The Seattle Art Museum is currently showing a wonderful retrospective exhibit of 110 paintings from the long career of Andrew Wyeth. (He was actively painting until shortly before his death at 91. He's my new hero -- I want to be like him when I grow up.) I saw the show earlier this week and I'm going to go back and see it at least once more before it closes -- likely several times.
Ever since I saw this show each time my mind goes into idle one of his paintings pops up like a mental screen saver. I love it when that happens.
He is categorized as a "realistic" painter and that he certainly was.
However, he hotly denied that he was painting exactly what it looked like but how he felt about what was before him-- putting his own stories, his own memories on the board rather than a photorealistic likeness. That said, his skill as a painter makes looking at them strictly as a likeness quite plausible.
Painters have it easy (the photographer says with tongue firmly in cheek) -- if there is something they don't like in the background they just don't paint it in. We photographers are stuck with what is actually there (Photoshop helps but ...). But I digress.
Wyeth is primarily known for moody, introspective paintings of his beloved Chadd's Ford PA and the coast of Maine -- and for nudes, especially the "Helga" series. He also did portraits -- lots of portraits -- spectacular portraits.
Wyeth's portraits fascinate me -- most are "environmental" in that the subject is presented in context that adds to the story he was hoping to tell. Unlike Arnold Newman's environmental portraits, however, the context is not nearly so explicit -- Newman's portrait of Stravinsky at his piano, for example, would not allow you to think of the subject as anything but an accomplished musician. Wyeth's portraits are certainly made more rich by knowing his story but are also rich in that I can see a story of my own in them.
I am going to round up some reproductions of Wyeth portraits so I can study the poses and the lighting in depth. There is a lot for a photographer to learn there.
Thinking about this (a lot) the light bulb that finally came on is that I am trying to do the same thing with my photographs. The great Henri Cartier-Bresson once said:
"Photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth which can make them come back again. You cannot develop and print a memory."
Yes, photography demands that you be there, point the camera in the right direction, release the shutter at the right time. But when you are there, you do point the camera in the right direction, you do release the shutter at the right time — then you create a window into the past in a way that no other visual medium can match -- well, unless you can paint like Andrew Wyeth. Then you can develop and print a memory or at least glimpse it — spy on it. Or maybe when a viewer looks at a photograph they see their own story in it. I hope so.