The Painters and the Camera

  By John Veldhoen

There is a well-known story about the so-called “blue period” of paintings by Pablo Picasso. It goes that Picasso became friends with a Catalan youth that he met in Paris, named Carlos Casagemas, a thoroughly 19th century cliché bohemian obsessive type who ended up shooting himself over an unrequited love. The historian Anne Baldessari conjectured that a cyanotype in a Picasso trove is of Casagemas, and that Picasso is likely the photographer. A cyanotype is a cyan-blue print. The story is this blueprint of Casagemas, which, it might be said, is rather beautiful, gave Picasso the idea for his “blues”, a series of paintings, beginning with a painting of his dead friend. That painting, even if it is like all paintings and a “reproach to photography”, is not as beautiful as the incipient cyanotype, conjectured to start the sequence of paintings called the “blue period”. In “Picasso and the Camera”, I got to see the cyanotype for the first time, and as well, look through the lens of the painter who has had arguably the most durable effect on abstract expression in the arts. The cyanotype entitled “Jeune homme” never appears in photographic surveys. It does not seem photographic, for all of the singularity and contrivance of it. To Picasso, mourning the death of his friend, trying to find some creative gesture to make sense of a tragic event, the cyanotype may have seemed like an explanation, a form of a creative direction, a sign so to speak, even if to us now it seems like exposition, and an imperfect perfect analogon.

There are more than two ways of telling a story. One way is to organize information as a chronological sequence. Another way is to employ a narrative. In the first way of telling a story what counts is the events in their series, in the other, what counts is how the events come together to achieve an overall effect, regardless of the order in which things “really” happened. A third way of telling a story is by making events “eventual”, subtending events to their own “event-ing”, making a story a tableaux, viewable in parts, and all at once. The third way is most like painting, and photography, and some examples of filmmaking. Now, seeing that there are different ways of telling a story, why am I writing a book review about painters, especially since I sell books for The Camera Store, books ostensibly about photography, while also writing about story-telling? Well, I don’t agree with the great volume of recent art writing that claims to “read” everything under the sun. The greatest art is a revelation, and is more than something experienced (or read). Good painting and photography have more to do with the third way of telling.

Other painters sit side by side with Picasso on the shelves at The Camera Store. One of my favorite books, for instance, is of Robert Rauchenberg’s Photographs. His blueprint photograms are, just like the rest of his “straight” photography, reason enough to put him in with the first order of American photographers, but he will be forever seen first as a painter. Likewise, Ian Wallace occupies a place on our shelves, and I can find formal comparisons between Rauchenberg, and Wallace, through Marcel Duchamp, but in part this is probably due to how I am reading David Campany’s wonderful new book “A Handful of Dust. I don’t have the space to draw out the lines, but it is enough to point in a direction sometimes. What I have noticed about the present world of photography? It isn’t that photographers are not looking at enough photographs, but that they’re not thinking enough like painters.

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In addition to being on our sales team, John curates The Camera Store's book selection and is a contributing author of our blog. He likes to think about photography, talk about photography, and sometimes write about photography.