There are some very good ‘photo-realist’ artists around, who render photographs in oil paint or other media, aiming for near-perfect copies. Whilst this requires very skilled craftsmanship, it is not my idea of art: the creative process has all been done by the photographer rather than the painter.
Nevertheless the camera is an invaluable tool for a realist artist, just as the camera obcsura was for artists in centuries past, but I decided some time ago that I don’t want to just become a sort of human photocopier. As an artist I feel that I should bring something to the party. The Thames Pageant painting gave me the ideal opportunity to demonstrate what a realist artist can achieve with imagination and creativity, especially when one considers that the Thames Pageant is possibly the most photographed event in history – in view of the fact that were over a million spectators lining the Thames, and the great majority with camera or mobile-phone camera. According to an article I read recently, around 300 million photos were taken, and 70 million photo images have been shared on social networks.
I’m happy with the result, believing I’ve created an aesthetically pleasing realist image of the Royal flotilla entering the City of London. A similar image couldn’t possibly have been achieved with a camera, even with photo-editing software, for the following reasons:
1. A camera cannot see around obstructions (or imagine they weren’t there) !
2. A camera cannot see sharply through the rain
3. A camera computes the scene with a single exposure (this is why photographs of sunsets invariably disappoint), whereas the human eye can constantly adjust, many times a second, to correctly process the information it’s presented with.
4. The camera has a limited depth of field, whereas the human eye is constantly focusing and re-focusing on near and distant objects.
5. The human eye can effectively look in several directions at once, because it can quickly scan to take in all the essential information in a large scene.
6. The camera has no imagination: it cannot choose to see from an imaginary vantage point, and it cannot significantly rearrange what it sees. (Of course, photo-editing software can be used to rearrange things, but within limits.)
I don’t think it would have been possible to get a realistic photograph on 3 June, which had details of all elements of the pageant: boats, spectators, the cityscape, the sky and the river.
It certainly wouldn’t have been possible to get a photograph of the scene in the painting, because of the many physical obstructions between the camera and subject matter. In other words, the camera, even with editing software, does not make the realist artist redundant, despite popular belief to the contrary.
In the 1800s, Impression was in part a reaction to the emerging new technology of photography, but in fact it is now easy to create an impressionistic image with a click of a mouse, in programs such as Photoshop.
Studying the famous Caneletto painting of the Lord Mayor’s river pageant, said to be the inspiration for the recent Jubilee Pageant, it is obvious to me that even if cameras had been invented at the time, it would not have been possible to get an image anything like the painted one: Caneletto has been very creative with perspective to give his painting maximum interest and impact. He had to make compromises, which is why, on careful observation, some of the boats towards the right of his painting appear as if they’re being rowed uphill.