Making Art from Art

A Matter of Light. Nine photographers in the Vatican Museums, Contrasto, 2018

‘Making Art from Art’, an essay written for the exhibition catalogue A Matter of Light. Nine photographers in the Vatican Museums, Contrasto Books, 2018

Publisher’s description:

The book brings together the eyes of nine masters of international photography called to interpret the prestigious and precious uniqueness of the Vatican Museums. The book and the related exhibition derive from the intention to constitute the first photographic collection within the Contemporary Art Collection of the Vatican Museums. It is the first time that a Museum has commissioned a production of this type, aimed at constituting a new photographic collection inseparably linked to the museum itself, which becomes both its subject and its recipient.

The photographers chosen to work within the Vatican Museums are Bill Armstrong, Peter Bialobrzeski, Antonio Biasiucci, Alain Fleischer, Francesco Jodice, Mimmo Jodice, Rinko Kawauchi, Martin Parr and Massimo Siragusa. Each one of them has worked in distinct moments and on different aspects of this multiple museum, producing nine autonomous works that document and interpret the interior and architectural space of the halls, the flow of visitors and the memories that daily animate the people and spaces, the works on display and those conserved in the deposits, signs of wear and tear, and bodily traces.

The project A Matter of Light. Nine photographers in the Vatican Museums is intended to construct a series of pathways between imagination and memory, documentation and interpretation, composing a collection of images that may become an archive of the present, a tool for understanding and observation, a key allowing access to future studies, through visions that, though diverse, are all current and necessary in different ways.

The photographs in the book are accompanied by the institutional texts of the Mayor of Milan Giuseppe Sala, the Councilor of Culture Filippo Del Corno, the Director of Palazzo Reale Domenico Piraina and the Director of the Vatican Museums Barbara Jatta. In the book there are also the critical essays by the two curators of the show, Micol Forti and Alessandra Mauro, and by the critics David Campany, Giovanni Careri and Johanne Lamoureux.



Making Art from Art

By David Campany

The relation of photography to art tends to be seen in two ways.  On the one hand photography produces, and reproduces, images and knowledge of all the visual arts. Painting, sculpture, installation, performance, and so on.  On the other, photography is an art in itself. Straight away, an antagonism seems clear: how can photography be a functional servant of the other arts while also being a means of subjective expression? Can the two roles ever be kept apart? And if not, what are the consequences for our uses and understandings of photography?

One way of answering these questions is to consider the practical and interpretive challenges that arise when the camera encounters different kinds of artworks.  For example, the English photographer Edwin Smith once described the making of an accurate photograph of a painting as:

“…perhaps one of the least creative of a photographer’s tasks. If he is sensitive to painting, there will be, if the work is admired, the consolation of having it to himself and of paying it the ritual homage of his own craft; though this pleasure may turn to torture when the work is despised – a condition not infrequent enough to be ignored!”[i]

When the artist Man Ray was asked in 1920 to make photographs of works belonging to the art collector Katherine S. Dreier, he was hesitant. “The thought of photographing the work of others was repugnant to me, beneath my dignity as an artist.”[ii]In truth, Man Ray had actually taught himself photography as means of documenting his own paintings and sculptures, but it soon took over his artistic interests. Serving other artists with his camera felt like a threat, a betrayal of his own artistic sensibility. (But he needed the money and accepted the commission.)

While technically challenging, the photographic documentation of paintings for reproduction tends to be understood as simple copy work, and the resulting images are generally regarded as the intellectual copyright of the painter. By contrast, a photograph of a work of sculpture can only ever be an interpretation. The angle, framing and lighting of the three-dimensional object require subjective decisions that affect, and even construct, the photographic experience of the artwork. Moreover, a photograph of a sculpture is likely to include something of its background and this involves another set of photographic choices. All this should in principle undermine the objective authority that any photograph of a sculpture might wish to claim for itself. However, objective authority is also a question of desire and need. Audiences have been encouraged to regard photographs of sculptures as adequate records. Many of the most famous sculptures in the world, from the Venus de Milo and Michelangelo’s David to Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain of 1917 are known by the wider public only as photographic images. Moreover, art history as an international discipline has always relied on photographic reproduction, while disavowing the fact. As Walter Benjamin noted in back in 1931:

“It is indeed significant that the debate has raged most fiercely around the aesthetics of photography-as-art, whereas the far less questionable social fact of art-as-photography was given scarcely a glance. And yet the impact of the photographic reproduction of artworks is of very much greater importance for the function of art than the greater or lesser artistry of a photography that regards all experience as fair game for the camera.”[iii]

When photography became an art in the modern era, it was within an art culture that had already been transformed by the photographic reproduction of all the arts.  Although much of the discussion of art reproduction is still informed by the writings of Benjamin, it is perhaps those of André Malraux that gets us closer to the matter, because he approached the paradox in a way that was both more honest and more deceptive. Malraux was making universal humanist claims for an over-arching history of all art across cultures that could be brought about through the editing and circulation of photographic reproductions. But at the same time, he accepted and discussed with startling insight the fact that such claims were, as he put it, the “specious” consequence of the camera. He wrote openly of the way in which the photographing of artworks allows for the manipulation of meaning. This is perhaps his most well-known passage:

