The mediums of painting and photography have become inextricably entwined since their juncture in the nineteenth century. Painting had been a primary source of historic documentation up until the Neo-classical era when the emphasis on practitioners was precision, detail and representation. The emergence of the romantic and impressionist movements coincided with the development of the first primitive photographic images and it was at this time that the British painter JMW Turner came to prominence, positively and negatively, as a pioneer in a new way of representation.
Turner was undoubtedly a gifted artist and was recognised as so from a very early age when he became academically trained in painting and drawing. It was not long before a young Turner began to adopt a style of his own. This was a time of great change in the world of arts and Turner’s style would pre-empt, by almost half a century, a move for painters away from the role of recording the world as the evolution of the camera afforded photography this task.
Turner was raised in London and remained there for many of his formative years, becoming popular with commissions at an early age that would see him earn much respect and the wealth that would accompany it. He remained in London but soon grew weary of depicting a city of regency, wealth and a Britain that was looked upon as a model of political and social stability at the time. Turner understood there was another side to his country and it was this that would become so influential in his painting from that point on.
Turner relentlessly studied nature and light and stripped both aspects of representation back to their basic forms. It was during his extensive travels that the main inspiration for many of his greatest works germinated. While travelling throughout the British Isles and mainland Europe, he fervently recorded what he saw in writing, drawing and painting. His tour of France and Switzerland alone resulted in more than 400 drawings. It is reported that on a walk with a friend in 1820, the two paused and sketched what lay before them as a storm brewed only for turner to exclaim that “in two years you will see this and it will be called Hannibal Crossing the Alps!” Regardless of the accuracy of the legend, it is evident from his extensive works that Turner did indeed rely heavily on his obsessive fieldwork notations to inform even his most abstract paintings.
What is evident also is that Turner manipulated the canvas to present something to the viewer that interested him or that in his mind should interest the viewer. His many paintings are undoubtedly beautiful pieces in terms of simple aesthetics. What is also evident is that he presents an image that appears frozen in time, captured through a process of layers of brushstrokes and impasto, but that this image serves to draw the viewer to a subject matter that exists outside the enclosure of the frame. We understand from his vast archive of preparatory works what interested this man, what he was passionate about and how he felt about political and social standards of that time. What we also understand is that Turner felt compelled to create a style of representation that would best convey his emotions and perception of these thoughts. His paintings often pitch us right into the midst of a scene of terror through his use of light and colour to create that particular atmosphere. What exists outside the frame captured is what manifests itself within the image presented to us.
The evolution of the camera changed the way we look at the world at this time and continues to do so to this very day. The evolution of the camera resulted in images being produced in a fraction of the time required to produce a similar painting with the advantage of also capturing ,much more detail, particularly in large format images. Interestingly the evolution of the camera continues as the need to hang around for a long exposure is no longer necessary as the development of digital media continues to progress. It is with reference to a practitioner of an 8x10 view camera however that this essay will look to to draw comparison with the works of Turner.
Richard Misrach was born in Los Angeles in 1949 and is often credited as being one of the forerunners in the renaissance of colour photography and large scale representation since the 1970s. Much of his work is captured using an 8” x 10” view camera and a process the photographer describes as a ‘slow, meditative and contemplative way of working’. Although it may appear paradoxical to compare one artist who spent a lifetime developing a new method representation with one who chooses to work with quite traditional methods, the point of study here focuses on what both pioneers chose to represent and what meaning can be read into this, not the tools involved in completing the process.
Misrach has completed many hugely successful projects over the past number of decades with series such as the Desert Cantos series or On the Beach exemplifying his skill in this field. Misrach regularly refers to the theme of landscape and human intervention that interests him or what he describes as “the collision between man and nature”. Many of his projects involve complete immersion in the subject, often for prolonged periods of time with the photographer capturing thousands of images as well as recording detailed analysis of location, time, light values, etc. Similarities can be drawn at this point with the preparatory work of Turner who sketched many scenes before drawing from this resource to create a particular detail in a painting. Similarly, Misrach’s technique involves capturing many images from dawn until dusk, whenever light and wind values allow for optimum use of his 8x10 camera. He admits to being lucky to use on average one in every hundred frames captured in his works, a percentage return comparable with many of his peers, and one that remains constant even over a career spanning four decades.
What is also very much present in the series of photographs that Misrach does present to us is his use of imagery to communicate an idea. He often refers to the influence of civil war photographs on his own work, their beauty evident yet also conveying a very poignant narrative of a historic event. Misrach underlines the power of aesthetics in portrayal of such an event and the important impact this has had on his own works. He recognises photographic images as important historic documents but also as things that change meaning over time. And time is a key factor in his work. His decision not to publish any images of the Oakland Hills fire for a period of twenty years after the event a strategic way of differentiating his work from that of glorified journalism to a more reflective piece of work.
Misrach’s photographs have previously been compared with landscape paintings of the past. His images of the Golden Gate Bridge have been compared to the paintings of Mark Rothko and Albert Bierstadt, his repetitive approach to subject matter likened to Cézanne, or to Monet’s depiction of Rouen Cathedral at different times of the year. Misrach’s observations of this scene over a three year period are a very obvious example of his running theme of the relationship between man and nature, but what is also very important although less obviously stated is his interest in what happens beyond the frame of the camera. What makes this series powerful for Misrach is the position from which the perspective is taken, a "privileged position high up in the peaceful, well-to-do, sylvan Berkeley hills." In a publication accompanying his Golden Gate exhibition he states that "to own a view is as much about property values as it is about ocular pleasures”. In quite the same way Turner did, Misrach produces a beautiful, captivating image that draws the viewer into the subject matter while simultaneously encouraging them to explore something deeper that exists outside of the frame.