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?”
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.
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.
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.”
Whether you want to write and sell an ebook on crafts or you just want to buy one, you simply must read Sister Diane’s Things to consider before you price your crafty ebook.
And do follow the links in her post; they are awesome!
In order to discuss the meaning of kitsch, you first need to know it’s definition. So I grabbed my copy of Kitsch, The World of Bad Taste, by Gillo Dorfles (with contributions by John McHale, Karl Pawek, Ludwig Giesz, Lotte H. Eisner, Ugo Volli, Vittorio Gregotti, and Aleksa Celebonovic; and essays by Hermann Broch and Clement Greenberg). In the book kitsch is defined as follows:
The word kitsch could derive etymologically from the English ‘sketch’ or, according to the other opinions, from the German verb ‘verkitschen (‘to make cheap’). According to Giesz (Ludwig Giesz: ‘Phanomenologie des Kitsches’ …1960) which is without doubt the most complete work on the subject, the word kitsch could approximately be said to mean ‘artistic rubbish.’
However, “artistic rubbish” is as “I know it when I see it” as porn is. To simply define something as “bad” without considering the pure subjectivity involved is nearly nonsensical.
While Dorfles et all go on at great length about how they arrive at the wrinkling of their noses, the definitions are less than satisfactory — especially as they point to a real case of monetary snobbery.
For example, posters of the great art classics are considered to be kitsch. Translation: Unless you can afford an actual Rembrandt or other Master, your taste, however classy, will be defined as bad and kitsch by virtue of simply having a thin wallet.
In fact, Dorfles really, really, not only dislikes copies or reproductions of any sort, but is not exactly happy with any sort of consumerism (he would hate today’s art museum gift shops). Nor does he limit himself only to the visual arts; along with film literature and music are judged, their medium and means of consumer acts equally under attack.
Dorfles is not an complete idiot, however; he senses the reader’s potential ire:
If anyone is not satisfied with our choice and finds some of the images artistic which we will present as pseudo-artistic, un-artistic, too bad! To us at least it will mean that our reader is really a ‘kitsch-man’ of the first water; and that the psychological test has worked properly.
What Dorfles (and anyone else who uses insulting as a judgmental intimidation tactic) fails to recognize here in such a confirmed stance of absolutes, is that a kitsch-woman of the first water (me!) will find his awareness of discord and dispute wins him no favor intellectually. The gloves are now off. Any potential shield of ignorance leaves him standing naked before me, facing a battle to the inevitable intellectual death.
If all this seems to imply that Kitsch, The World of Bad Taste is a book to avoid, please do not misunderstand. I love a good book I can sink my teeth into — even if that means I’m growling when I do it. (And I’ll likely visit this book often for argumental posts.)
But if Dorfles brings us closer to a true understanding of what kitsch really is, it is purely by accident.
This book was published in 1969 — and contains essays written up to three decades earlier. Viewed with the benefit of time, or hindsight, I find a great contextual definition of kitsch. Or maybe I should say, a definition of kitsch as a defensive reaction to the preservation of Art.
Some love this book for opening “your eyes to the avalanche of junk that makes up popular culture” and others loath it for failing to recognize the “the signifigance of the narrowing gap between high and low art,” but both sides miss the real point. Defining art as high-brow or low-brow, dismissing popular culture and ourselves as collectively low-brow, isn’t just an over-simplification; it’s a poor assessment.
Art as a form of human expression is not a static thing. It changes. Like everything else. Even removing the individual voices and processes of the creators, artworks are offered to a public which changes. Not only did we once love Rubenesque women, but Ruben himself; now, meh, not-so-much for either of them. What we value, and how we value it, changes. The conversations we have, the issues we explore, change. And, perhaps most dramatically, the ability to produce, show, and critique art has changed.
If low-barrier equals low-entry equals low-brow is the math being used, people need to reconsider. The converse certainly does not hold true. And those who, like Dorfles does with machines, blame technology for the copious amounts of kitsch ought to remember the battles for freedom of access for all. And the remarkable artworks we’ve had, strides taken, as a result.
I don’t want to be equally guilty of passing judgment on those who are quick to condemn popular culture, kitsch, etc., but the very people who “feel overwhelmed by the tasteless tides of popular culture” are not only, as they whine, so afflicted by it, but they are employing it. It’s obvious they are digging such pop culture adventures as publishing sans gatekeeper with a big spoon. Self-publishing their high-brow opinions is a low-brow, kitsch activity.
But back to the book.
Contextually, this book of essays stands as a defense against Modernism and those art movements after it which reject tradition. It’s the defensive posturing of an establishment wishing to retain authority, to rally the museums, galleys, and wealthy who must guard the integrity of Art. It’s not that these people have better taste with which to form the definitions and standards of Art, or even the right to do so; but they do have a reason to try. For you see, what they truly hope to guard so zealously are their investments in it.
