The invention of the camera brought with it a truly enormous shift in the world of art. Practically overnight, the importance of representationalism in the traditional mediums of art was greatly diminished. Prior to the invention of the camera, the queen of the visual arts, painting, for the most part, served a very different purpose than what it serves today.
Prior to the invention of the camera, a painting was the closest most people could come to seeing things or places in the world that they would likely never get to see with their own eyes. Or, a painting was a way of being able to look upon someone dear to you who, had either passed away, or, due to whatever circumstances, you weren’t able to commonly see in the flesh.
In the days before the camera, transportation was also not as easy as it is today. For a lot of people, transportation of great distances was almost impossible. And, as such, in those days, most people would live out their entire lives never once having ventured, at most, perhaps 100 miles from the very spot they were born. So, how could one even come close to viewing some of the awe-inspiring wonders of man’s creation? The great cathedrals of the world? The great monuments, architecture or cities? Or, how might they view some of the natural wonders of far off places? Great mountains, or breath-taking scenic vistas in far away lands? How could they visually get a taste for far away, exotic foreign cultures and styles? For most, the closest they could ever hope to come to experiencing such things for themselves would be to view an artist’s rendition in paint.
For this reason, representationalism was important in the arts — very important. Artists strove to come ever closer and closer to gaining the ability to render in paint all of the awesome majesty of the thing they were painting possessed. The more true to life an artist could render a person, place or thing, the appreciated the artist was.
Then, the camera was invented. And, with a relatively simple photographic exposure, a photographer could capture a likeness of such people or places far more perfectly representational than any painter could who had spent years developing their skills and talents. The artist, as painter, was no longer needed to bring the images of the world to people who wanted to view such things, but could not set eyes upon them.
But, the artist — the true artist — is driven to create. And that drive did not diminish. As such, the artist was forced to find new ways to express their artistic drive. The art of the late 19th, and throughout the 20th century, was characterized largely by this — artists striving to explore all of what art is and could be, and what all was meant by ‘art’. They worked to find new ways of creating art. The baton of representationalism was passed to the photographer to be the lead bearer. And, painters, to great extent, moved more toward self-expression and art as a more purely creative vehicle.
Now, here in the 21st century, perhaps traditional photography is beginning to come of age in a similar sort of way. Perhaps, as we see the increasing advancement of technologies like 3D printing, virtual reality, and holographic projection progressing and developing, the traditional photographer, also, might soon have to pass the baton of representationalism off to someone else. At the very least, there are many a photographer now who are starting to become bored with purely documentarian-esque styles of photography. Painting and other visual mediums experienced a coming of age where they became much more than what they had been for so long been. Why can’t photography? Why can’t photographers now explore all that photography could be? And, all that could be meant by the term ‘photography’?
Well, if you ask me, I say that they not only can, but they should. And, indeed, many already have — and have been making such explorations for quite some time. And, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t join them. There is, truly, no down side to doing so. Doing so is interesting and fun and can break one from the stagnation of shooting in the same ways, and shooting the same things, again and again. To experiment in such a way can do wonders to increase one’s creativity and get you seeing things — and seeing photography — in new, fresh and exciting ways.
One of the easiest ways to do this is simply to experiment with abstract photography — just as the painters of the 20th century experimented heavily with abstract painting.
The first thing I would suggest is to spend some time doing an image search for the term “Abstract expressionism“. And, spend a little time studying some of the works you find which were created by the great abstract expressionist painters. If you have a gallery near you which contains such works, take some time to visit it and view the works in person — you’ll simply never get a full appreciation of the creations of such artists by viewing their works on a flat monitor — nothing like you can standing a few feet in front of them and gazing upon them with your own eyes. But, by all means, just put forth some effort to expose yourself to such works. And, try to draw inspiration from them. Ask yourself how you can adapt such concepts to your photography.
Look around your home for interesting, abstract patterns and designs that might present themselves. Try not to concentrate on, nor be distracted by, the entirety of anything you might see. Instead, allow yourself to view things in limited portions. Zoom in on areas — wherein, if you were to photograph a portion of a thing, the viewer might not be able to tell what the thing itself is, but will be presented merely with a composition of line, color and/or form. Experiment and have fun.
Or, for a more in-depth exercise, how about attempting to meld different expressive mediums? Marrying photography and painting. Get a large surface — a sheet of plywood, or foam-core (you can usually get these at your local Dollar Store) or, even, make a trip to your local art-supply store and pick up a stretched canvas — they’re really not that expensive. Then, go to a hardware store and pick up a couple small cans of latex or alkyd house paint in a couple of different colors. A small can of black, white, and one or two other colors is usually good for your first attempt. (Keep your ‘pallette’ limited if you’re inexperienced at create art in such a way)
You can get small cans of any paint you choose, and buying them in such quantities is inexpensive and you’ll get more paint than you need for your project. Or, very often, many stores that sell paint will have pre-mixed cans of paint that they’re selling dirt cheap because they mixed a color wrong for a previous customer. The employee who mixed the paint messed up the tinting process, the color didn’t come out as the customer wanted, and they had to remix a new batch for the customer. Now, the hardware store is stuck with a can of paint of a color that nobody really wants. So, they put these up for sale, basically for cost, just so they can move them and not take a loss. They’re usually dirt cheap. If you don’t see any like this at the paint store, ask an employee if they have any — they might not have just put them out yet.
Then, once you get these supplies, simply spend some time putting your paint on your surface — drip it off the end of a stick in interesting patterns. Splatter it on to the surface, throw paint at it. Drop it in areas in great globs, then pick up the canvas and tilt it this way and that to allow the different colors to run in different directions, running into each other and creating interesting swirls of color. You don’t have to, but I recommend, if you can, first covering the entire surface with one flat coat of just one of the colors — usually the darkest color you have works best. Let that first coat dry, then begin attacking your surface with all the different colored paints. If you’re not experienced in painting artistically in such a way, cutting down on the amount of white space by doing this tends to provide a better looking final result.
When you’ve done this for a while, and have an interesting looking tangle of color and line on your surface, take a break and allow your creation to dry. It doesn’t matter if it just looks like a heated mess to you. It’s not important. Your goal is photography, not the creation of a masterpiece painting that will stand on its own and firmly put Jackson Pollock in his place.
Once your painting is dry, photograph it. But, don’t just take a photograph of the painting. Focus on small areas of it. Identify sections that look interesting — one puddle of paint off in one corner of the painting, perhaps, where the different colors have run together in an interesting way and have created interesting swirls and vortexes. Get in close to particular sections of the paintings and find interesting photographs within it. If you have a macro lens, all the better.
I’m sure you’ll find such a project immensely fun to do, and it will inspire you to become more creative in your photography and train your eye to recognize interesting compositions, patterns and designs. And, if you’re lucky, you might just end up with a pretty darned cool painting to hang on your wall as well!
And, if you can, post links to some of the photos you produce from this method in the comments section below. I, as well as many of our readers, I’m sure, would love to see some results of such a creative experimentation!