Whenever I exhibit or present my work, I get asked why I chose Vermeer’s oeuvre for my “photographic paintings”. Was is it just to replicate or copy what the Dutch master painted?
Well, yes and no. Some of my “Vermeer“ photographs are very similar to the Vermeer painting, but others are completely different, while still being faithful to his lighting style. My intention was to create a composition and a story that could explain the context of a particular Vermeer painting. Sometimes my photograph would explore (fictionally, of course) what happened before, or after the moment represented in Vermeer’s painting. Some other times,, it would be a totally different image that would explore other fictional moments of Vermeer’s life. E.g. A Pronkstilleven from Vermeer to Kalf or Girl painting a dollhouse
In a sense I wanted to replicate his paintings but just as a starting point. In every case, I created my own story to explain what was happening or happened in the moment captured in the image. I profusely used known facts from Vermeer’s life and from Dutch life in XVII Century, including many hand-made artifacts and replicas.
As I stated in many of my previous posts, I have always been fascinated with classic paintings, not only the technical craftsmanship and skills required were simply exceptional; but they also required a lot of creativity. Just imagine how many different ways you can think of representing a conversation between a soldier and a woman, or how to represent Greek goddesses in the “Judgement of Paris”, or how to represent David before, during or after his battle with Goliath. So, the masters; Bernini, Vermeer, Reubens, Hooch, Michelangelo and others had to go through the same process, they had to think about it, imaging it and then paint it or sculpture it.
In other, words just technical skill would not have made these pieces the masterpieces there are regarded as today. Their particular selection of a composition, colors and twist in the story made the difference. A good example would be to look at the representation of David by Michelangelo (in the Accademia, Florence), Donnatello in the Bargello, Florence as well and by Bernini (at the Gallery Borghese, Rome). Same character, but what a difference in message. My point is that the artist mind, his/her imagination and its interpretation is as important as the technical skill to paint it. Every piece of art out there looks easy or easier once is done. But coming up with it is what makes some people artists.
Vermeer’s paintings do not represent known stories, he chose to paint about simple moments in the life of middle class and wealthy Dutch people in XVII Century United Provinces. Therefore, for me they represent the starting point in a story, what were they doing? What happened before or after the moment represented in Vermeer’s painting?
The Camera Obscura and the Sketches or the lack of them and
Unlike most painters, Vermeer left no sketches or drawings. Apparently, he just went straight to painting whatever he imagined. One theory revealed by Philip Steadman in his book “Vermeer’s Camera: Uncovering the Truth behind the Masterpieces “is that he used a camera obscura to get the scene proportions, perspective and sizes. Professor Steadman goes into lots of detail about this in his book but also in an interview with “Essential Vermeer”. Click here if you are interested in reading the interview.
If true, it would make Vermeer a painter who used an optical (the camera obscura was the pre-cursor of the photographic camera) device to capture the scene. Since there was no photographic paper at the time, Vermeer had to capture it “live” on paper, canvas or some sort of surface then, paint over to achieve his masterpieces. It would make him almost a “photographic painter”, I know I am stretching it, but I couldn’t resist.
Connecting the dots
Now you can see where everything starts connecting, I thought about exploring his works in terms of the story and techniques. That is, explore the story of what happened before, after, during or while Vermeer was producing his masterpieces, but also some other aspects of his life. A good example would be his relationship (or lack of it) with other successful painters of his time like Kalf and Rembrandt.
You can see how my photographs are almost like those sketches, which have never been found. In his time, painters would produce many sketches, then they would choose one and paint it. If Vermeer had a camera he would have taken many photos until happy with one (which is what Photographers and some painters do today). Using the camera obscura, would have allowed Vermeer to quickly explore and assess different compositions and discard whatever he did not like without having to draw a sketch. Smart! That would easily explain why he did not produce sketches or drawings (this is part of Professor Steadman’s theory)
I took on myself to create a possible story that explains the image, then create it using a more advanced device than Vermeer, but trying to maintain his style in terms of lighting… which is what photography is all about. (From the Greek photos that means “light” and, graphos that means “drawing”)