Photography and painting influence each other

THE BALTIMORE SUN

PHOTOGRAPHY and painting have had a fruitful relationship since photography's invention in 1839. Actually, since before that.

The precursor of photography, the so-called camera obscura (Latin for "dark chamber"), was invented in 1457 as an aid to drawing. It was basically a room-sized box with an aperture in one side that allowed light from outside to project an image onto a screen within, where the artist could trace it on a piece of paper.

After Louis Daguerre found a way to fix the image produced by a lens in the 19th century, photography did its darnedest to put painting out of business.

The miniature painted portrait was soon supplanted by the daguerreotype. Later, landscape and architectural photographs could be produced much more cheaply than paintings of the same subjects; they were cheaper even than etchings.

Thus was the battle joined. As early as 1842, a magazine writer was complaining that "the artist cannot compete with the minute accuracy of the Daguerreotype." By 1859, essayist Charles Baudelaire was denouncing photography as "the mortal enemy of art."

"If photography is allowed to stand in for art in some of its functions," Baudelaire fumed, "it will soon supplant or corrupt it completely."

And a few years later, the writer Hippolyte Fandrin lamented: "I greatly fear that photography has dealt a death blow to art."

I was reminded of this contentious history by the current show at the C. Grimaldis Gallery on Charles Street. Half the show is devoted to recent paintings by Baltimore artist Karl Connolly, whose naturalistic figurative and landscape subjects explore some visual conventions of painting and photography.

The other half presents photographs by Leland Rice, Christopher Myers and Bernd and Hilla Becher, all of whom in some way share an interest in interpreting the modern industrial landscape.

The juxtaposition of painting and photography at the show gives pause for reflection on the ways the two arts have influenced each other over the last 150 years.

Initially, of course, photography was the upstart art that had to prove its value against the long and highly developed tradition of Western painting.

Not surprisingly, early photographers adopted the simple expedient of imitating painting in order to demonstrate that they were "serious" artists.

By the turn of the present century, however, painters began to realize they were waging a losing battle against the camera's illusion of truthfulness.

Photography's naturalism in large part produced the impetus for painting's move toward abstraction, which gave rise to all the "isms" that have characterized 20th-century art.

The painters abandoned realism to the photographers, and thus maintained the prestige of their art. In order not to be outdone in matters of artistic prestige, photographers eventually began experimenting with abstraction, too.

By the 1970s, things started coming full circle when painters, after eschewing realistic art for the better part of a century, suddenly began producing works that deliberately imitated photography.

This love-hate relationship between painting and photography, and the progress of artistic competition between them over the last 75 years constitute a fascinating subtext to the Grimaldis show.

For example, Connolly's series of small landscapes have, at first glance, the casual informality of Polaroid snapshots. They are square, rather than rectangular, and the artist's shimmering greens and blues, along with the slightly blurred backgrounds reminiscent of the varying depth of field of an inexpensive camera lens, lend an oddly offhand aspect to the pictures.

At the opposite pole are Rice's pictures of graffiti and protest art painted on the wall separating east and west Berlin during the last decade of the Cold War.

To residents on the western side, the Berlin Wall symbolized the communist tyranny imposed by Stalin on the east in 1949 and the disastrous division of their country after World War II.

The striking forms, saturated colors and seemingly random juxtaposition of figures and text give Berlin Wall art an irreverent, collage-like aspect reminiscent of abstract expressionism.

As a result, Rice's photographs look so much like the New York School of painting that when the gallery sent out announcements for the show with one of the photographer's pictures on the cover, another artist who also exhibits at the gallery called in to ask: "So, who's this new painter you've got?"

Pub Date: 2/15/98

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