Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Musing on a da Vinci – several in fact

Leonardo da Vinci, Painter at the Court of Milan – an exhibition at the National Gallery, which was billed as a once in a lifetime opportunity.  It was indeed so, with most of his surviving paintings together in one place for, probably, the first time and, probably, the last.  So, by definition, by reputation, by the word of the press, this was always going to be a significant event.  People are going to say ...

“I remember when I stood in front of the ...”

Actually, I do remember when I stood in front of a da Vinci painting (no, no that one in the Louvre!), in the Pinacotecca Ambrosiana in Milan, in 2006; me, Jayne, the painting, and no one else in the room.  I wasn’t aware then that there were so few surviving da Vincis, and I hadn’t known this particular painting either, but it still had an impact on me (both of us, actually).  Stunning detail; an arresting look in the subject’s eyes, not looking at us but out of the frame to our right; vibrant colour, especially in his hair; a slight sense of inconsistency across the surface of the painting, I recall.  We could examine it in that level of detail because we stood right in front of it, could have touched it if we’d chosen (dared).  There was a definite sense of personality, the subject as a real, living, breathing, speaking, thinking natural human being.

We stood in front of it again, last Thursday evening and, amazingly, with no one else in the room, close enough to touch it had we dared! The painting is ‘Portrait of a Young Man – (The Musician)’, and it was now hanging on a wall at the National Gallery, on loan from Milan.  We also stood in front of several others – the ‘Madonna Litta’, the two ‘Virgin of the Rocks’, and so on.  But it was the renewal of acquaintance with ‘The Musician’, and the thoughts which followed, that had the most impact.

It is an object, in the end.  I saw it in Milan; I saw it in London; and it has been transported from one place to the other, so that I can stand before it again.  But it is a unique physical object, empowered by what I and others make of it.  Leonardo stood and looked at it with his own eyes, more than 500 years ago.  He didn’t look and say ‘it’s finished’, because it isn’t – hence the slight sense of inconsistency across its surface.  I’m pretty sure he didn’t look at it and say ‘that’ll do’ either!!!  But he did look at it with his own eyes – and now I’m looking at it with mine.  It won’t look exactly the same but it won’t look dramatically different.  He applied his brush to this surface at which I am looking.  And, in the few moments we beheld it in Milan, and the few moments we beheld it in London, Leonardo’s efforts were made for no others than Jayne and me.  In that moment, there was no other interpretation, no other reading of this object, than those brought on by our eyes, our minds, our experiences.  What’s more, whilst we were certainly the direct recipients of da Vinci’s purpose and his labours, he had no control, however skilled and learned, on our interpretation and reading.

But it remains a unique object that will return to its wall in Milan, spatially close to where it was created, back from perhaps the longest journey it has ever made.  It is much reproduced but remains utterly unique.  Compare that to the digital portraits I will make for Assignment Five!


  1. You make the point very well that I proselytise for in photography, namely, there is power in the object as well as the image. An image that remains virtual doesn't achieve the full potential of its image/object duality.

  2. You make the point very well that I proselytise for in photography, namely, there is power in the object as well as the image. An image that remains virtual doesn't achieve the full potential of its image/object duality.

  3. Agreed, but the difference is that this work really exists as a unique object, everything else is a copy or re-creation. The virtual digital image is just that - virtual. It doesn't exist as anything unique, does it? That virtuality can be very powerful, of course. It enables the work to travel to almost every corner of the globe in a millisecond. But it also seems problematic. What is the value (aesthetic or commercial) in something that doesn't exist, can be infinitely varied, and is infinitely reproduceable?

    This is one of those philosophical points that can easily tie one up in knots without actually adding value. I do recognise that! But the painting set off a train of thought!

  4. Say you have an old family photograph that's precious to you. It's an object that's physically within the universe of your house. It exists within your mental map of all your possessions. You can take it out of its shoe box at any time and contemplate it, like Barthes, touch it, just as the person in the photograph perhaps held it. It's physicality bestows on it a life in the real world, a life in which it ages and collects history, becoming unique in that process, fading, becoming dog earred. Does the fact that another copy might exist elsewhere that you aren't perhaps aware of devalue the experience of the direct connection it makes between you and the subject through its physical possession?

    It's an object that's unique to you, in its physicality and its meaning.

    One of the things I did for my MA was to make a visual 'catalogue' of my father's possessions that I thought best represented the idea of him to me, photographed in the style of an auction catalogue. None of the items were unique in their manufacture, for example his pruning knife, his favourite tie, his flying helmet from the war, his oldest tools, all mass produced but they had a history with him, and while he ceased to exist their life has carried on without him. I can touch them.

