Mondriaan and Photos (1)

Months ago I mentioned Dutch 20th century painter Piet Mondriaan a few times in this blog series. Famous—or notorious?—for his ultimately abstract pictures with squares and rectangles in red, blue and yellow, what has he got to do with photography, and of landscapes to boot? That is a long story. Mondriaan (outside the Netherlands also spelled Mondrian) started out, around 1900, as a pretty conventional painter. He lived in very interesting times, however, when painting was being revolutionised, not least because of the invention of photography, over half a century before. C├ęzanne, whom I also mentioned a few times for his problematising the relation of the painting as a canvas with depicted reality, was only the beginning. Fauvists and Cubists followed the (post-)Expressionists and then this other Dutchman, Theo van Doesburg, invented De Stijl. Mondriaan's extremely pure application of the Stijl principles make up his most famous paintings of the 1920s and 1930s, with rectangles in only the primary colours (for paint): red, yellow and blue, on a fond of white with black stripes.

I guess that I was like many people who at first could not find any sense or beauty in these utterly abstract paintings, but after reading a little and especially after seeing—quite a few years ago now—a chronologically organised overviews exhibition of Mondriaan's paintings in The Hague, I started to find them fascinating and, yes, beautiful. The big fascination was to see Mondriaan struggle for finding beauty in the landscape and trying to express beauty without the viewer being distracted by the representation. I plan to get back to this movement later on, but let me here look at an early stage of his quest.

You can paint—or photograph, for that matter—the windmill in Domburg against the evening sky (see these and a few more of his paintings at the website of the Domburg tourist agency). Mondriaan did that in 1909 in a more or less naturalistic style (first picture), although the blue colour of the mill as a suggestion of the late evening light could not have been made ten years earlier in the history of painting. I wonder, by the way, if that blue was a correct representation of how our eyes work: in dark circumstances, the receptors for colour (cone cells) in the retina are almost inactive and we only see light-and-dark (rod cells) —any strong colouring then is fantasy, I'd say. But let's look at how he painted the same mill in 1911: against again a night-blue sky there is a red shape with details in the sky's blue (a window and the axis of the mill's wings). In the tints of blue we see a vague differentiation between sky and earth; similarly, a darker shade of red suggests some volume in the mill. This is not yet an abstract painting, but clearly Mondriaan made a lot of steps in his thoughts in those two years. No longer even an effort at more or less naturalistic colouring: the blue of the sky is way too blue for that and the earth should not be the same hue of blue and just a bit darker. And most of all, of course: the mill has turned red! We have two of his later three primary colours here, with much contrast. It is all about strong shape and strong colour; the viewer must be struck at the very first moment by a strong impression. It is not about being true to what the painter's eye saw. For me, that was the eye-opener about this painting: think of what the viewer will experience!

Bonus puzzle for you, dear readers (and to me!): interesting that Mondriaan chose to keep the sky coloured close to nature and to think that the man-made addition to the landscape was the more mutable one, of which he could change the colour. Why did he not do it the other way around: a darkish, bluish or perhaps black mill against a red sky?

Another bonus, as an aside: does Mondriaan's red mill show influence of photography in the strong perspective as if the mill was photographed through a wide-angle lens? Ans dhat about his cutting of the wings, is that not also in imitation of an 'error' of photography? Or am I anachronistically over-interpreting things here? For instance, did they have such strong wide-angle lenses in 1911?


Improving Reproductions

Did a second batch of old portrait reproductions for my father-in-law. I took more liberties than in the first batch. Let's call it progress of insight, but it was also a matter of realising the uses of technical tricks. The change of insight was that this was not about being as faithful as possible to the old pictures as they lay before me (as I worded it in my 2008-08-07 'Old skool' entry), but to aim for the best effect from the point of view of the beholders—my father-in-law, in this case. He wants these pictures as reminiscences of the ones depicted, or to get a better impression of family members deceased before he could know them. So what he wants is as clear a portrait as possible, a reconstruction of the original photo at least when it comes to the persons' portraits. Why didn't I think of that before? Every professional photographer knows it: people are not interested in the photos per se but in the persons!

