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Mark Scott Abeln
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Principles of Academic painting applied by analogy to photography
In reply to tex, 5 months ago

tex wrote:

Thus that hierarchy only applies to academic painting, and in this case only to the original version of academic painting when there were academies (mainly the French and English Royal Academies), both of which became pretty moribund (the French more than the English, really) with the onset of Modernism, to which they adapted not so well. So, this is more of an art historical nugget than a guideline.

Just because some ideas come from a specific place and time doesn’t mean that they don’t have value to us today — like Euclid’s Geometry. Even some extremely dated works have stunning insights which might have been forgotten by modern scholars. I often recommend reading older works with an open mind. As far my studies go, I’ve been reading art theory forwards from classical antiquity, and backwards from Modernism, and so these two threads haven’t yet met up in Enlightenment theory — and by no means am I a complete defender of those theories insofar as I know them. For example, I wouldn’t mind reading the source materials where we get the Academy’s hierarchy of value in painting — it might be far more rewarding that just an ordered list.

While historicism is good insofar as it is rigorous and well thought-out, too pure of an approach has little predictive power. Rather, thinking by analogy is far more powerful, if less precise: photography is like painting in many ways, most especially when they can be used almost interchangeably.

Clearly, photography today has a hierarchy of value, with photojournalism at its best being at or near the top — which is analogous to history painting. People want to know what happened, and want to see photos of the major leaders in our world in action. More than any other kind of photography, photojournalism has the pride of place among all, without regard to age, sex, and class, because no other kind of photography is more widely influential.

Portraits are a bit more contrived than (what we hope) are the spontaneous photos taken by journalists, but nearly everyone wants portraits of their loved ones. Portraits of important personages are used almost universally. A really good portrait can tell us a lot about the character of a person — for better or for worse.

But genre and landscape photos have a certain popularity. People do like viewing fashion, street, concert, wedding, and other genre photos. Arguably, the more closely a person identifies with the subject, the greater the value of a genre photo will be. Certainly landscapes are popular, and people often hang good ones on their wall. But these are going to be more decorative than portraits of loved ones.

Dog lovers like having photos of their dogs, which might have a prominence near that of photos of children, but even if they view photos of other dogs, there seems to be a strong preference for breeds. Clearly these are overall less valued than people portraits, for obvious reasons, and this is a rather small and specialized niche for professional photographers.

Still life is most used these days for commercial product photography. Doing good product photography requires considerable skill and typically the very technically-proficient photographers are chosen for the job. The basic simplicity of setting up a still life for photography makes it a good genre to learn camera work, composition, and lighting technique.  But still life has little value beyond commerce, although a good generic still life might find its place as decoration.

The "new academy" is far more amorphous, is rooted in current academic practice but unofficially married to the market, both of which rewards certain sorts of work at the expense of others in a tautological loop. The net result is the same: a lot of mediocrity, although today at a far lower skill level in traditional media.

I’ve followed the work of the new academic schools, and while I do like the return to figurative work and a measure of realism, there is a kind of ideology surrounding the schools which I don’t care for — as I dislike the ideology of the mainstream art schools.

New media still requires more rigorous skills in order to get things to even work, as in edited video/digital pieces. That won't be true for much longer, probably, as it gets easier and easier to deal with the tech. Just look at contemporary still cameras compared to their mechanical brethren of 50 years ago.

Difficult technique which is mastered is one of the essential qualities of an artist, I think.

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