But you can’t insulate your investments in art. Art is part of a living, breathing, culture which, as stated, changes. As the cultural values change, so do the monetary values of art. Not always in the art investor’s favor.
And no desperate debates designed to keep the established art status quo can thwart it.
On one hand, kitsch is purely subjective in the sense that each of us knows it when we see it and we ascribe different attributes to it. “Bad,” “atrocious,” “so bad it’s grand,” “funny,” “too funny,” “cheap,” etc. Which is why kitsch rather defies a classification. (What pleases or amuses one, insults another).
But kitsch, as it is often used in the art world, often has quite a different distinction. I see it as more than a slur, but an actual means to limit and control the art market, if not the art world.
Image credits: As all images are scanned from Kitsch, The World of Bad Taste, by Gillo Dorfles. Presented in order placed in the post, with author comments, if any.
Vintage ad, found on page 177: “An example of facile and grotesque copyfitting in this attempt to identify the inimitable blue of a painting by Cezanne with the blue of a man’s sportshirt.”
Film still, found on page 195: “The depiction of a famous painter on the screen is painful even in the hands of a director with taste. Vincente Minnelli’s film about van Gogh, Lust For Life (1956).”
Mona Lisa “kitsch,” found on page 21: “10. The Mona Lisa myth appears once more against the tiles of a shower. 11. A spectacles-case”
Men may be, as we are told, visual creatures, but many women adore and collect vintage images. Pinups and those ‘trashy’ covers of pulp novels do more than just flirt with men ya know — we women like them too. And if this includes you, then girl do I have a treat for you: Illustration Magazine.
Collectors of trashy vintage pulp novels, Elvgren pinups, and vintage magazines (be they men’s magazines or turn of the century copies of Collier’s) will drool. Pop culture addicts will greedily await the next issue. Art lovers, artist themselves and anyone with an eye for style will enjoy flipping through Illustration to find classical creations, stylized advertising pieces, elegant deco drawings, fine art, eccentric arrangements, and other works to ooh and ah over.
While the publishers occasionally devote an entire issue to one artist, most issues are a mix of the humorous, the sinister, the sleazy, the graceful, the surreal, the charming, and the cheeky.
It’s clear from the quality that for the publishers this is not just another job, not just a way to make some money — this is an act of love.
Printed on heavy weight, glossy paper, the high quality reproductions of of these illustrations are a joy to behold. The magazine includes articles by the artists themselves, as well as historians, professors & fans of the artists and their works; making it not only fun to read, but so informative, each issue is suitable for research.
Since the golden age of American illustration is considered to be the period of 1890 to 1960, the magazine covers more than just the girlie side of art. Inside Illustration, you’ll find the art of comic books, story illustrations, postcards, sci-fi book and magazine covers, posters and other ephemera of graphic delight.
What makes this publication unique is that it focuses on commercial illustration. Since the works were commissioned or contracted for clients approval and needs rather than “it’s own sake”, it often appeared without artist credit. These artists certainly weren’t celebrated for their commercial works, even if they had gallery success. As little was written about many of the artists, Illustration focuses on biographies of the artist themselves. Illustration celebrates and documents these masters, yes, but the biographies and articles also help to put the works in context. And I think that’s equally important in understanding their purpose and value.
For example, Issue Number 11 has 31 pages on Robert Bonfils, a prolific and gifted producer of those 1960’s trashy adult paperback covers. Not only do you have two articles (by Robert Speray and Lynn Munroe), a plethora of color cover reproductions to gaze at (including several full-page images!) from collector Bruce Brenner, but a piece by Bonfils himself. Reading all of this, one gets information on the trashy book biz, how Bonfils worked, the life of the artist, the culture of the 60’s, and even information on collecting paperbacks in this genre. Now that’s a lot of information.
And yet that’s not all that’s in the issue!
Also in #11 are “Men’s Adventure magazines in Postwar America: The Rich Oberg Collection,” “The Devil in Design: The Krampus Postcards,” “Larry Admire, Star of Pulp World,” along with book reviews and information on exhibitions and events. What more can you ask for?
As a person who dabbles in collecting in these areas, I’ve learned much from my issues of Illustration. As a woman who loves to ponder the cultural components of pulp novels & pinups, I appreciate how works and artists are put into context. As a girl who just likes pretty things, it’s a feast for the eyes.
This magazine is for connoisseurs & collectors alike.
Illustration is published quarterly, and you can subscribe directly from the publisher at Illustration-Magazine.com, where you’ll also find some back issues. (Both eBay and Amazon have back issues of Illustration Magazine too.)