“In our Museum Without Walls [Le Musée Imaginaire], picture, fresco, miniature, and stained-glass window seem of one and the same family. For all alike-miniatures, frescoes, stained glass, tapestries, Scynthian plaques, pictures, Greek vase paintings, ‘details’ and even statuary have become ‘color-plates.’ In the process they have lost their properties as objects; but, by the same token, they have gained something: the utmost significance as to style that they can possibly acquire.  It is hard for us clearly to realize the gulf between the performance of an Aeschylean tragedy, with the instant Persian threat and Salamis looming across the bay, and the effect we get from reading it; yet, dimly albeit we feel the difference. All that remains of Aeschylus is his genius. It is the same with figures that in reproduction lose their original significance as objects and function (religious or other); we see them only as works of art and they bring home to us only their makers’ talent. We might almost call them not ‘works’ but ‘moments’ of art […] Thus it is that, thanks to the rather specious unity imposed by photographic reproduction on a multiplicity of objects, ranging from the statue to the bas-relief, from bas-reliefs to seal-impressions, and from these to the plaques of the nomads, a ‘Babylonian style’ seems to emerge as a real entity, not a mere classification – as something resembling, rather, the life-story of a great creator. Nothing conveys more vividly and compellingly the notion of a destiny shaping human ends than do the great styles, whose evolutions and transformations seem like long scars that Fate has left, in passing, on the face of the earth.”[iv]

It is as if Malraux is warning us, and himself, against photographic reproduction. But this passage appears early within The Psychology of Art(1947-1949), Malraux’s great three-volume photographically illustrated history of world art (later published as one book,The Voices of Silence).All of Malraux’s publications on art embodied the last moment of a European humanist conception in which the art and cultures of the centuries and continents are swept up and organised to construct the past out of the ideological needs of a European present. But those publications were also avowedly reflexive works of art history in their flaunting acceptance of the false terms offered by photographic reproduction.  Behind this duality lay Malraux’s realisation that artworks are alreadyaltered fundamentally when they are plucked and placed in the museum. Photographic reproduction merely extends this alteration.

Malraux knew he could get away with a lot. He made extensive use of many editorial and design tricks to bring about his visual arguments. Sculptures were lit for the camera to emphasize selected qualities.Images were placed side by side to assert connections, or were flipped left to right to enhance the graphic flow. With dramatic crops and close ups he could control the eyes of an audience like a film director editing separate shots to give the realist illusion of a coherent world. After the Psychology of Artcame the three volumes of Le Musée Imaginaire de la Sculpture Mondiale (1952, 1954 and 1955). Here Malraux came to exploit fully the possibilities of the photographing of artworks. He fashioned a near-wordless visual essay out of hundreds of strategically shot and sequenced images. In order to work out exactly how he could achieve this, Malraux turned to Gisèle Freund, the photographer and photo-historian. Freund recalled:

“André Malraux had asked me to photograph a Mexican sculpture of the goddess of corn for his book Le Musée Imaginaire de la Sculpture Mondiale. I photographed from different angles and in changing light conditions, which made the same sculpture appear to be several different sculptures. I did this to prove to him that his idea concerning a work of art changing according to photography was altogether correct. Malraux chose one of these reproductions for his book, but his choice was conditioned by his own taste and his perception of this sculpture. The reproduction of an artwork depends on the perception not only of the photographer but of the viewer as well.”[v]


It is telling then, that when Malraux turns finally to the possibility of photography itself being an art form, one that might find its own place in his musée imaginaire, his assumptions about the medium are shaped by the founding conditions of his project as a whole. For him, photography was a medium of the document “paralyzed by the fact that it had no scope for fiction; it could record a dancer’s leap but it could not show the Crusaders entering Jerusalem”.[vi]As such, he argued, it could only aspire to become an art through the synthesis of editing, finding its optimal expressive form in cinema. The argument is a cop-out, of course, on many levels, and not only because photographic art had been (and would again be) interested in depicting crusaders entering Jerusalem.[vii]Firstly, Malraux tries to keep photography out of his musée imaginaireif not on aesthetic grounds then for the sake of simplicity, excusing him from having to deal with the far more complex dialectic between artwork and document introduced by modern photography in the 1920s and 30s as it emerged in dialogue not with the crusades but with the medium’s mass cultural, documentary and vernacular forms.  Secondly, ‘synthesis’ was just as significant for photography on the pages of magazines and books as it was for the cinema screen. Indeed, the books of Malraux himself, the supreme editor-magician, testify supremely well to this. His is an art history of singular images edited together.

In many ways the art culture of the 21stcentury remains caught in the paradox that Malraux demonstrated so well. Our desire for an art of photography is at odds with our desire for photographs of art. But this was not always the case. The widespread use of photography as a means of reproducing artworks really took hold only in the last decades of the nineteenth century, and accelerated in the early 20th.  Before then the relationship between photography as art and photography as documentation of art was much more fluid.

