documentary painting

I don’t ordinarily see painting as a documentary medium, but yesterday, a bit of news from the BBC (Artistic clues to coastal change) changed my mind. Coastal engineer Dr. Robin McInnes used 400 19th century paintings as a record of erosion along portions of the English coast:

He was standing in London’s Tate Gallery, admiring a painting entitled Pegwell Bay, Kent – a recollection of October 5th 1858 by Pre-Raphaelite artist William Dyce, when the thought struck him that the detailed accurate depiction of groynes and foreshore, despite being painted 150 years ago, might be of use in his work as a coastal engineer.

Dr McInnes began to examine images from the 1770s to the 1920s. From more than 400 paintings, prints and illustrations he drew up a scale to asses how useful such artworks were as coastal engineering tools.

“The ranking system is based on four or five factors, it is a qualitative assessment,” he said. “I looked at issues such as the material and the nature of the media, oil paintings versus prints; generally, water colour allowed the most accurate depiction. The next question was what do they actually show, do they provide understanding of the geology or beach levels? I gave each a score for that. Also to time periods, from a coastal engineers point of view, the most relevant period is when rapid coastal development took place.”

He also gave marks for the accuracy of the artistic style, and whether the painting showed the topography. “In Italian landscape style accuracy was not the prime consideration, (whereas) traditional Victorian coastal painting was the most accurate as the idea was to provide an exact image to take home.“

If a painting isn’t strictly realist in the same way that a photograph is, until abstraction came along, it essentially served the purpose that photography does today, and paintings can reasonably be divided into either the documentary or imaginative style much in the same way that photographs can be divided into those that document an event exactly and those that are set up by the artist either as a mode of expression or a document representative of some broader non-specific truth. In a sense, much of photography is an extension of the history of realist painting, and it makes sense to me if photography courses included a bit of the history of painting. Inspiration comes as easily from paintings as photographs.

Last but not least, happy new year! My photo-related resolutions for 2009 are fairly basic:

  1. see more exhibitions and attend more openings
  2. think more deeply about photos I see and build up a body of serious writing/criticism
  3. complete one focused project of at least 40 photos
  4. be more selective in my shooting and editing
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~ by Jin on January 1, 2009.

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