The More Things Change…
|“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else — if you run very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”
“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”
–from Through the Looking-Glass, by Lewis Carroll
I recently visited Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (better known as the MFA) to view their latest exhibition Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice. For better or for worse, I always admire painted Art through the eyes of a photographer, and what a treat the exhibition was for this photographer’s eyes.
“Every artistic technique, style or method we use today was invented many centuries ago.”
Despite the fact that these marvellous painters lived in the 16th century, I was able to recognise just about every trick in today’s photography book being used on their boards and canvases. Because you see, there is nothing new under the Strobe, and every artistic technique, style or method we use today was invented many centuries ago. This is one of the reasons I cringe whenever somebody says that using Photoshop is cheating. Adobe created Photoshop in order to give graphic artists a way to keep up with the times. As the Red Queen pointed out to Alice, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.
Let’s examine a painting from each of these masters so I can explain what I mean.
Take a look at Tintoretto’s self-portrait above; now there’s a snooted strobe if I ever saw one. What else did Tintoretto use? Localised fill light. Look at his left eye, notice how the white and pupil are exactly the same brightness as his right eye? There is no way you could light up his left eye that way while at the same time leaving the skin around it in shadows. But Tintoretto had a message to convey: He was the best painter in Venice, and you’d better believe him. I’m sure the first thing you noticed about this painting were his eyes. In fact, it’s very difficult to stop staring into them. This is the look of someone who is very sure of himself and unafraid to stare back. But this effect (this message) would be broken were not both eyes equally illuminated. When he painted this self-portrait Tintoretto was 28 and vying to be Venice’s #1 painter during the Renaissance—he knew damn well he couldn’t appear meek or humble. Kings, Popes and Emperors did not commission works of art from such men. Do you think he got his message across?
Now let’s take a look at the following painting by Titian. Brief interlude: Please recall how you looked at this image the first time, where your eyes went first, and in what direction they moved over the canvas. I’ll try to guess this direction further down.
Here Titian has made use of a localised unsharp mask in the face area. Click on the image for a larger version, and hopefully you’ll see what I mean, although this reproduction does not do justice to the original canvas measuring 124.5 x 105.5 cm (49″ x 41.6″). Titian paid fatherly attention to Venus’s face and hair, while the rest of her body is soft and unfocused by comparison. The same way photographers use shallow depth of field to draw attention to a particular person in a crowd, Titian draws the viewer to Venus’s face by making it sharper than the rest of the canvas. However, he goes one step further in his attempt to manipulate the viewer. Have you noticed the strong diagonal composition in this scene? Starting at the top-right corner and moving towards the opposite corner we find Venus’s face in the mirror, her bellybutton, and finally her leg under the robe leading out of the frame. Notice how the cloth over her leg is again sharp? However that which is wrapped around her left arm is unfocused. None of this was by chance—Titian wanted to control how you saw the painting, and probably succeeded. This is how I’m guessing you looked at it (see blue arrows in painting to the right): Starting with Venus’s face, you followed her gaze towards the mirror, then you moved down the diagonal towards the bottom-left corner, lingering on the luscious material of the robe before being released from Titian’s grasp, at which point your eyes were then free to move around the canvas, so to speak. Was I right?
Why did Titian decide upon this particular composition? Why is Venus’s navel precisely halfway between her reflection and the corner of the canvas? I’ll leave these questions for the reader to figure out.
Is there anything strange about this painting? You probably answered “no”. Imagine you’re back in the mid 16th century in front of this gentleman and you want to take this photograph using just your camera (be it digital or film). You wouldn’t be able to do it. If you exposed such that the face was as bright as it is, his clothes would have been brighter, plus the scene outside would have completely blown out due to being too bright. There is no camera capable of rendering both the outside and inside of this scene in one single exposure because the dynamic range is too wide. A photographer taking this portrait would have used reflectors and/or strobes to bring up the brightness of the gentleman in order to compensate for the light outside. On top of this (s)he would have snooted the face to increase its brightness and make it stand out. If no snoot was available at the time of shooting, applying some localised exposure increase in Photoshop could achieve a similar result.
What these artists accomplished in their paintings is nothing different to what we, as photographers, attempt to capture with our photographs. Both painting and photography are limited by the tools available to the artist, which is why we need to work around those limits to get our message across. In most cases, all a painter or photographer wants to do is show a scene in the way that you would have seen it had you been their. While these 16th century artists knew nothing about the human brain and how it processes reality through our senses, they did understand that memory and vision are selective. That is why Venus’s head is so sharp while the rest of her body isn’t, or why Tintoretto’s eyes are so bright, or why Veronese’s gentleman has such a bright face—the artists wanted us to focus on and remember Venus’s face, Tintoretto’s piercing stare, and the anonymous gentleman’s features. Anything else on the canvas was secondary.
“It has never been the artist’s goal to reproduce reality, but rather to transmit the emotion reality evokes.”
A camera can capture a scene literally, but that’s not how human vision works, nor memory. Because of this limitation in our perception (or is it an advantage?), we, as artists, have to manipulate images in one way or another, either before or after shooting (or both!), in order to reproduce, not reality, but our vision, both literal and metaphorical. After all, it has never been the artist’s goal to reproduce reality, but rather to transmit the emotion reality evokes.
Centuries later we continue this noble struggle, and while the physical tools or the workshop may be different, the methods are exactly the same—because the more things change…the more they stay the same.