other forms of life we share it with. The papers could also indicate the ridiculous amounts of information we gather in trying to understand ourselves and others, and how, in this digital age, it can all be scattered by a quick, gust of wind, or lost when electrical power fails. Hokusai fills the distance (horizon) with a thin outline of Mount Fuji. Jeff Wall’s horizon is a flat landscape with distant trees.
Is the detail in Wall’s documentary photograph really necessary to convey his message? The original small image by Hokusai reveals all we need to know about this part [wind] of nature controlling people. Would another painter do a modern rendition of the painting, perhaps in a windy part of downtown Chicago, or is it only suitable for another medium like photography? Why did Wall feel the need to re-enact this image using still photography and software? Does his image have more of a visual impact due to its millions of pixels and colors? What if Wall’s image was only 40 cm long, like the original? Did Jeff Wall depict this fleeting moment in nature better than the Japanese artist? Was he trying to? Or just playing with art history. TJR
NOTE: A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Jeff Wall and Hokusai), 2015 by Max Pinkers is a more recent still photographic interpretation. Phil Fisk, using circus performers, has also photographed a gust of wind. Chloë Pritchard is another copycat, etcetera.
Tom Reaume’s new 93-page photo ebook, Photography Traditions, is free at trart.ca