Monday, April 30, 2012

What Is: Drawing, Painting, Photography

Recently I've been grappling with ideas about the boundary between drawing and photography.

I use photographs as preliminary or collage materials in my work, but never without a sense of conflict. I'm not a photographer, I have little understanding of the mechanics of a camera, and everything I've learned about photography has been simply from playing around with cameras. On the one hand, I feel like photography is my natural right, simply by virtue of my having been born into the age of digital cameras. I've scarcely known a world where cameras haven't been so prevalent as to exist in places where I don't even want or need them. On the other hand, I feel a responsibility to be educated about the camera and photography if I'm going to use them in my work, especially since I abhor the underresearched art student.

I found a happy medium in this struggle in the form of my printer/copier. Photocopying is a photographic process. However, the minimal history and codified "rules" of copier art relative to traditional photography make me much more comfortable using it in my practice. Photocopied drawings still resemble drawings, and other photocopied material can be reduced to resemble drawings or paintings as well. In addition, Xeroxes lend themselves to transfers, meaning the material can be taken even further from the source to become more and more drawinglike.

Lately, however, my thoughts have turned to the origin of the word "photography" and some of the earliest photographic processes. Broken down, "photography" translates to "drawing with light"--hence, early light-based tracing techniques, like the camera obscura or camera lucida, can be considered photographic. My concern is, where does this distinction end? Is a "photo-drawing", such as a camera lucida tracing, a "photograph"?  Is a lithograph made from a tracing of a camera lucida tracing a "photo-drawing", and if so, are the resultant prints  "photographs"?

This preoccupation recently collided with issues life size self-portraiture that I'd also been working on, and yielded a studio experiment that provided even more food for thought. I sat down in front of a large mirror, approximately 4' tall, and using a washable marker, traced my image in the mirror. As a left-hander, I was unable to draw my left hand in the act of drawing my left hand, so the end of the figure's right arm dissolved into specific but abstract marks. Once I'd finished tracing myself, I laid a sheet of bond paper over the mirror, traced my tracing, and cleaned the mirror for the next piece. I made about eight of these tracings without stopping much to think, then stepped back to survey what I'd done.

The first question, of course, was whether what I'd made was a drawing or photograph. If camera lucida tracings are photographs then surely what I'd made was a series of photographs. If, however, a "photo-drawing" is more drawing than photo, I'd made a body of drawings.

Another concern was the right arm--my left arm. The marks describing this arm look gestural, but they're a series of tracings-- as accurate as I could manage-- of a moving arm. Is this a gesture, or the most tedious kind of contour drawing? This question depends on the definition of gesture. If a gesture is a series of marks that create an illusion of motion, my work is a gesture. If a gesture is a mark made with an intuitive sense of body to describe the motion of a body, then my pieces were almost the exact opposite.

Another surprise was scale. When I looked in the mirror--a mirror that's taller than me when I sit down--I felt as though  I was seeing a life size image of myself. My drawings, however, all fit comfortably into an 18"x24" sheet of paper. Given that these images were direct tracings, the dissonance was strange.

Finally, on reviewing the tracings, I found that I'd inadvertently used two different techniques that yielded two different results. During the first few tracings, I'd kept one eye closed, flattening the mirror image and allowing a highly accurate likeness. In other drawings, I'd kept both eyes open and struggled with the shifting that occurred as my eyes moved and refocused. The binocular drawings were more interesting to me--they contained dead-end lines that reminded me of pentimenti and gesture. Because the image was more ambiguous when viewed through both eyes, tracing it required some measure of interpretation, which qualified these pieces--in my mind--as drawings.

I hope to discover other experiments I can do to help me get to the bottom of this struggle. I'm not looking for an authoritative answer, just the answer that's true to me-- and I hope it will give me some clue of how to proceed in my work.

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