Unreal Nature

April 12, 2016

A Camera Doesn’t Have Ideas

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:50 am

… the eye tends to focus either on the reflection or on the interior, but both can be painted with equal emphasis.

This is from John Canaday’s introduction to Richard Estes: The Urban Landscape (1978):

… Super-realism eschews suggestion and depends on exact statement, a simple credo that needs to be better understood by painters who do not recognize that “exact statement” involves more than sharp definition. Relative tonalities (that is, degrees of light and dark) and relative color intensities must be more accurately observed and reproduced, or more consistently modified, in super-realism than in any other form of painting if a detailed reproduction of the visual world is to hold together as a work of art.

… New York is our century’s generic city just as Paris and London were those of the nineteenth. Painters have tended to divide New York’s complicated entity into two contrasting aspects — the city’s driving, inexorable force epitomized in John Marin’s semiabstract expressionistic interpretations, where the skyscapes of lower Manhattan explode with energy; and the secluded crannies painted by Edward Hopper, where shelter from the city’s dehumanizing assault may be found at the price of loneliness.

[line break added] It must be significant in some way that the concept of New York as a glorious Frankenstein’s monster with a life of its own, independent of the people who built it, has been best expressed by abstract devices, while the fate of these people has been told in terms of humanistic realism.

Estes’s New York does not fit well into either division, but can be related to both. Reality and reflections of reality become all but indistinguishable from one another, until reality becomes a kind of fantasy in spite of rigidly explicit factual details. Looking into one of Estes’s store windows we can hardly tell what is in front of us and what is reflected from behind us.

[line break added] We are at the center of an environment where our own reality becomes questionable. Undeniably we are present; our position is defined by the exactness of the perspective; we are standing at a point where normally our image would occur somewhere in the galaxy of reflections, but we are ignored as if atomized.


… We are fascinated by his revelation of the world around us.

The following is from an edited conversation in September of 1977 between Richard Estes and John Arthur:

[ … ]

Arthur: The one you’re working on now (Downtown) is certainly a very complicated spatial composition. In other paintings, such as the façades with reflections in the glass, the space is layered and it’s difficult to get a fix on the space. The reflection in the glass doubles the space. We see not only inside the picture plane but also what occurs in front of the picture plane or façade. Because of that, they differ from the traditional receding planes. The space in those paintings is fragmented, but much deeper than Cubist space. Of course, Canaletto never had those plate-glass windows to play with.

Estes: In reality, you don’t get that either because the eye tends to focus either on the reflection or on the interior, but both can be painted with equal emphasis.

[ … ]

Estes: … I took a lot of photographs of people on the street — just wandered around New York photographing people — and I began to notice a lot of other things happening. You know how it is with a 35mm camera and 36 exposures; I was just snapping pictures. If anyone had shown me in 1965 what I would be painting in 1967 I wouldn’t have believed it. I was just walking around the city photographing things, and that was what was there. It wasn’t that I thought about it or planned it.

[ … ]

Estes: … what I’m trying to paint is not something different, but something more like the place I’ve photographed. Somehow the paint and the intensity of color emphasize the light and do things to build up form that a photograph does not do. In that way the painting is superior to the photograph. I think that for figures it would be better not to use photographs. There’s far more information if you have the person sitting there. You really don’t know what a person looks like from a photograph.

[line break added] The reason I take a lot of photographs is to make up for the fact that one photograph really doesn’t give me all the information I need. Also, the camera is like one eye and it really deals only with values. And painting is trickery, because you can make people respond by guiding their eyes around the picture. The photograph doesn’t do that because a camera doesn’t have ideas.

[ … ]

Estes: … in a way, people don’t see things until they’re shown. A lot of people have said they never noticed any of this until they saw my paintings. They’ve lived in New York all their lives and it’s always been there, but people simply didn’t see it because their eyes were not attuned to it. People found the Impressionist paintings very shocking when they first saw them because the color wasn’t what they were accustomed to seeing. Now, with color photography, we find that the Impressionists were absolutely right. But at that time the public was walking around in a brown haze.

[ … ]

Estes: And yet many of the critics dismissed realism more than twenty years ago. They decided that there wasn’t anything left to paint realistically, therefore it was the end of the line. It’s not that there wasn’t any more left to paint; it was simply that they didn’t have the imagination to see that there was a lot.

[ … ]

Arthur: But don’t you ever reach a point, after spending months on a painting, of looking at it and saying, “My God, is it really worth this much effort?” Aren’t there paintings that you get bored with before they’re finished?

Estes: Actually, it’s been my experience that the paintings I’ve hated working on the most and have gotten the most bored with, really feeling were terrible while working on them, have ended up being my best paintings. The ones that I’ve had a real enthusiasm for, a real feel for, I thought they were masterpieces at the time but realize they are duds six months later.




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