Friday, October 27, 2017

Those painted photographs

Woman in overcoat, photobooth snapshot, anonymous hand-coloring, ca 1950, private collection

It's irresistible, the desire to touch the surface of a photo with brush or pen and thereby change it into something more expressive.  Often this involves color, whether adding color to a color photo (which is not the same as bringing coals to Newcastle) or adding it to a black and white photo, but it doesn't have to.  You may remember a rather delirious post from a few years ago on zombie prints and Lazarus prints (yes, they exist), on bringing prints back to life when you thought they were hopelessly dead.  Most of the artistic interventions shown there involved using marker pens to scribble a few lines to highlight or obliterate a figure, or to make a comment, ironic or slyly humorous.  Many of those lines were black or white as though in homage to the chemistry, but color works just as well - if not better.  Today we're going to look at a few ways color has been exploited to further enhance photos in a variety of artistic practices in recent years, and from this it is hoped the reader may discover ideas that he or she can use in their own work.

Martha Casanave, Girl with device, albumen print, hand-colored, 2009-2016

Not everyone is aware that coloring a photograph, or hand-coloring as it is commonly called (or hand-tinting), is as old as photography itself.  To render the earliest portraits more realistic (always thought to be a good thing) hand-coloring appeared in the 1830s practically with the invention of photography, and soon wealthy clients had their private colorist on call, a matter in their milieu of some prestige.  Methods employed by the colorists varied according to substrate, as photographic technology passed in rather short order from metal plates (daguerrotypes, tintypes) to glass plates (wet plate collodion) and finally to paper - I'm sure I'm skipping a step or two. Often a varnish or other medium was applied to the surface beforehand to insure an even adhesion, and water colors, oils, dyes, pastels each had their devotees as the main colorant vehicle.  The many manuals written on these efforts are still worth the while to peruse for the serious student of hand-coloring and can be found on the internet.

Luis Vasquez, postcard, hand-colored, ca 1940, private collection

Yet these developments were not without their detractors in the serious photographic community: many artists saw in hand-coloring a corruption of the pure photographic tones of the emulsion, regarded as sacrosanct - although hypocritically they didn't seem to mind retouching a photo here and there with drops of inks and dyes where necessary.  In any event, their fears receded when Kodak introduced the first widely available color film, Kodachrome, in 1935, and demand for hand-coloring slid into gradual decline, becoming no longer commercially viable by 1950 except within certain traditions, like the flamboyant hand-painted postcards from the workshop of Luis Vasquez in Mexico.  Traditional hand-coloring, meaning a practice perpetuating the aims, concerns and methods of the earlier era, and often but not exclusively based on the use of Marshall's Photo Oils, a staple of the trade, has today become a niche artisanal activity with its own distinct rewards and pleasures, though perhaps limited in reach.  An excellent example of what can be achieved is seen in some of Martha Casanave's work.

So from the sixties onward artistic intentions in the use of color shifted, with acrylics and gouache beginning to assume a more prominent role; this is especially seen in work where overpainting to the edge of opacity is more crucial than simple tinting.  The painted photographs that Saul Leiter executed for his private amusement in the closing decades of the twentieth century, after making a name for himself both in fashion and in street photography, are a case in point.  In their lyricism and utter abandon, Leiter has taken the notion of painted photographs to a culmination, so much so that the underlying photograph just nominally provides the support and occasion but otherwise is hardly visible.

Saul Leiter, ca. 1990

Saul Leiter, ca 1990

Saul Leiter, ca 1990

This leads us to think about other strategies for hand-coloring, if we can be bold enough to group widely disparate approaches under a common heading.  We must step back for a moment.  At the beginning there was the classic mode of an informed realism, filling in for the poverty of monochrome photography and using materials meant not to cover up but to enliven that photography.  It is true that this later became exaggerated at times to the level of kitsch (see Woman in overcoat), but that is not to diminish its accomplishments, for out if it came a body of methods of extreme subtlety and finesse; some of this heritage is alive and well today and put to high artistic purpose - go back and review Casanave's picture Wave Machine where only the starfish gets hand-colored, the other details having glanced off into a suspicious tangle of background.

William Klein, ca 1960-1990

William Klein's aggressive daubs over contact sheets from the 1960s is a result of a different meditation, one that looks back into drawers of old prints after years and disavows or re-embraces their attitude across the gap in time with a sort of schoolboy graphism, one that prefigures Lazarus prints and confers a revivified existence while sidestepping responsibilities of ownership.

William Klein, ca 1960-1990

At another extreme is the work of Anselm Kiefer, especially that part of it set in a timeless ether of intellectual history and unfulfilled promise, where multiple shades of grey invoke a retreating but ever-present past.  Here graphite and gouachy layers over photographs of uncertain provenance serve up the general mood; in the best of his pictures the effect is disturbing.

Anselm Kiefer, Leonardo Pisano, liber quadratorum, 2008
Anselm Kiefer, Sefiroth, 2002

Though not limited to photo-based work, one of the benefits of working with photos is that you can reprint them endlessly in trying out different painted looks or ways to proceed before you have to commit.  Kim Weston in recent years has turned to overpainting his photos of models and dancers, where the method seems well suited to that theatricalized world.  Here, in a talk in Carmel, he demonstrates how he can dress and re-dress his models at will, from a given photograph, to gauge the effect.

Kim Weston, from a talk in Carmel June 30, 2012

So a photograph is more than a picture, it is an opportunity, an open invitation.  When poet and singer Todd Colby was gifted with a trove of photographer's calling-cards from the pre-WWI era, he did the natural thing, he painted them.  Here are two:

Todd Colby, hand-colored vintage calling-card, 2017

Todd Colby, hand-colored vintage calling-card, 2017
These are extraordinary in their simplicity, and show how the artist's hand can change the prosaic into something quite dramatic, bizarre, and (maybe) beautiful.  Go Todd!

To close this post let me point out what should be obvious: that hand-coloring is not limited to the subjects of the real world.  In my own work of cameraless photography, untethered as it is to anything we usually call real, I find moments when I have an overwhelming inclination to smear on some paint, just to see what it does.

Douglas Collins, etched chemigram with hand-coloring, 2016

A philosopher once said a picture can be a picture of anything, if you expand the concept of picture sufficiently.  Or maybe Todd Colby said it.