Vermeer, Camera Obscura, The Frame, Photography & Painting

Camera Obscura. The room/box.

Different painters do different things with light. But with Vermeer more than most others the light is not 'on' the objects, the objects and people in the paintings seem themselves to be made up of light. The paintings seem to glow with some sort of inner light.

Vermeer painted with a camera obscura, that seems now to be almost universally accepted. The camera obscura is the basic model for all cameras - you have a darkened enclosure/box/room (the camera body), a small opening in one side, sometimes with a lens (the aperture and lens), and a receiving surface for the image at the back end of the box (the film plate). Of course photography was still many years off in Vermeer's time, but I want to argue that the decisive break that some believe that photography made from painting is in fact nothing of the sort.

A common view is that photography somehow captures the image as it really is, and the best painting can do is approximate this 'photo realism'. Not coincidentally the Dutch (and other) masters of Vermeer's time, including himself, were perfecting this sort of photorealism in painting. But the basic assumption behind photorealism is wrong, and therefore the way we often think about paintings and photos is also wrong. Photorealism assumes that you have some person and the object they're observing, and the most 'real' representation you can make of the object, for the person, is a photographic image of some sort. It makes sensation into a snapshot.

Sensation is nothing of the sort. Sensation is a whole series of transformations across different scales, as the person is actually immersed in and part of their environment. Your sensory organs don't just sit there and receive messages like a photographic plate, they actively process the world around you at various scales until the sensation we experience spits out the other end. For example there is a wealth of noise around and inside us that never makes it into the sounds we consciously hear. And in fact a photographic plate is the same, it's only when you take all the messy materiality out of photography that you can ever think it's some pure 'image' capturing process - it takes chemicals and electronics and lenses etc;. to produce a photographic print or image.

Painting has recently been better contextualised within what some call the 'frame' of the painting. Not just the frame surrounding the painting itself, but the space within which painting itself is produced and exhibited - a wider framing. We rarely notice that painting as we know and experience it makes no sense without this wider framing, that without a building of some sort for example painting as we know it could be neither produced nor viewed, for any length of time. The weather would have its way etc. The house in general frames the elements for the painter and the viewer, channels and controls them across various scales until we get to the canvas itself. And the same applies for the content of the painting itself, which is usually also protected and distilled and refined within some building, until it is an appropriate, controllable subject matter (and often in modern times photographs are used to perform this stabilisation, as the artists photographs the scene to take back to the studio).

In other words the house/building transforms the given, the world around us as subject matter for painting, tames it and refines it through various transformations, in the same way as our organs do for us. And this is where the camera obscura comes back into the picture, because it itself is like a miniature room, and in fact often is an entire room. When Vermeer uses a camera obscura he's reproducing at a smaller scale the very act of painting itself, the framing of the subject matter. Wthout the painter the obscura shows us that the image will still be there, projected onto the wall. The painter merely adds yet another layer of mediation, so that the image is 'captured' slightly differently. Photography then is not qualitatively different from painting at all, it is exactly the same framing process, but using different materials. In one process the light and colours are transformed using paint and canvas, in the other via silver crystals and chemicals. But they're both the same framing of the elements in this obscura/box way.

Further the apparent magic of painting, as blobs of viscous paint are transformed into photo-like pictures, is not really magic when you take into account all of the various nested levels of the framing going on. At no point does an image suddenly appear from brute matter, sensation is always this distributed, nested process through various transformations, even when it's just our ears and eyes and noses and the object alone. The same for photography, the image isn't snapped, it's the outcome of a series of transformations via lens and aperture and plate and chemical developers and paper.

The camera obscura is the basic model not just of painting and photography, the model which makes them essentially the same activity. It's the model of sensation itself. Photorealism is seriously uncool in most serious art circles today, largely because artists reacted to the sudden irrelevance that photography confined them to after the invention of photography, as fewer people came to them for pictures. But they mistake an industrial relations argument for an ontological one, often dismissing photography as superficial. In reality both painting and photography are equally real, because they're the same process, just with different tools.

This is the excitement of looking at Vermeer, that he showed this equivalence so breathtakingly well. That he extracted people and objects from light itself, by showing that light is within things.

All we ever see are images, there's no reality 'behind' them.


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