Working from Photos?

In the Tyler studios, there’s an ongoing conversation around the problematics of painting from photographic references. I think this is an important issue to think about. Below, “the challenge" summarizes a common argument against working from photos. My response follows.

The challenge: To work from a photograph is to weigh a painting down with needless, complicating baggage. The camera does not see as the eye sees, or the imagination, or memory--when we paint representationally from photographs, we're letting a coldly inhuman machine mediate our account of the world. It's impossible to use a picture "just as a reference.” To paint from photographs is to succumb to our problematic, mainstream culture of letting photographic images “stand in” for real world experiences. The only ok way to do it is very conceptually, intentionally, and making a good painting is hard enough without that extra struggle. 

In my own work, I alternate between painting from photography and using inventive abstraction. This is a critical, generative back-and-forth. It's like rubbing a stick between two palms.  The painting (ideally) becomes a complex, new space, with markers of photographic perception. I think the photographic bits do, consciously, invoke Realism--as in the reality of how we see the world through photography. I think my work treads a line between idealism and a cynical view of present affairs.

We live in the 21st century, denying photography's infiltration of human perception can only seal Painting's fate of obsolescence. Why not deal with this reality through a self-conscious use of photographic references?

The whole argument feels tied to the belief that painting and art are irreconcilable disciplines. It's an idea I’ve encountered in American universities as well as in alternative academies--when I was studying under Odd Nerdum, a prominent student literally laughed in my face when I declared that I aspired to be both a good painter and an artist. But why the hell not shoot for both? 

Possible Painting Statement

Experiencing a painting is akin to experiencing a landscape, at least in how we take it in through our eyes and also through some mysterious emotional or psychological level. Akin, also, in how one can look out into a space and sort of swim in it, get lost in it, without moving the feet. I think this experience is an essential indicator of our humanity, one that slips away as we increasingly experience the world through the mediation of screens.

My paintings are not utopian. To varying degrees, they reflect this ecstatic sense of wonder that refers to my in-person experiences of different natural landscapes, but also, they bring up the more problematic reality of humans’ relationship to landscape today, and how we rapidly digest it through photography. The paintings are peppered with photographic sections and contrast the visual cues of our human interventions--power lines, artificial colors, banal architectural structures--with signs of nature.

I try to imbue my paintings with multiple speeds of digestion. There’s an overall drama, accessible through the image’s reproduction on social media and the internet. Realistically, 90% of the people who see my paintings will encounter them online. But the image is not the painting, it should draw you in, entice you to a slower look, and ultimately reward the in-person perceptual experience the most.

I am deeply influenced by how different members of my family, not to mention my country, possess clashing worldviews. In our divided times, I hope for peace in difference, through empathy. In the paintings, I see the co-existence of formal, dynamic tensions and overall harmony as metaphorical, rendering the paintings ultimately hopeful. Further, by creating a space that feels impossible, like something you’ve never seen before, but that’s believable, I hope my paintings can evoke a critical sense of discovery and possibility.