The Painted Backdrop By Jim Linderman
Have you ever thought about the painted backgrounds in antique and vintage photographs?
Well, you aren’t alone.
Until I read The Painted Backdrop: Behind the Sitter in American Tintype Photography, by Jim Linderman (with an essay by Kate Bloomquist), I hadn’t either.
In fact, the story of and between 19th century painters and American photography really has never been told — or, I should say, “hasn’t been explored” until Linderman came along and looked into it via his collection of antique tintype photographs.
Considering virtually every one of the millions upon millions of tintype photographs taken indoors from 1850 to 1920, (and a good number of the few taken outside) had a painted backdrop, it is remarkable no one has ever written a book about them. This is even more remarkable given the importance of the background in motion pictures today. As entire films are produced by computer, the role of the actor has been reduced to standing before an empty screen mouthing words only later to be placed in a digital backdrop which never existed and never will. In a way, the early painted drops used by primitive tintype photographers of the late 19th century an unreal environment in a prescient manner; the thread connecting them to big-screen computer generated hyper-worlds is real but seldom considered.
He even dares to ask the question, “Could this be because photographers, even then, were so determined to prove THEY were doing the art and not the painter they relegated to the background?”
Antique Tintype Backdrop Being Painted
The author / collector states: “This is an art book about painting and photography (or vice-versa) and how they met in a certain time and place.” Ever since the camera arrived, the debate about the merits of photography as an art form has raged (admittedly Ansel Adams helped sway a lot of people that it is), and this book and its 75 antique tintype images certainly is part of that debate. It also raises the question about whether or not the painted backdrops used behind the people in the photographs are art, folk art, or ephemera from the photographic industry. But it’s that last part, “how they met in a certain time and place,” which really gets to the core of things, the thrilling things, for me. That’s where we get to the historical cultural contexts.
The book gives a brief historical overview of photography set in the context of culture, art and commerce. There’s a near ode to daguerreotypes and a rather sneering look at ambrotypes before we settle in to accept the (lowly fragile) tintypes as having won the hearts of the masses. While tintypes lack the gleam of their forerunners, the thin tintype’s popularity mirrors how the West was won: Easy, inexpensive, mobility. The ease of mailing tintypes not only aligns with the power of rail road transportation, but in fact, photo studios sprung up near or at nearly every train station.
Two Antique Tintypes With Same Painted Backdrops
However, Linderman doesn’t end his considerations of the development of photography there; his (rather opinionated) narrative briefly covers paper prints, the Polaroid, and digital photos too. If you find the author judgmental, he is. But his thoughts are historically and culturally sane; and when it comes to art, we all have our preferences — or at least we ought to.
In many ways, Linderman’s brief text is more glorious than the many antique images he shares. For, agree or disagree with the author’s thoughts and opinions, you are rather forced to form your own thoughts and opinions. But none of us are really left with conclusions — at least those we haven’t, in part, jumped to. As Linderman states, there’s just too little documentation, research and investigation, into what happened to painters when the camera came along — into the subject of photographic backdrops themselves — to reach any real conclusions.
The book raises more questions, really, than it answers. At least for me. But in that most excellent of ways which rather than being too light of a snack, leaving me unsatisfied, this book whets my appetite, makes me want more, leaves me with something to chew on… Technology, commerce, art, and culture collide at a crossroads, supposed “forward progress” exposing values, leaving the role of art and artists themselves as question marks… Not at all unlike the digital situation of today.
Tintype Of Painter Working On Photographic Backdrop
The very fact that we haven’t really put any effort into exploring “what happened” is a testament to how little we value photography, art, and artists, I suppose. Yet art, and more than a few artists, have managed to survive.
Collections and books like this preserve what was — not just for us all to see and enjoy, but to force us to look at what happened and to examine for ourselves just what is all involved in such technological advances and shifts in “style.”
I’ve known Collin David for like 5-6 years now; we met when we both started writing for Collectors’ Quest. I quickly discovered his passion for comics, action figures, robots, cephalopods, etc. was entwined with something more… His art.
In the past year, Collin’s art work has been getting him more attention, respect, and, yes, money. So it seemed now was the time to sit down with him — you know, before he’s too busy for a “remember me” request for an interview. *wink*
Call me old, uncool — old and uncool, even — but I can’t seem to follow all your art news, projects, events, etc. on Facebook. (I am, after all, a Twitter girl *neener neener*) So help me out and give me a general run down about you, ResonantFish, what the heck you do as a freelancer art and design dude. You drop names like “Ninja Turtles show in Philly” and “Gallery1988″; so don’t forget those.
