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Rachel Cohen

Delaney

On Photography I

On Photography I

Pissarro, A Cowherd at Valhermeil, 1874, iphone.


After years of scorning people who come to museums and take pictures – souvenir-hunters! they don’t even look at the paintings! – on Tuesday I found myself in the Impressionist rooms at the Met zealously photographing details with my iphone held up in front of the canvases.  I had two impulses, or justifications: it seemed expedient – I was in New York for a day only, had a mere hour with the pictures – this was a way to take notes.  And at the same time, or even before the thought of expediency occurred to me, I also knew that having details of paintings is very helpful if you are going to post about them.  Already the fact of keeping this notebook is changing the way I go to museums.

The second picture I took showed me that the modest magnification of the iphone makes an enormous difference in what you can see.  I started with some little Boudin figures at the beach:

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I have always felt that if you wait long enough and give yourself patiently to the act of looking your eye will learn to see at this level of detail.  But here, presto, the machine could do it instantly – and then looking at the painting with the naked eye I could see it all myself, trained, in a second, by the clarification of the machine.

As I went on, taking pictures of Constables and Daubignys, and made my way to the Pissarro room, I began to experience some of the pitfalls of the new method.  The iphone camera overclarifies.  It sharpens contrasts, defines edges where the paint is deliberately ambiguous.  So that I was in fact learning to see a painting that wasn’t the painting I was looking at.  I had to try to compensate in the other direction, photographing so quickly that the camera had not yet quite had time to resolve the image, and this seemed to more clearly approximate the paint as it was actually there.

Still, the exciting thing was that I could actually keep track of the sequence of my observations.  For example, I saw this beautiful Pissarro from 1874, the year of the first great Impressionist exhibition, painted at Pontoise, one of Pissarro’s favorite places to paint.

I saw the picture whole:

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Then my eye went to this passage of paint in the foreground:

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Then to the cowherd of the picture’s title:

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A cart further along:

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Paint to right foreground, the yellow, blues and lavendars:

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Stretch of cultivated field down to earth:

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[ Technology suggests and constrains.  I find I am limited in the number of images I can post.  Just at this moment of drama, when we are about to see further into the picture, I will have to ask my reader to wait.  The rest of the sequence will be found under Pissarro, On Photography II ]

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On Photography II

On Photography II

Pissarro, A Cowherd at Valhermeil, 1874, iphone photo.

[This is the second installment of visual notes on this Pissarro, documented by iphone.]

Stretch of cultivated field down to earth:

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Shape of path as it curves back:

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Shape of hill crest, cypressed, below sky:

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Step back to look at whole again:

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Dark paint, just dashed on, group of trees:

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Really dark, low dark hole, yellow grass across lower right corner:

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Look again at dark paint just dashed on of upper tree:

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Once having looked at these two dark areas, upper tree, lower hole, the whole right side of the picture has beautiful depth:

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Now the interior looks quite different, rougher paint:

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What would Pissarro have made of this fragmentary way of writing down the seeing of his picture?  Would he know right away that, as happened in his own time, our new tools have changed the experience of sight?  He was the great theoretician among the Impressionists, the one who articulated what they were after.  But in all the letters to his son Lucien that are such a full statement of his thought I cannot find a single mention of photography.

He does, though, indicate how important the idea of the series was to his way of thinking.  In a letter from the summer of 1895, he writes that he is sorry that Lucien has been delayed in getting to Paris for now he will miss seeing "the Monets.  This is a great pity, for the Cathedrals are being much talked of, and highly praised, too, by Degas, Renoir, myself and others.  I would have so liked you to see the whole series in a group, for I find in it the superb unity which I have been seeking for a long time."   [June 1, 1895]


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