Review: The Painting of Modern Life


Art, Book Reviews

PaintingOfModernLife.jpg Painting and photography exist in a very weird relationship; and I’m increasingly becoming convinced that it is photography - and not painting - which has the real trouble figuring out what to do, how to deal with what the other can do. Maybe this is because photography has become complacent: Still the new kid on the art block - easy if all the other art forms are hundreds of years old (or older) - photographers rarely, if ever, venture beyond their narrow confines. These days, for many photographers large prints seem like the most important essence of painting to adopt; and even over that photography critics are throwing hissy fits.

Those, of course, are nothing compared to what is still being said about anything that truly goes beyond orthodox photographic image making. Unfortunately, many attempts to investigate photography - for example by collecting images and presenting them as groupings - strike me as, well, frustratingly pedestrian: Here we have hundreds of images of the Sun, taken from some photo-sharing website. And here are hundreds of newspaper photos of houses photographed from the air. OK, I get it.

The only well-known photographer who really pushes the boundaries, Thomas Ruff, is routinely being trashed because “it’s not photography any longer”. I personally don’t even like all of his various projects (some I like a lot, others not so much); but who else dares to so happily produce ever new images, using whatever might be available, while often making profound observations of how those images and their making tie in with our culture?

But Ruff aside, for the most part, we are left with debates about photography and “photo illustrations” - after all these years of photography and image making! Seriously?

I know I’m being a bit provocative here; I know I am simplifying things.

I am drawn towards painting that uses photography. So The Painting of Modern Life was a natural book to buy for me, in particular since it has a very clear and obvious focus on how the artists in it - amongst them Andy Warhol and Gerhard Richter, to name just two - use(d) photography, in whatever way, with whatever idea. To see the artists in The Painting of Modern Life talk about image-making, photography, and their art almost makes me want to write… no, it does make me write: Can we please stop talking about print sizes or Photoshop and all that irrelevant nonsense concerning manipulation and start talking about what we could do with photography - just as if we had a cool new art form threatening ours? Or better still: just do it?

The Painting of Modern Life ultimately is as much about photography as it is about painting; and anyone interested in moving photography away from the orthodoxy which still dominates the discourse might want to have a look at it. Visually and intellectually stimulating it’s one of those books that you can - and will - come back to.