Well, my business cards say “Collin David makes stuff”, because that’s the most accurate phrase I could come up with.
This includes comics, sculpture, digital design (like icons, iPhone games, business cards), ink portraiture, painting, and even animation occasionally—every project calls for some new approach. I’ve never seen the merit of those artists who approach very different problems with the same approach, over and over. It’s completely marketable, but it’s transparent. There’s a way to find a balance, and it’s not by being creatively lazy.
As a freelancer, I tend to do a lot of digital art, because that’s what the freelance market wants right now. As far as my portion of the freelance market goes, a majority of it is technology-based, and people trying to make their technology pretty. While my brain is fueled by robots and meat and monsters, my bank account relies on icons for travel websites and improving old logos for businesses. Every so often, a project comes along where I serve as an art director and have total creative freedom, or I get to use real paper and ink, but those are far less common.
It all comes back to “making stuff”, for whatever purpose it may serve in the end. Every project is an education towards greater things. In my free time, I’m sometimes invited to do group art shows all around the world about things that I love: toys, Ninja Turtles, pretty girls, Star Wars. I don’t know how that happened, honestly, because that was just a natural progression.
Custom Robolucha For International Show
Ah, you sort of glossed over those art show invitations… Where have you your works, been seen recently? What’s it like to get the invite?
Right now, I have three ink pieces in Gallery1988 in California, in a show centered around Beetlejuice, Back to the Future and Bill & Ted.
Piece From 3B Show at Gallery1988
I also currently have an acrylic Ninja Turtles piece in Philly. Both of these shows are through The Autumn Society, a collection of great illustrators who just happen to do lots of shows together that seem to focus on 1980s pop culture. Recently, I was honored enough to show alongside Wallace & Grommit’s Nick Park in the UK for a group show (via a Twitter invite), an arcade in Texas, and a few other places I don’t remember. I’m horrible at keeping track, but should probably comb my e-mails in order to get my stuff back. I don’t want to say something stupid like “art is so pure that I keep it separate from business”, but 100% of my focus is on creation, and whatever happens outside of that to get it out there is fate and luck and whatever momentum gravity has granted me, or if Facebook is behaving properly.
MUMM-RA! For The Autumn Society's '80s POP!' Show
Invites always come with a sense of dread. Can I make something worthwhile? Will this show be worth my time? Will my art get destroyed by the gallery or post office again? Do I have enough time to make something? How do I approach this uniquely? I’ve had so many bad gallery experiences that it’s a process I’ve learned to hate, so I do far fewer showings than is ideal, and I don’t seek them out. I love a challenge, but I’d rather that challenge be creative over diplomatically begging for my art back for a year from an unscrupulous gallery director like Rocket Pop’s David Rodriguez or APW’s Hans Yim.
How is the invitation to group art shows “just a natural progression”?
It’s momentum. If you really do things that you love and believe in, it’s infectious. Eventually.
It’s a long, long crawl towards respect, and if you ever stop digging your nails in, you’ll slip backwards into anonymity. Some people (who I’m not going to name here) market themselves raw and have absolutely no skill to back it up, but they get a ton of work and notoriety. I’m just not the kind of person to write press releases in the third person or describe myself as “up-and-coming”. It’s one way to progress, and it’s tried and true and not invalid, but it’s not natural. There’s no foundation in that, and you don’t get a realistic perspective of yourself or your work. Some promotion, sure – but not a full-time marketing machine.
I make stuff constantly, and people see it, and sometimes they like it, and share it, and eventually, it falls onto the right eyes. And I wish it were more profitable, but I’ll take truth over an elaborate self-deception any time.
In-progress sculpt for "Into the Darkness"
"Into the Darkness @ 1:AM Gallery in SF
I’ve known you for awhile now, and there’s been a big change in the amount of work you’re now doing. I wouldn’t say this, but you recently commented to me that you somehow see this as “awful,” as if this wasn’t just one of the risks of going pro; explain to me how you see the increase in work, recognition, and, I presume, pay.
About six months ago, I was spread out everywhere, doing work-for-hire for a ton of different venues—most of it writing, and I burnt out. I decided to drop (mostly) everything and focus on seeing how far my art could get me, because that’s what really matters to me, at my core. I wouldn’t say it defines me, and I wouldn’t call myself an “artist” (because I hate that word), but it definitely made me feel the most complete.
