The space between the screens, or why I’m jealous of painters

by Bruno Roels

The space between the screens, or why I’m jealous of painters

“Magic happens in the land between painting and photography” I wrote that, some time ago, in a review of Saul Leiter’s photography. The American photographer was a genius: he made color photographs with the eye of a painter. 

At the surface that may seem a rather bland remark, a fit-all description that doesn't add a lot to the conversation. After all, the relationship between photography and painting is long standing, and very well documented. But when you look at the heart of the matter, you’ll find that it’s very much a one way street. Painters do wonderful things incorporating photography, but it’s a whole other story the other way around. Photographers, typically, are not so free. Or at least, they don’t seem to think they are. 

Saul Leiter was one of the few who escaped the ‘tyranny of camera viewfinders and rectangular boxes of enlarging papers’ as John Baldessari once wrote as a warning to himself. As a conceptual artist, Baldessari is uniquely placed to comment on the relationship between the two arts. He abandoned painting and started using existing images to formulate what he wanted to say.

At some point in the 1970s, Baldessari was frustrated with 'clutter in photography'. He remembers: "Painters had well explored the issue of evacuating the picture plane, but there was little evidence of this in photography." To put it differently: painters are able to build their own universes, whereas most photographers are stuck dealing with an overcrowded, fully realized, universe. They have a harder time stripping photographs down to the bare essentials. 

The German painter Sigmar Polke saw it differently: "A negative is never finished. You can handle a negative. You can do what you want. I can play with it. I can make with it. I can mix with it. I can choose with it." He flies directly into the face of everything photographers worldwide hold dear: don't touch the negative, don't touch the digital RAW file. Polke saw photography as a starting point, a building block for a larger construction. Photographers see photography as a final result. And that's the whole difference.

Needless to say, as a photographer, I’m very jealous of painters. Not out of spite, obviously, but imagine their freedom, they live in a lawless reality! Those beautiful bastards can do whatever they want! 

Jealousy is the first thing burning through my mind when walking Stief's studio: the magnificent bastard gets away with anything. His large canvasses feature multiple layers of painted   information, and at the center are hand painted rendering of screened photographs. 

He uses the very essence of photography: 'registering -and freezing- a moment or an object in time’ and picks it apart completely to fit his needs. The images he chose are both nostalgic and highly recognizable. He uses halftone screening to 'destroy' or reduce the information: the photographs are rendered into little dots of black or grey. Instead of using screenprinting (which is wat Polke would have done) he paints the screens himself, further reducing the barriers between photography and painting. 

And even in their broken down state do the photographs exactly what Stief wants: they give us a sense of historical or anthropological context, without being too stuck to the present or to the past. The figures in the paintings are silent witnesses, not in a ghostly way, but in some other-worldly way, it's like they are not quite sure of their place: here with us, or somewhere else, somewhere better perhaps. They exist between the screens, in a space of Stiefs making.

Image his artistic freedom: it’s endless. Reducing photographs by removing them from their original context and reusing them to build the world he wants. Baldessari would be happy: all clutter is removed; only the essence remains.

For Stief, the essence seems to be longing. Not in a sentimental way, though. Longing doesn't have to be sad; longing can be an intrinsic part of focus. Photography, with its capacity to 'freeze time', can be sentimental. But, when used in the right way, photos can be a way to study all those things that we are otherwise to slow to grasp: lust, love, youth, wonder, mystery, choices, history, questions, journeys, meaning, belonging… the list is endless.

Stief is not using photography to freeze moments and to keep them in stasis indefinitely, he’s using it to slow down time, just enough to question his reality and maybe understand it. 

Bruno Roels, 2015

(Bruno Roels is a photographer and photobook reviewer for De Standaard newspaper)