“A photograph is static because it has stopped time. A drawing is static but it encompasses time. ” – John Berger People have been drawing since the dawn of humanity, as evidenced in early cave drawings and wall frescos. The development of paper had a major impact on the way that drawing was recorded and distributed. In 1826, the invention of the camera had a profound effect on the world, providing a new way of recording information.
In this essay, I will discuss and compare the acts of recording through drawing – the “human eye” – and cameras – the “mechanical eye,” drawing on images from periods of time since the early cameras of the nineteenth century. Specifically, I have chosen three periods that relate to human conflicts; the Crimean War, the Vietnam War and the recent war in Iraq. Through these three periods I will explore the developments in technology, and in processes and philosophy of the acts of recording, both by drawing and by lens based media.Order now
We begin our discussion in the 1850s, when for the first time we can compare the acts of recording by drawing and photography The Crimean war artist, William Simpson was respected as bringing the reality of war to the British people. He went to the Crimean war and; “he reported faithfully, sometimes disapprovingly on what he saw He preferred accuracy to drama, spirit to extravagance” (Lipscomb, 1999) His famous painting “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (figure 1) was undoubtedly a sustained study, bringing together a number of sketches of the event to provide a full image for the viewer.
Conversely, Crimean war photographer Rogar Fenton never captured battles, explosions, and the blood and tears that is a moving image of war The first practical photographic method, daguerreotype, had a process too slow to capture a moving image; it needed to focus for a longer period on an unmoving object.
But Michelle Bogre tells us that “If action happened too fast for them to be able record it, they resorted to finding or staging events that symbolically replicated what they had really seen” (2011,19-20) This seems true of Fenton, in his famous photograph “The Valley of The Shadow of Death” (Figure 2) Arriving at the battlefield months after the battle was over, he took two images of the scene; one with, and one without cannonballs, “Photo historians suspect that he and his assistants scattered the all-important cannonballs”, (Bogre, 2011, 20)
Phillip Bounds suggests that “unlike other means of communicating, which represent events or things across an appreciable stretch of time, the camera records a single instant in complete isolation from the temporal continuum to which it belongs” (Bounds, 2011). “The Valley of the Shadow of Death” appears very static, as we cannot see evidence of war, such as explosions, army, fighting. We just see the landscape and without close scrutiny for the cannonballs, it has no meaning and context. It is a frozen moment which at best captures the aftermath of war. Perhaps it best described by Barthes: “photography is a new sort of hallucination: false on the level of perception, true on the level of time” (Vanvolsem, 2005, 51,)
William Simpson, however, draws what he sees while at war, but then brings his canvas home to continue and complete his painting, “The Charge of the Light Brigade”. The results are more dramatic as the picture includes many details (white explosive, postural angles, fighting, and weather) to convey a sense of movement, and therefore to encompass time. By the twentieth century, technology had advanced; the camera is able to accurately capture faster.
In later twentieth century conflict, the photographer was able to capture events and scenes of war as they were happening. For both artist and photographer there are a number of choices to be made in recording. Berger suggests: “The photographer’s way of seeing is reflected in his choice of subject. The painter’s way of seeing is reconstituted by the marks he makes on the canvas or paper” (1972, 10). The artist has options of mark-making, choice of colour, and medium. Take, for example, “Vietnam! ” by Antonio Frasconi (figure 3).
His choice of colours; vibrant reds, purples and oranges, convey a sense of heat and intensity, and his choice of mark making provide a wider reference. This image, with its generic two faces, creates a sense that is wider than an individual experience. Frasconi spent much time composing “Vietnam! ’, and creates within it a narrative of war. Combining the element of bombs dropping with the human faces, Frasconi is encompassing the whole experience of war in a single image. Although the photographer sees everything, there is a need to provide focus, to edit, perhaps even to crop for clarity or political viewpoint.
