Friday, 11 September 2009

Why the Spanish Inquisition 1478-1834 was good for Photography.


History is never antiquated, because humanity is always fundamentally the same. ~Walter Rauschenbusch

History is a vast early warning system. ~Norman Cousins

The challenge of history is to recover the past and introduce it to the present. ~David Thelen



So what I'm not saying is that burning people is a good thing. Unless they're already dead and then that's okay.

If that's what you're into.

As opposed to planting.

Equally I'm not saying that I don't have a few contenders myself for the list of; "lightly toasted on one side just to teach them a lesson" category either.

What I am saying is; can we please move on from the "Photography is dead debate", when it's quite evident even to the most hardened cynic that the medium has never been more universally alive in terms of it's access and more democratic in terms of it's understanding. What we should be exciting about, is the potential for where this leads us.

Take a straw poll now of a few people's favourite painters, then ask which actual paintings they know. I imagine that anyone still reading at this point would be amongst people of a certain demographic that (with more refined tastes than my own ) might well refer to painters and paintings that I've perhaps never heard of. However, I bet that almost all of the people and paintings mentioned are post-renaissance. Picasso will be in there somewhere and Van Gogh no doubt, but I bet Rembrandt is too and perhaps Titian, I bet the Mona Lisa crops up and probably Scarlett Johansson (from which you should draw enormous comedy mileage).

Conversely, if the main names are Luís Borrassá, Andrea da Firenze and Simone Martini then dinner is on me.

There are a number of things that changed in painting between these two sets of people that are worth reflecting on for Photography right now;

  1. The way the pictures depicted their subject matter.
  2. The subject matter itself.
  3. The way that the artworks were read.
  4. The sources of funding for the Artists.

In depiction, there was a move away from single point perspective. There was literally a new depth to the images that allowed the reader/viewer to look into and around the picture. It reflected a more life-like and realistic experience more akin to the world that the viewer actually lived in. After all, people generally aren't flat.

Sounding familiar ? Maybe time to brush up on your Hyperphotography if not.

The subject matter itself changed because, for years painters had told the story of the Bible, as dictated by the Papacy to the illiterate masses. Through layers of sea-shell, egg whites and lamp black (amongst other ingredients) they told very clear stories in established and understandable formats.

With the rise in literacy, the translation of the Bible and the spread of individualism, people began to proclaim Christ as the head of the church and not the Pope. On a fundamental level, they began to question their sources of information as never before.

In fact it seems hard to believe to us today that the thought of a personal relationship with God (or as Plato described it, being without a Greek word for religion, Love,Knowledge and Truth), through direct prayer, was as alien for them as, lets say for instance, it would be today for us to ask a person depicted within a photograph, for their own version of events.

Completely ridiculous! In fact one might even go so far as to say; heretical.


Goodness. Can you actually imagine questioning the version of events, as dictated by a Professional Photographer and an actual Writer, which had been subsequently verified and published (by the newspaper/magazine or television), by actually asking the subject in the picture itself for their version ? There and then. On a completely personal level. Away from any perceivable editorial grasp?

Asbestos body suit anyone?

Although as Dan Brown proves to us so accurately, there were of course rebels who, although taking the money from their patrons, secretly stuck two fingers up to that establishment and painted their own coded versions of events. However, the paintings and the buildings that housed these works of art still came to embody the idea of God, just as they were meant to.

And they still do.

Ask any local village vicar/pastor/minister etc. how much money she raises to build wells for dying children in Africa, and she'll tell you it's a fraction of what she can raise in half the time by telling the local community that without a new roof, their church (building) will have to be demolished. It is surely the case that the language and intent of any religious teachings are lost in a society where the people that populate it, believe that those teachings are embodied in the modes of communication themselves. We just plain stopped hearing the wood for the trees, so to speak.

Can you really imagine, a world without the New York Times ? Or any other newspaper denting your lawn every weekend?

But anyway; this undermining of Papal authority didn't end there, as the new worlds and new markets were discovered, so the growing nations of Europe began to resent the high taxation that Rome siphoned off. The Church fractured and split.

It's reaction? A bloody big stick. Or actually in this case, a bonfire.

It's almost like, lets say (just for fun), if the Music industry decided to sue a few file sharers for absurdly huge sums of money that would be impossible for those people to ever pay, and in the full knowledge that the costs of doing so would never be recovered, in order to make examples of them.

Yes, clearly ridiculous.

Incidentally, the witch hunters themselves were a prosperous lot during this people, more than likely billing hourly.

My point is that when we look back at the similarly massive cultural and societal shifts that took place during this period we see that by trying ineffectually, to maintain the discipline and direction of it's Orthodoxy, the Papacy first in 1184 (followed by Isabella and her Spanish adaptation in 1478) established their inquisitions, they were really just plain failing to accept the next and looming business model. In fact it's been argued that (in a similar turn of religious events) when Catholic Mary Tudor (the first daughter of English Henry the Eight) persecuted the protestants she did more

"to advance the course of Protestanism than any Protestants could have imagined. (because) Seeing men of the church ... publicly burned for their religious convictions earned these martyrs a certain respect that you just don't get from doing Thought for the day." ~John O'Farrell.

So where exactly did all this, as interesting as it is, leave the Painters ?

Their medium was becoming common place, circumvented and in the terms of it's previous purpose, made largely redundant. In fairness though, it could have been worse. Bible scribes had the printing press just itching to be invented around this time too. Can you honestly imagine how gutted they were when mass communication of their medium made their practice entirely irrelevant? I bet the painters heaved a huge sigh of relief knowing that their work was unique and immune to such degradation for ever.

Although the painter's patron of the Church didn't disappear over night, they (the painters) did find themselves looking for new ways to sustain their practices. With the increase in commerce and the corresponding decrease in monopolistic control by the Papacy, it was the nouveau riche merchants that went on to facilitate this.

What I'm also not saying with this analogy is that that every editorial photographer should now go and work for a Russian Oligarch, nor should they all go and form a new religious sect. What I am trying to say is that when we think of the great leaps and bounds to have taken place throughout Art History over the last five hundred years, it's difficult not to be inspired and amazed by the post renaissance artists. They still define who we are and how we see today.

Photography, will not , as Phillip Jones Griffiths questions (paraphrased from Ritchen After Photography) ‘...become a shooting star of the twenty first century, which came and went in a hundred years’, because there is in all probability a twenty first century Leonardo Da Vinci walking amongst us right now. In fact from his bedroom, his avatar is probably mixing hyperphotography, metavideo, news and music with vehicle design and Science Fiction literature, all in Second Life.

We just need to hope that he’s not getting sued for it.

1 comment:

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