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Bob Dylan: The Painter and the Photograph (5)

Van Deren Coke, "The Painter and the Photograph," 1972 edition.

Van Deren Coke, “The Painter and the Photograph,” 1972 edition.

In 1964 the University of New Mexico Press published the first edition of Van Deren Coke’s The Painter and the Photograph: From Delacroix to Warhol. Based on the author’s doctoral thesis, this slim monograph was republished several times in expanded and revised formats. With Coke’s publication, buttressed by Aaron Sharf’s subsequent 1968 treatise Art and Photography, the case got made convincingly that many painters and other graphic artists had worked from photographs in one way or another from the medium’s inception onward.

Since then other researchers have elaborated on this subject, some going deeply into the ways a particular painter (Degas) or group of painters (the Photorealists) used photographs in their process, others surveying the practice more broadly. Neither Coke nor Sharf, nor any subsequent scholar, at least to my knowledge, has done this with an accusatory or condemnatory purpose — that is, with the intent of denigrating the visual artists involved because they had resorted to the use of photographs. Nor did they imply that working from photographs had some shameful aspect, or rendered the results inauthentic as art in any way.

Aaron Sharf, "Art and Photography," 1968

Aaron Sharf, “Art and Photography,” 1968

Regardless of how painstakingly an artist under consideration replicated a particular photograph or how loosely the lens-derived image was employed in the making of a painting or other graphic work, and also regardless of whether the visual artists in question used photos of their own making or photos by others, these studies have simply sought to make the point that, the art world’s dismissive attitudes toward photographers and photographs notwithstanding, photography and photographic seeing had affected the practice of the graphic arts in a diversity of ways. They concerned themselves with process and outcome, seeking to understand and explicate how the former had generated the latter.

One can pore over these books, then, without coming across even discreet academic locutions that run parallel to the language deployed in relation to Bob Dylan’s use of photographs as the basis for his paintings, as indicated in some of my previous posts: rip-off, theft, copying, plagiarism, cheating. From my reading of this shelf of tomes in the medium’s literature, that’s not due to timidity on the part of the authors of those monographs, but because that’s not how they saw it. They knew that painters responded to photographs across a spectrum that had exact imitation at one end and a more stylistic influence at the other — and that photographers responded to paintings similarly. Instead of arranging these diverse practices hierarchically and castigating some or all of them, the scholars in question have chosen to examine the phenomenon as further evidence of the complex ways in which artists in one medium absorb the influence of work done in another.

So, for example, we can read the critical literature about Malcolm Morley, Ralph Goings, Audrey Flack, and the other Photorealists (Morley prefers Superrealist, and they’re sometimes called Hyperrealists) — all of whose paintings replicate photographs, sometimes made by themselves and sometimes by others, with far more exactitude than Dylan — without wading through judgments about the honesty or integrity of their practice. Which doesn’t mean that every critic takes this movement with equal seriousness. I expressed my own lack of enthusiasm for this movement in 1973, and others have as well.

But, pro or con, none suggest that Audrey Flack’s and Ralph Goings’s work is superior to Morley’s because they make their own photographs and he doesn’t. Nor do they argue that Morley’s work is superior to Goings’s and Flack’s because Morley grids off his source image, grids off his canvas, and then, sequentially, in each rectangle, paints a version of an equivalent rectangle clipped from his source image (see this film at Babelgum), whereas Goings and Flack project their source photographs in their entirety onto canvas and paint over them. Nor, certainly, do they anathematize the practice of painting from photographs, impeaching the very premise of the creative experiment involved.

Michael Gray, "The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia," 2006

Michael Gray, “The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia,” 2006

I noted in my last post that more than a few of the art writers having their say about Dylan’s paintings show a notable unawareness of common practices in folk music and jazz. Music writers chiming in on this story strike me as no less uninformed about common practices in the visual arts. Here’s Dylanologist Michael Gray, for example, at his blog, Bob Dylan Encyclopedia:

The most striking thing is that Dylan has not merely used a photograph to inspire a painting: he has taken the photographer’s shot composition and copied it exactly. He hasn’t painted the group from any kind of different angle, or changed what he puts along the top edge, or either side edge, or the bottom edge of the picture. He’s replicated everything as closely as possible. That may be a (very self-enriching) game he’s playing with his followers, but it’s not a very imaginative approach to painting. It may not be plagiarism but it’s surely copying rather a lot.