It is worth recalling that first known photographic image was of a flat art work. In 1822, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce made a copy of an engraving of Pope Pius VII. It was later destroyed during an attempt to copy it, so we only have a written record of its existence, and no real sense of Niépce’s intentions.  Was he thinking of photography as a form of interpretive copying, the way engraving or woodcuts based on artworks were understood? Or did he see it as something much more mechanical and neutral?  Whatever the case, many of the other pioneers of the medium chose to photograph art works.[viii]Remarkable examples were produced by William Henry Fox Talbot, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre and Hippolyte Bayard, for example. In his publication The Pencil of Nature1844-46, Talbot included two very different photographs of his plaster copy of the classical Greek Bust of Patroclus. Each was taken from a different angle, under different light. Talbot wrote: “Statues, busts and other works of sculpture, are generally well represented by the Photographic Art […] These delineations are susceptible of an almost unlimited variety.”   Talbot was demonstrating what the medium of photography could do, as a means of documentation andartistic expression.

Between the 1840s and the 1880s photographing artworks, particularly sculpture, became a minor but important genre of the fast-emerging art of photography. This happened for many reasons. There were technical advantages in choosing to photograph things that did not move during the necessarily long exposures; white objects like plaster casts or marble statues seen against dark backgrounds provided tonal contrast for primitive photographic prints; turning an inanimate object or moving around it to find a pleasing vantage point attuned photographers to the play of light; and communing with objects that were already accepted by the academy as works of art could in principle help to elevate the art of photography.

More significantly perhaps, making photographs of established artworks could be a way of clarifying, for photographers and audiences, the different qualities and characteristics of each medium. A photograph of a sculpture might tell us something about the sculpture, but it will also tell us something about photography. But what, exactly? About different paths to creation. About the different relationships between technique, craft and creativity embodied by each medium. About time.

It is notable that damaged or fragmented artworks were often very popular subjects for the early photographers. Cracks, scratches, and scars that might accumulate over centuries could be recorded by the camera in detail, and in total, in a matter of seconds. As the art critic Denis Hollier noted:

“Like the mutilated classical statue, a photograph seems to result from the art work’s encounter with a scythe of real time, showing the bruise imprinted upon an art work by a clash with a time not its own.”[ix]

It is these clashes, between one medium and another, one time and another, one aesthetic order and another, that draw photographic artists to take up artworks as their subject matter.  And while most often photographs of artworks are still made to be seen as documents, the fluid understanding that was there at the beginning of photography has never gone away entirely. The attraction between the camera and the artwork is too strong, and the possibilities too rich to be ignored. The work of the image makers commissioned as part of the Vatican Museum’s Matter of Light project testify to this.  The approaches made by Antonio Biasiucci, Mimmo Jodice, Bill Armstrong have perhaps the most in common with their 19thcentury forbears.  Each takes up their chosen artworks (sculptures, paintings) as aesthetico-philosophical objects. Others, such as the very different Alain Fleischer, Rinko Kawauchi, Peter Bialobrzeski, Massimo Siragusa, and Martin Parr are more interested in the ways in which the museum itself is an artwork that stages for its audience the artworks that it presents.  But all of the photographers commissioned are exploring what happens in the encounter between one medium and another and, just as importantly, between the artwork and the viewer.

Of course, there is not really such a thing as ‘the’ viewer. The days of the ideal spectator are long gone, if they ever existed at all. Very little can unite the experience of a contemporary audience standing before an artwork, whether that artwork is the ceiling of the Sistene Chapel or a photograph of someone looking at it.  The diversity of strategies and images that make up Ex Phototestifies to this. If there is no ideal viewer, there is not ideal view. If there is no ideal view, then we need many views. And the needing of many has become the key to art in the 21stcentury.

[i]Edwin Smith, ‘The Photography of Paintings, Drawings and Print’ in John Lewis and Edwin Smith, The Graphic Reproduction and Photography of Works of Art (Cowell and Faber, London 1969).

[ii]Man Ray, Self-Portrait(André Deutsch, 1963).

[iii]Walter Benjamin, ‘A Small History of Photography’ (1931), in One Way Street and other writings, (Verso, 1979), pp. 240-257.

[iv]André Malraux, Les Voix du Silence, translated by Stuart Gilbert, Bollingen Series no. 24 (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1978) pp. 44-46

[v]Gisèle Freund, Photography and Society (Godine, Boston, Mass. 1980) p. 224. Eventually many different photographers were commissioned to make the images for Malraux’s publications.

[vi]André Malraux, The Psychology of Art. Part 1: The Museum without Walls (Bollingen Series, Pantheon Books, New York, 1949) p. 112

[vii]I am thinking of forms of staged and montaged photography explored in the 1870s and which then reappeared on very different terms a century later in the work of Jeff Wall, Cindy Sherman, and many others.

[viii]See Anthony J. Hamber, ‘Photography of Works of Art’ in Jacobsen, Ken & Jenny, Etude D’Apres Nature. 19th Century Photographs in Relation to Art, Ken & Jenny Jacobsen, 1997.

[ix]Denis Hollier, ‘Beyond Collage: Reflections on the André Malraux of L’Espoirand of Le Musée Imaginaire’, Art Press, no. 221, 1997.

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