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What Price Purity? What Level of Skill?

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

For centuries, the only paint tubes were pig bladders.

"It was a painstaking process," says author Victoria Finlay in Color – A Natural History of the Palette (Random House, $14.95). "[Artists], or their apprentices, would carefully cut the thin skin into squares. Then they would spoon a nugget of paint onto each square, and tie up the little parcels at the top with string."

"When they wanted to paint," Finlay writes, "they would pierce the skin with a tack, squeeze the color onto their palette and then mend the puncture. It was messy, especially when the bladder burst, but it was also wasteful, as the paint would dry out quickly."

Then, in 1841, American portrait painter John Goffe Rand devised the first collapsible paint tube. He fashioned it of tin and sealed it with pliers.

This small invention, the artist Renoir averred, allowed Impressionism to happen, simply by giving plein aire painters the means to record their impressions of light, shadow, water and weather in real time, without their paints drying up on them in the field.

It always has been a difficult, messy business, this being an artist. And for centuries, too, an artist's standing often has been tied to the degree of difficulty attached to his or her work.

For example, even a painter up to his knees in pig bladders or willing apprentices often had to mix colors from scratch before brush ever hit canvas. "Leonardo Da Vinci['s] patrons sometimes despaired that he would ever actually start the painting," notes Finlay, "he was kept so busy distilling and mixing..."

For a more modern parallel in our own field, think of Civil War-era photographers being unable to work their cumbersome bellows view cameras unless and until they carefully created photographic glass plates – the functional equivalent of modern film or of an artist's canvas – by coating fragile panes of glass with a light-sensitive emulsion, often in the field and under arduous conditions.

All before they ever tripped a shutter.

In the 20th century, and with the invention of roll film, things obviously grew exponentially easier for photographers. But even I can recall just 20 years ago having to do a lot of time-consuming scut work before I actually could take pictures, as Judy and I painstakingly bulk-loaded what seemed like miles of Tri-X film into old 35mm canisters, or on rare occasions loaded 4x5 film into holders. [Today, more concerned with avoiding dust and scratches than in saving money on bulk film, we buy the stuff factory fresh in bricks by the carload from a wholesaler in New York. As for 4x5, when we do need it we use Ready-Loads.]

Should today's artists and photographers be held to a higher standard? Are painters who buy their materials at the local art supply store – or sculptors who use modern electrified tools to better shape wood, marble or metal – or photographers who do not roll, much less make, their own film – lesser artists than their predecessors because their process is easier?

One hopes that the answer – a resounding "No" – would be obvious to anyone. I could mix paints from now until Doomsday or until the cows come home (take your pick) and I still would not be able to produce anything more than embarrassing smudges on a canvas. But, by the same token, gift me with a palette of colors from a plethora of tubes and the result also would be the same.

Artists, masters, whatever you want to call them, are revered for their talent, not for their tools, nor even necessarily for how long it took them to produce their masterpieces. It is the result that matters, though of course, for example, one can appreciate the arduous work of Michelangelo in decorating the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, often while lying on his back. [I once tried to paint something this way and immediately became dizzy and alarmingly arm-tired.]

Think about the last time you were in Rome, looking up at the Chapel ceiling – especially after its recent restoration. I'll bet the first thing you thought was more along the line of "Sweet Jesus, these paintings are miraculous!" than "Crikey, I wonder if the Pope paid him time-and-a-half for all that work on his back."

Again: results.

Photographers probably are most susceptible to devaluation by technology. After all, the camera does all the work, doesn't it? And the more sophisticated the camera becomes, the less the photographer has to be anything more than a convenient porter to point the magic box in the right direction.

There is, in fact, an element of truth to this, which is one reason newspapers and other publications foolishly think they can save money by outfitting their writers with digital cameras, and the hell with hiring a real photographer to cover the story. Of course, the writers will come back with images, but what kind? Too often the attitude is who cares, it's good enough, and it fills a space on the page.

This dumbing down of daily photojournalism also is reflected in the theory that giving everyday people throwaway or digital cameras to document their daily lives somehow will produce "real" pictures, of interest to readers of the daily paper or the Sunday magazine. Instead what this exercise too often produces is confirmation of the adage: "Garbage In, Garbage Out."

Results. Even people who don't view themselves as sophisticated about art, music, dance or photography can appreciate the presence of work that is special. "There is a mystery in the works of creation and discovery," the late historian and librarian of congress Daniel Boorstin once said, and I could not help but think of how much we still revere the evidence of an artist's hand on his or her work, especially if it is work we admire or love.

Look at an original Rembrandt, or at a Picasso or a Van Gogh. Or a vintage print by Ansel Adams or Diane Arbus. Look in the corner at the signature. I defy you not to feel a frisson knowing you are standing in the same space as the artist when he or she signed the work.

View gorgeous ancient cave paintings in the south of France or in the American Southwest. These primitive yet achingly beautiful renderings of animals and other elements are thrilling by themselves. But equally thrilling, I think, are the traced handprints of our ancient ancestors – their own signatures on their own artwork, a connection to us over millennia.

And I am touched beyond words every time someone buys one of my books then asks, sometimes almost sheepishly, if I would mind signing it for them. Mind? My God, you have given me the greatest gift: validation. Of course I will sign, and gratefully.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.

©Frank Van Riper
A taxidermied frog (is 'taxidermied' a word?) holds a well-used tube of paint in his dead hands. It's part of a whimsical sculpture by my wife Judith Goodman. Had Judy been working in the time of the Renaissance, the frog would be holding a pig bladder. Read on – trust me.


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

 Van Riper on Van Riper

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Tiny Digitals: When Smaller is Better