My Troubles with Photography

Philip Koch, Moon Dance, vine charcoal, 8 x 10", 2009

There are two reasons I avoid photography. I'll start with the real reason.

My father worked for Eastman Kodak as an optical physicist. For the entire time I knew him he was doing work for the US military that was classified. And he never once told anyone in the family what the work was beyond that it involved light and lenses. I couldn't help but notice that my dad didn't seem to like his job very much as he came home in a dark mood almost every night. In his defense, he was a very kind man and, despite his troubles with depression, his affection for me was apparent. And it meant the world to me. Still, using the logic of a child, I concluded that cameras and lenses must be bad for you.

My mother's dad also worked for Eastman Kodak and was early on very prominent in the company, being the inventor of the original Kodachrome color film process. He had fallen in love with his secretary at Kodak. When she became pregnant with his child, he left his wife and my mother and went to live in California with the other woman and their baby. My mother, a young girl, was devastated. I almost never saw him but knew mom was terribly angry at him. I saw him only a hand full of times before he died. When I was old enough to remember the encounters he was not well and struck me as remote and irritable, and scary. 

Between these two important males figures, each life-long Kodak employees, I unconsciously connected unhappiness with the camera. It sounds irrational and it is, but even now I feel a slight unease in picking up photographic equipment. So when it came to making paintings I gravitated away from using photography as a tool.

As I have painted over the years, I have discovered there are other good reasons why a painter can benefit from avoiding photographs as sources. One is that it takes a long time for artists to sort through the multitude of feelings they have about their source. Drawing from direct observation is a maddeningly slow proposition, and that's its beauty. It provides the painter with the extra time to winnow out only the finest of their perceptions. Time after time, even with second rate painters, the direct observation artist is more selective than the photo source painter. 

By the same token, I find a lot of the same ultra-selective attitude happens when I paint direct from memory or fantasy. It is way slower than using photos for sources, and it's hard as hell, but it can bear amazing fruit.

One of my favorite teachers at the Art Students League in New York, Rudolf Baranik (himself an abstract painter) used to talk to me about how the artist's job was to interpret an idea rather than report dry facts about it. He would show slides of Rembrandt and revel in how much his shadowy light concealed from the viewer. In Baranik's opinion the most important quality of a painting was mood. He was a big fan of rigorous editing. What a fine teacher. In describing painting he loved the word "poetry."

One night last fall my wife and I went for a walk when a full moon struggled to peek through a broken pattern of heavy clouds. It felt magical, evoking a delicious mysterious light. I'm experimenting with painting from the resulting vine charcoal drawing Moon Dance in my studio right now. I'd love to show you the results, but we're into slow cooking...


  1. Bernadette WaystackAugust 17, 2009 at 9:00 PM

    Really eerie how much my process evolved recently to exactly what you are talking about here, Phil. (I feel so grateful our paths have crossed, at least virtually.)
    I understand exactly what Baranik meant. There's no need to replicate exactly what I see or have snapped a reference photo of. That only yields a soul-less piece of work. I am trying to get to the essence of how I felt in that space in that momment. Quite suddenly while at SCAD this summer, I began to work from my gut, memory, imagination when not long ago I didn't trust myself to do it.

  2. Hi Bernadette,

    Sounds like your summer was full of significant churning and searching. It's a real process, isn't it. I like to tell my students their task is to look both inside themselves and outside themselves, to study reality (what they used to call "nature" in the old days). As one looks outside, one can see echoes of one's internal life. That's when observational painting can start to get really good.


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