The image of “Vietnam Napalm” by Nick Ut (figure 4) has impact and is shocking due to its choice of subject, a naked child running toward the camera. The photographer has clearly made this child the focal point, and so, while we “see everything”, we are drawn to an image which aims to create maximum impact. From his fixed position, the photographer seems only able to hint at events, actions that did happen before the click or are about to happen” (Vanvolsem, 2005, 50) When Ut’s photograph was published it shocked the world by capturing a horrific moment in the lives of ordinary people. The viewer sees a naked girl running.
They don’t know what’s happened before and after this picture. It was a moment frozen in time. However, “a mere headline or caption can go a long way towards ‘explaining’ a photograph, even if it is taken in with a fleeting glance” (Bounds, 2011). The title of this photograph, “Vietnam Napalm” provides a context and an event by which to understand the image. The camera fixes the image in time, giving the viewer time to focus on one thing, such as facial expression. As Berger is quotes as saying “a photograph arrests the flow of time in which the event photographed once existed” (Bounds 2011).
In the late twentieth-century the advancement of technology has forever changed the way in which we record, publish and communicate with the world. The Iraq war artist Michael Fay, demonstrates that contemporary war art demands more than merely recording what is seen. “I want it to be a part of a narrative, not separate from what I and the world are experiencing“(Nagy & Stocke 2012). Fay experienced the Iraq War first hand, and had a vast stock of memories and visual images to draw on in creating his art. (Figure 5) His work strives to communicate real experiences of war, but he is committed to the narrative within his work.
He not only SEES the war, but EXPERIENCES it as a combat soldier, and thus his work is retrospective and reflective. “Fay calls his art a form of slowed vision” (Nagy,Stoke,2012). The abundance of recording media in the 21st Century means that photojournalistic images are easily accessible and instant. Cameras, mobile phones and other digital media flood us with images from around the world, almost in real time. This almost brings new meaning to the suggestion that “the camera sees everything”. Contemporary photographers have to find new ways to create impact in a saturated visual market.
Iraq war photographer Suzanne Opton does not go out to the war and share her experience, nor attempt to recount real time war events, but rather creates portraits of military personnel. Maimon claims, “If we look at objects during one or a hundred seconds, there always appears to us the same relation between the strong lights, the half tints, and the shadows (2011, 965). Opton’s work, in the focus on light and shade, somehow captures time in a longer way than a single moment. Moreover, the work has a timeless quality, rather than being rooted in a specific period of time.
Maimon says of the visual of the camera obscura, “it remains always the same, and for this reason appears more perfect,” (2011, 965). Opton’s portraits of Iraq service personnel (Nagy & Stocke 2012) try “to apply some provocative structure to a real moment in time. ” (Nagy & Stocke, 2012) Opton states “I guess I want the public to see the impact of war on a young person’s face” (Nagy & Stocke, 2012) Clearly, Opton is striving for empathy from the viewer, echoing Berger: “We never look at just one thing; we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves” (1972, 9).
In both photography and drawing, the human element is vital; the camera is a tool; there is still a person making choices. While Dziga Vritov claims that the camera is “A mechanical eye. I, the machine, show you a world the way only I can see it” (Berger,1972) Berger argues the opposite: “Photographs are not, as is often assumed, mechanical records. Every time we look at photographs, we are aware, however slightly, of the photographer selecting that sight from an infinity of other possible sights” (Berger, 1972,10)
In conclusion, we see that since the invention of the camera, the practice of photography has undergone massive changes, while the practice of drawing remains very much the same. The emergence of modern photography has opened the world visually on a scale that drawing was not able to achieve. While we relied on artists to record information accurately and relay it to the people, modern technology enables everyone to record and share through lens based media. But while most people are able to use cameras, the skills involved in drawing are still rare, and this elevates drawing for me into a more special realm.
Moreover, the modern artist not only records, but interprets what they see, and this is seen in the emergence of abstract art. Our modern culture demands instant images, and photojournalists get well paid for timely images, whereas artists seem less in demand. It raises the question of the future; will photography continue as the dominant act of recording, or will there be a re-emergence of drawing? Perhaps the combination of drawing and photography with digital manipulation will prove to be the most popular means of recording?
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