As it turns out, the rise to credibility was faster than I expected, and it was great. I’d been doing spot illustrations for magazines and things like that since high school, just to experiment with the wide world of art publishing, but the Internet enabled me to pursue these things in earnest, at least 40 hours a week and in parallel with a full-time job. The “Artist’s Market” books never did me any good except for a rejection letter from Cricket Magazine.
The process of making art is never “awful”, but it becomes awful when other people start sticking their hot little fingers in it. As a freelancer, you’re doing work for someone else, and you’re being paid to serve. I don’t have a problem with that, at all, ever. Ideally, one would be hired on the merits of their talents, and not their ability to parrot their employer. It’s the difference between having a hard-working employee and a yes-man, and it shows in the final product.
From the VinylPulse Dragon Eats Knight Show
In terms of “awful”, I was recently hired to design a series of monsters for an iPhone game. The project started out with the client telling me that I had total creative freedom, because he liked my work. When the first drafts came around, he had changes to make : facial expressions, colors, and the like. In the freelancing world, these kinds of changes are acceptable. The employer has a vision which they weren’t able to articulate before (thought they should have probably tried harder), but now that they see the product, they can understand what they want better. A second round of changes was made, and I was sent back screencaps from Pixar films, which bore no resemblance to any prior work, and a few notes that essentially said, “Make it look like this.”
I obliged, while still giving these monsters their own uniqueness. When these monsters met his descriptions dead-on, he sent me back a picture of Spongebob Squarepants and asked me to trace it for his game, instead of all of the work I’d previously done. When I asked him to sign a contract to free me from all legal and moral responsibility when Nickelodeon came down to smite him and completely crush his business on the grounds of copyright infringement, we ended the project. I walked away with character design and consultation fees and a clean slate. He walked away with the sudden understanding that it wasn’t actually okay to plagiarize well-known cartoon characters for profit.
These are the “awful” things, and they’re pretty common, but not universal. Sometimes, you spend more time justifying yourself or explaining how “art” works than actually putting together work.
[Interviewer Aside: Check out Collin's The Nine Circles Of Freelancing Hell for more on this; I giggled an groaned through the whole true thing.]
"The Golden Faces" for Multiple Personalities 2 @ LIFT Gallery, MI. "The Jello didn't making the trip because of last-minute damage, alas!"
And you can’t work on one project at once. Four seems to be the magic number, given the amount of time that clients can take to get back to you with revisions. You start on one project, work on a couple of others, and close out another one. This way, you generally always have something to do and a way to generate profit. It helps if your clients are in different time zones as well. Qatar is great if you work early in the morning or very late at night. It also helps to take breaks to play GoldenEye.
It’s all about momentum. Once you actually land a project or two by mastering the art of crafting a proposal, and can show these products off to other relevant jobs, the work will come.
"Something From Long Ago" by Collin David
Why do you hate the word “artist”?
The word “artist” is used like it’s an excuse for erratic behavior or a refusal to be a productive member of society. “Artists” don’t have to maintain jobs – not because they’re highly skilled, but because they’ve appointed themselves to the title of “artist”. It’s not a universal perception of the word, but it’s definitely not uncommon, and I really want no part of it.
I once had someone come up to the desk at the library where I worked who refused to pay late fees because she was an “artist”, and “artists” break all of the rules. I refrained from “artistically” punching her in the face, even though by her own definition it would have been perfectly acceptable.
I make stuff, and some of it is “art” because it’s totally impractical and self-indulgent. I don’t have any misperceptions that I’m making the world better by making pictures, but I hope I’m making tiny little parts of peoples’ lives better. Either way, it’s something I can’t stop doing, and I enjoy doing it.
APW Arts on Record Vol. 2: The Skeletron
“Sometimes, you spend more time justifying yourself or explaining how “art” works than actually putting together work.” Like this interview?
Though, I imagine this sort of thing is preferable to schooling a client in the ways of intellectual property… At least it’s more fun!
But seriously, in terms of being a guy who makes stuff, how important are interviews? First, in terms of making the stuff — do you find reading interviews inspiring or motivational or helpful at all? And second, what makes participating in an interview worth the time away from making stuff? Is it just the promotional aspects? (Links: How the internet was won!)