  5. I wouldn't disagree with any of that, either. But it doesn't resolve the question around a new, digital image, created today. That image has no physical properties that define it as a unique object. I could print it a thousand times - all the same or all different. You could view it on a hundred different monitors - all calibrated the same or all calibrated differently. We could ask every photoshop specialist across the globe to process it as they thought best. And so on and so on. On the one hand, that represents immense power and potential - but it will never exist as a unique object unless I print it and then delete the original.

  6. Well I just illustrated how each iteration, brought into physical being, does become unique, through ownership use and custom, irrespective of being identical at birth and the potential for more to be made, this is what the virtual image lacks, it's still born, pickled behind glass. Not displaying it destroys it and it has to be remade again every time it's looked on, it doesn't travel with us on our time line. It can't be lodged in our boat when crossing the River Styx.

    The ultimate magic, the alchemy, of photography is to take something from the real world, transform it and then bring it back into the real world to exist of itself with no further conjuring required. It's making it real that gives it properties denied to the virtual, allowing it to attain uniqueness that we can be in the presence of.

  7. That helps, Clive, thanks. Trouble is I then get concerned that this might be a generational thing; that maybe one should be focusing on the power of what can be done with a virtual image because that's today and the physical was yesterday. I don't think I'm about to resolve this one in a hurry - not that I need to!

  8. Yes it is a generational thing, we've had more experience and longer to think about it so we're wiser! Hahahaha

    Anyway it's cutting edge ' } and I like to think that I'm abreast of the tides.

    I was amongst the first London photographers to have a website back in the mid 90s, indeed it was the BJP's website of the month back then; there were so few they could easily review all of them in an hour without anybody nominating them. Also I'd been using computers for business functions since about '84 so I have a good working knowledge of them.

    My MA was almost entirely digital video and digital interactivity, authored with scripts written for Director and Flash so I'm well aware of the potential of the digital medias.

    They offer additional possibilities, some properties of the traditional media are rendered redundant by them but not all and its not just a question of waiting for technology to catch up. A fixed image on a piece of paper will always have qualities that no amount of roll up OLED screens with a transient image on can attain. Unless they find a way of making the image permanent and the screen feel like paper; oh don't we already have a technology like that and much cheaper? ' }

    That's not to say paper prints won't disappear if people don't value its qualities.

    Books are a harbinger. People loved books, the bookish quality of them, the feel of them, the smell of them. You bought the book, put it on your shelf and it was yours in perpetuity. Now you download your e-book to your, at the moment B&W if you want liquid paper, reader and then oops one day it's gone. Your supplier has pulled it because of a copyright problem or your subscription has run out. It's no longer yours, it turns out you were only borrowing a facsimile of it, while the picture of your mum as a young girl is still safely tucked in your drawer; unless you've put all your photographs in the cloud via your thin client, then she might no longer be safe but who cares when you can post it to your Facebook page from anywhere in the world, sooooooo convenient! Hahaha ' }

  9. Good link, thanks - digital as 'craft'; Interesting when he says (approximately) 'every pixel is carefully crafted'. And that level of craft and creativity does, potentially, give the outcome additional value, even though it remains virtual.

    I wasn't implying you might be behind the times, by the way. :-0 Like you, I've known computers for a long time - since c1970 to be precise. But I do think the pace of development over the last 10-20 years has presented particular challenges - even (or maybe especially) for the young, who feel the pressure to go with it. Like the guy who I read in the Times a few weeks ago, who seemed genuinely puzzled as to why he felt lonely when he had 750 Facebook friends!

    Isn't the photobook supposedly making a comeback? Or is that just Martin Parr spreading rumours so he can sell more copies of his photobook history?

  10. Ah Stan, I didn't think you were implying I was behind the times, just making the point that we shouldn't apologise for how old we are on the basis that we're bound to be Luddites because of it.

    Although it's a generally accepted shibboleth that the younger a person is the more au fait they are with computers and computing in my experience they are great users of Facebook and players of computer games but their actual knowledge of computers doesn't extend much beyond the people of our generation who commission large, and small, public sector computerisation projects that are regularly catastrophes.

    Yes I remember '71 when you didn't want to be bumped into in the corridor carrying your stack of punched cards. ' }

    Yes, ironically the technology has brought back the one off book with a vengeance, something we're now having to address every week on the forum. It rather curiously ties up with the genesis of the book form when they were hand scribed unique ' } objects.

    I've been watching the TV series about them and kings are often portrayed hoisting them a loft as objects and symbols of power. That gives me an idea for a lap top ad! Hahahaha

    I've just inherited my son's old gaming pc; it is so last year hahahaaha, so he's replaced it, he's a software engineer. I'm going to spend the day swapping my drives into it. ' }

  11. Cheers, Clive, have fun with the drives!