From the day photography was invented, painters have flaunted their perfect SATs, leaving photographers to look like the unemployed, pot-smoking brother sleeping on the couch. A photographer clicks the shutter and the hard work is done. Heroic painters, on the other hand, start with a blank canvas and use only their talent and imagination to drive forward.
Painters are helped on their way to the Ivy League by tools that photographers can only dream about. Size is one. When Eugéne Delacroix wanted to express the power and drama of war, he made his paintings 12 feet wide. Robert Capa’s battle scenes don’t lack for emotion but his small, black-and-white pictures can’t compete on many levels. Thankfully, the Dusseldorf school—Gursky, Struth, Hofer—tackled the problem and empowered contemporary photographers to work at almost any scale they like.
Another tool available to painters is abstraction. From Kandinsky on, abstraction has been a liberating force for countless painters. Many photographers saw the possibilities but it’s obviously been a much harder tool for them to use. (There’s digital manipulation, of course, but I have many qualms about computers and I don’t want them in my art.)
My ambitions lay in the direction of abstraction. I’d never break completely from the world; it’s much too rich in source material to forego entirely. But I want to make the ordinary unfamiliar, something like Edward Weston did with rocks and vegetables.
More than one person has told me that my pictures look like a painting, or have used the word “painterly” to describe them. It’s a description I’m happy to hear. Art is illusion and the illusion and I’m quite comfortable with the illusion that my pictures are made of brushstrokes. Photographers like Bill Jacobson and Uta Barth are two more photographers whose work is explicitly painterly and I’d be quite happy to have drinks with them.
Of course, painterly doesn’t narrow things down much. Some of my stuff looks like color field painting; others bring Agnes Martin to mind. Look at “Bedside Reading,” noting that the books at the bottom of the picture, while a tiny fraction of the photo, are critical to the composition. They make the photo recognizable, a part of our world, not simply an exercise in theory.