As it happens, I have the greatest respect for Gray as a Dylan scholar. I’ve actually read the print version of his hefty 2006 Bob Dylan Encyclopedia from cover to cover; it’s eccentric but, overall, brilliant. It also contains the following statement, on page 433: “Jazz musicians generally regarded the blues, too, as beneath them, and thereby disqualified themselves from playing any of it well.” This is one of the most deeply ignorant comments about jazz by a renowned writer on popular music that I have read in my entire life — and I’ve been reading in that field since the summer of my thirteenth year.

Louis Armstrong, "St. Louis Blues," Parlophone label, 1929

Louis Armstrong, “St. Louis Blues,” Parlophone label, 1929

In fact, jazz musicians have always considered the ability to play the blues as requisite. Ma Rainey, Sippie Wallace, and other blues singers recorded with jazz trumpeter King Oliver. Bessie Smith and others recorded with Oliver’s protegé Louis Armstrong — himself a great blues singer and player, as well as a composer of classics like “Gully Low Blues.” Billie Holiday recorded blues and blues-tinged songs with great jazz players like Buck Clayton and Lester Young. Dinah Washington, “Queen of the Blues,” made her debut with Lionel Hampton’s Orchestra. Count Basie’s orchestra was never without a blues singer, first Jimmy Rushing and then Joe Williams. Many jazz musicians cut their eyeteeth in blues-based “jump” bands. Charlie Parker first came to the attention of his fellow musicians with a short solo on “Hootie Blues,” by Jay McShann and His Orchestra. John Coltrane was heavily influenced by his stints in the “jump”/r&b bands of Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson and Earl Bostic. Ornette Coleman learned his craft in a variety of r&b bands, including that of Pee Wee Crayton. And so on.

Which suggests that one shouldn’t take Gray seriously when he strays even a short step outside his field of expertise. How then should we weigh his comments on a particular approach to the craft of painting? As this demonstrates, the response to Dylan’s method from Dylan’s fan base (including what we might call his anti-fans, a cadre of vocal, obsessed haters) and even professionals in the field of music, regarding the practice of working from photographs in order to generate paintings, is frequently ignorant and misguided. Everyone’s entitled to an opinion, but that hardly makes all opinions equal.

The question of whether Dylan had violated anyone’s copyright got resolved with the disclosure that he’d licensed usage rights from the Magnum Agency and, presumably, other organizations representing any work not in the public domain. The question of whether he’s somehow cheated artistically by working from photographs gets resolved by explaining that this is a well-established practice in the graphic arts, dating back to the invention of photography in 1839. If painters of international repute get to do it without attack on their integrity, surely Dylan does as well.

That leaves us with the undeniable fact that Dylan and/or his staff and handlers (including the PR flacks at the Gagosian Gallery in New York) in various ways disguised the fact that Dylan based many of his “Asia Series” paintings — and perhaps many of the earlier “Brazil Series” paintings as well — on photographs. This misleading of the public, and the critics, into thinking that these paintings emerged from Dylan’s personal observations of Asian culture has offended many, myself included. But that nag has expired; let’s set the cudgels aside.

It also leaves us with the paintings themselves, about which critical opinion is divided: quirky but worthy of serious attention at one end, celebrity kitsch at the other. My own estimation places them at the lower (but not lowest) end of the scale. Dylan’s had many honors for his singing and songwriting, which I consider well-deserved. History won’t judge him to have made even a minor contribution to the medium of painting, nor to have engaged in any notable way with its field of ideas.

Yet the spotlight thrown on this instance of someone painting from photographs (an attention exaggerated, surely, by Dylan’s celebrity) provides an occasion to contemplate a complex of issues that’s in no way resolved at present: the legal and ethical questions that arise when painters and other graphic artists respond to photographs and photographers respond to works of visual art in other media.

For an index of links to all posts related to this story, click here.

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2 comments to Bob Dylan: The Painter and the Photograph (5)

  • Colleen M. Thornton

    The paintings by Dylan that Gagosian has offered for sale are not worthy of a nuanced, highly informed discussion of the historical use of photographs in the legitimate process of making paintings/drawinges etc. This sidetrack adds gravitas to what is simply a blatant marketing enterprise that combines exploitation of fame with a fast-food approach to art preparation flavored with an intentional misrepresentation of the artist’s “process” in order to add fictional intrinsic value. Discussion of serious issues actually elevates the value of the work in question because it redirects the audience’s attention away from the awesome mediocrity of Mr. Dylan’s output, and inadvertantly validates the whole pretentious, money grubbing sharade. Check out this month’s Vogue magazine where you will see a double-page photo of the Gagosian art babes in designer evening gowns, all ready to sell, sell, sell.

    Bottom line: Bob Dylan can’t paint to save his life, even by copying world-class images by great photographers. Why are we talking about this? Because fame is a free pass to stupid town.

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