Interviews are fun! They force you to take a look at why you do what you do, and they open up your eyes to how others might perceive you, and every shade of this will color your work, whether you like it or not. Observing it changes the experimental results.
My favorite interviews are in Hi Fructose Magazine, because I find myself reading things I’ve been thinking for years coming from artists who I admire. It’s inspiring to know that I’m on the right path, and it’s always useful to be reminded to stay true to yourself.
I don’t think I’ve ever landed any work through an interview (yet), but the introspection makes them worthwhile to participate in. A lot of what I feel like I have to say about art may sound negative or like I don’t respect other artists, but it’s just passion for good, true creators and an impatience with the imitators – so I have to bite my tongue a lot.
Plush Custom Art Called Either "Fuckface the Fucknificent" or "You & Your Ugly Heart"
For many, making some money off a creative gig seems like the ultimate goal, the real mark of professional success; but as you’ve discussed there’s a clear divide between creative expression, making stuff for the sake of making it, and commerce, selling stuff &/or making stuff to sell. How do you best balance what can be at times such contradictory positions and determine success for yourself?
Well, I’m not yet in a place where I can turn down well-paying jobs, so they’ve taken over. About six months ago, I decided to focus on making commercially viable stuff and hunting down clients, and perfecting the skills necessary to work on the highly technical professional stuff. I’ve always done paintings on commission, and small works for small magazines, but I really needed to conduct a concentrated test about the viability of doing this kind of thing for a living. So, I dropped everything (including personal projects and writing gigs) and started researching what people want right now in the creative world, and how to do those things. Art school didn’t provide a single iota of information that was useful in finding an art-related job, so it’s a very do-it-yourself kind of education.
"The Spacemen: Burn-Up Re-Entry Model" Custom Toys, Edition of Four, by Collin David
For me, it was a solid moment of decision, so the “real” art happens between gigs. There’s never a shortage of work if you know how to ferret it out, and I’m never at a lack of ideas for personal art. I have five sketchbooks full of projects that want to be done. I don’t think I’ve found the kind of success I want just yet, but I don’t think I ever will. That’s the kind of thing that keeps you moving and evolving, so the dissatisfaction isn’t all bad.
I’d love for art to be a full-time job, but I don’t think I could do the corporate letterhead design thing for more than a few weeks at a time before losing my mind. There are too many ghosts in my head for that, and they all want to be painted.
Detail from 'Queen of the Bees', which is "about a cheating, lying ex-girlfriend."
If you had to pick one piece or project that you feel marked professional success or otherwise signified success to you, what would it be and how does it reflect success to you?
Star Wars cards. During middle school, and high school, and college, there were a few things that I held in such high creative regard that I never envisioned myself touching them, and Star Wars was way up there. Last year, I was asked to draw a whole bunch of original sketch cards which were randomly packaged with packs of Star Wars cards. They’re quirky and fun drawings of aliens, and they had to be done quickly so they’re not top quality, but I don’t think I could ever do anything cooler than official Star Wars art. Being accepted into such an established and impenetrable universe marks success for me.
Star Wars Series V Sketch Card by Collin David
Here at The Ungulate we try to focus on adding creativity and art (making and buying/owning) to your life, on inspiring people to just make stuff and to delight in stuff that’s made. One of the things we hear most often is how hard it is to just start. How do you respond to that, what advice do you have?
This is probably an answer that’s been given a hundred times, but just do it. I’ve created thousands of embarrassing drawings, and had even more terrible ideas, but you have to realize that creativity is flawed, and that’s just par for the course, like anything else. It’s not a perfect, pristine, inaccessible spirit that needs to be handled delicately. It’s a dirty, frustrating thing that you can’t be afraid to smack around. You need to throw away any delusions of preciousness.
I remember the moment in high school when I realized that I’d been holding back because I didn’t want to embarrass myself by drawing something dumb. And then I realized that no one ever had to see it but me. As long as art fits in the garbage, you’re safe, so just go for it. Also realize that no time spent creating is wasted time, because every second is an enormous education: how materials work, which lines are beautiful, which ideas are disasters, how to use color and space. These things are much more visceral when you’re doing them, and you really can’t learn them from a book without doing them.
And there you have it, good advice from
an artist a busy guy who “makes stuff.”
I’d like to thank Collin for sharing all this — and encourage the rest of you to visit all the links to “all things Collin David” in this interview. (He’s got so much going on, if you only have time for two, it’s these two: ResonantFish and ResonantFish on Facebook.)