Monday, June 7, 2010

give us those nice bright colors

What's all this hullabaloo about comics and photo-referencing? Copying photos, tracing photos, deriving inspiration from photos is as American as apple pie. Any look around the larger art world, from galleries to museums to the local library flower show will tell you that photography is central to contemporary art practices and has been since at least Manet. Not only as a source of imagery--which it obviously is---but as Walter Benjamin, John Berger and Susan Sontag(among many others) have observed--as a "way of seeing", a point of reference by which we frame our experience of the world. Photography(in all of its manifestations)is our map of the world. None of us sees the world in a way not impacted by photography.

So much for the obvious. The subject of comics and photography is not one usually given much thought--and when it is, it's usually in polemics pro and con or in discussions of the ubiquitous Alex Ross. (we'll get to him in a minute).
Complaints around photo-referencing in comics usually center around an artist's fidelity to the source material, and the sacrifice of expressive qualities in favor of "photo-like"ness. I say "photo-like"ness rather than photo-realism because realism (in the way the term is usually used) in such works is secondary to the replication of "photo-ness". To artists, and one would assume, editors and writers utilizing or requesting these techniques, drawing( painting/ digital effects) is in the service of said photo-likeness; not so much in a quest for verisimilitude( i.e.-to resemble the empirical world)--but resemblance to the photograph--because "we" view the photograph as something more real than reality.
("It's funny h
ow the colors of the real world only seem real when you viddy them on the screen"; Malcolm McDowell, Stanley Kubrick; "A Clockwork Orange")

Those of us who would judge these photo-based works by the yardstick of traditional cartooning(or drawing)--miss the point. Works of this type--are not playing the game by the same rules and are not concerned with scoring the same points. Despite the obvious illustrative virtuosity displayed by many photo-referenced comics---these have less to do with drawing for drawing's sake than with drawing for photo's sake. Western comics, for example,were inspired by the movies and have always had a strong connection to film and TV. It should come as no surprise then, that some contemporary western comics make the connection to film explicit via imagery(not to mention narrative) that is more cinema-like than cartoon-like.
That "photo-likeness" proliferates today primarily in corporate super-hero comics indicates that said corporate interests may lie with the cinematic manifestations of their properties more so than with comics or cartooning. But the intricacies of this trend are too complex to be purely capitalistic, with connections towards greater illusionism in all forms of digital media, culminating in the seamless integration of cgi into even the most banal television productions, supplanting both sets and scenery.

The big pooba of of all of these developments(re: comics) is of course, the great Alex Ross. And indeed, despite overexposure, the predictability of his imagery and the stodginess of his storytelling, his achievement was truly some kind of breakthrough, for better or worse as the case may be. His vision was full and complete from the point of introduction, and who among us can say that we haven't at some time taken pleasure in his fully rendered god-like embodiments of the heroes of childhood fantasy?
Yet Ross's achievement lies not just in the realization of some collective comics fan wet dream.

Ross is about a tradition in illustration--not cartooning--and it's a mistake to view him solely within the lens of comics and cartooning rather than that of illustration. What makes Ross interesting is the way he's brought a post WWII, 1950's illustration aesthet
ic( carried forward from the work of his illustrator mother) that trumpeted American Exceptionalism and brought it to super-hero comics---and then--turned it on its head w/ comics work that tends to be critical of American Empire and unlimited power. There is something exceptional in the subversion of the idealized visions of American advertising-- all the more surprising that such a critique has taken the form of the most idealized of pop culture figures: the super-hero.
There are of course a multitude of other uses of the photograph in comics form, not all are so slavishly devoted to the source material. For some, of course-the photograph is simply reference in the traditional sense, information to be gleaned and adapted for a variety of purposes.
For others, the photograph imbues a certain spark of life to the imagery-- like roto-scoping in a Disney or Fleischer cartoon-- not for mimicking photography as a way to fashion something "life-like",( or photo-like) more as a way for imparting some nuance of posture or movement--as magic, really. There's a difference between Madame Tussaud's and say-- Kiki Smith.
And still the potential of photographic imagery--not as source material for illustration, cartooning or caricature--but as imagery itself--has only been lightly touched upon in comics, not fully developed. Strange to say in that regard, Jack Kirby's visionary photo-collages from 40 years ago remain ahead of the game--for now.

images by Alex Ross from Marvels by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross, c. Marvel; Alexander Ross-terrific painter who makes plastecine sculptures, photographs em and then paints from the photos-Amazing stuff! what's the deal with the name and the photo-referencing? Wot a coincidence! ain't the woild grand? Anyway --then there's some serendipitous fan art I found on the web by putting in Jonah Hex/ClintEastwood--y'knew there had to be sumpthin'; and finally Jack himself from FF #51. by the Man and Jack-the King now and ever.

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