Sometimes the photos were so bad that it was not worthwhile to try to improve them, but there were some cases where Lightroom 2 could spice up the persons' faces. Here's a little 'how to': photo 1 in this blog is a detail cut from the version I would have handed to my father-in-law in the first batch. But I did not like the flare from the backlight flowing over the roofs in between the houses. LR2 gives the option to apply corrections to parts of the photo: you just 'paint over' the area with a brush (in the Develop-module). To see where I am working, I set the brush at '+2 exposure' or something similar—as long as it is visible (see photo 2, from a different one, obviously, than the comparative picture). The brush settings include large size (for working fast) and a high feather (for a flowing, invisible border). Remember: LR makes no changes to your original photo at all, everything can be undone—no need to be nervous about painting a granddad a little white!

Then I set the sliders in the painted-over area to what gives the best effect: in this case especially exposure down a bit; besides I added contrast and sharpness. The result is not dramatically different (my father-in-law must think it is the same old picture), but just a little more recognisable as a portrait. I hope you can see the difference in this small reproduction; I do, in the original of this 1930s family photo.


Where is Frans Lanting when you need him?

In rushed my wife: "A bird of prey caught a dove!" Oh, where is Frans Lanting (or any other nature photographer) when you need one? Rushed out of the study behind her, camera in one hand, memory card in the other (I had just imported some pics into the PC) and switching the camera to Sports mode at the same time. I usually hate those pre-cooked modes, but now it came in handy: ISO 800, fast-shutter time preference, hi-speed (5 frames/second) drive setting. Not that we saw much of the sparrowhawk, because he (it was a young male) found a spot to devour his prey in a secluded corner of the garden and we did not want to go out and disturb him. So photos had to be made from behind the window. The trees and other growth made manual focusing necessary and that was not easy I must admit. How do the Frans Lantings of this world do that? I admire them increasingly. By the way, I mentioned Frans Lanting because he once published this book 'Eye to Eye' (sold out now, there's just a postcard-book at Amazon and a special portfolio at Taschen), and the eyes are the most catching part of my photo too, I think (the rest is sub-zero quality—don't mention it!).

Blog’s Midlife Crisis? What Crisis?

Was I silent! Sorry, dear readers, I'll be more active in the weeks to come—until work kicks back in in its usual full force, that is. This is not a midlife crisis of the blog, let me assure you. I have read somewhere that the average blog is maintained for nine months. Would most people take this period as symbolic:, I wonder: time enough to conceive a baby and then we go back to the real world? Or is it a sign of people's whimsically shifting of interest in this 21st century world? Anyhow, I'm going on! Crisis? What Crisis?


Oscar van Alphen (2): The Photo as a Shroud

"The photo shows reality as the shroud shows the dead body
without identification, without name, without history.
What remains is the external intensity of the neutral,
the fascination with the ever-recurring question about concealing or revealing."

Thus reads the first of two stanzas copied into an "Untitled" picture of 1987 by Oscar van Alphen—I promised I'd come back to him. The photo is a black-and-white one, with a large, rolled-up white sheet (the shroud of the poem) in the foreground; the rest is a Dutch, flat landscape. A rather empty picture, accordingly. Which fits the poem alright.

Van Alphen's photo is the only one of over a hundred in the 1991 exhibition catalogue 'The Decisive Image: Dutch photography from the 20th century' with a text in it. (Must have been difficult in those pre-digital days to get a text into a photo with darkroom techniques rather than printing techniques. Probably a slide of white letters on a completely black background copied into the large photo. But that was not the point of my blog entry.)

His text is indeed a question about the truth in photography: what is "in" a picture? What is its relation to reality? How external is what we see in a picture? These are not easy questions—were not easy in the analogous days, and have become more complicated in the digital days in some (but not in all) respects. It is too late in the day for me to even try to approach the question intellectually. Perhaps Van Alphen was not so crazy when he tried to do it with a photo surrounding his text. Roland Barthes' 'Camera lucida' with his musings on the photo of his deceased mother are not a very readable alternative... Strange that death plays a role in Van Alphen's picture as much as in Barthes' classic text on photography. Or has Van Alphen read Barthes'text? For although we see only the 'external intensity' of the photo, it may lead to the thought of where it came from: what was the photographer trying to tell us? Why was s/he trying to tell us precisely this? That is where Van Alphen's reading on photography may come into play.

Even more to muse upon, when the evening gets still later.



Stairways again, and cupolas--fascinating elements of architecture. This was taken in Haarlem, two weeks ago. Just too bad that my mobile phone's camera is so bad. The (too vivid) colours may work nicely here, but that is the only positive thing about this photo, I fear. Must go back with a really good camera + lens--if I ever find the time...