After I wrote my introduction to ICM and Impressionist Photography in the later part of last year, I had some incredibly kind and positive feedback from a number of people who both read and shared my post. I’m really humbled that you took the time to not only read my ramblings, but also find enough value in it to share with other people.
At the time I promised to write a number of posts about Impressionist photography - beginning with the history, including a look at some of those people who laid the foundations for us to practice what we do today, and later expanding to cover everything from tips to techniques. This post is the first in that series. Today we start with where it all began with the Impressionist painting movement.
Before I charge into the main piece though, I just again want to thank you for reading my posts, and again if you find some value and some inspiration in what I do, then please share it with as many people and as many communities as you wish. Be it photography communities, social media or any other groups and places that you may think would enjoy a little look at our world. But before you do, you should probably read on…
If you look at any photograph today that is the product of Intentional Camera Movement (ICM), or some of the other abstract photographic techniques, it’s not difficult to see how this type of abstract, painterly effect has a strong similarity to the impressionist movement in the world of painting. Impressionist painting is characterised by relatively small, thin, yet visible brush strokes, often with an open composition. It has a certain distinct way of showing light in its changing qualities; often accentuating and distorting the effects of the passage of time. The beauty of it is that the subject matter can often be very ordinary, for example a tree or a simple landscape of a beach and the ocean. However the inclusion of movement creates an element of human perception and experience, and often unusual visual angles for the eye to explore.
Given the similarity between impressionism and ICM, and the fact that ICM photography is often labelled as “New Impressionism”, it’s a worthwhile exercise to take a little look at the history of those impressionists that began the movement. It’s important to note that here are indeed a number of methods of impressionist photography however as ICM is my more favoured style, this is my basis for reference and comparison.
Now this is not going to be an in depth look at the beginnings of Impressionism but more of a brief overview of some of the important artists of years gone by and how I feel it influences us as ICM photographers.
So where do we start?
IMPRESSIONISM: THE BEGINNINGS
Impressionism as an art movement began in Paris, France, towards the end of the 19th Century. As it come to the fore around the 1870’s and 1880’s it was derided and shunned by the conventional art community. The work was viewed as radical as it nearly always violated the rules of academic painting. The way that colour was used as a primary tool of communication, rather than lines, shape and contours, had never been seen before. The emphasis was strong on visual effect, bold colour and short, broken brush strokes rather than intricate detail.
This new style of painting was at first met with hostility by art critics and public alike, with the artists accused of attempting to excuse poor composition and technique with their method of art. The early impressionists were not deterred and shortly after convinced their detractors that it was simply a different way of seeing. Not so much in the literal sense but allowing their imagination and sensation to capture an ordinary subject in a way that focused more on light and movement as a driver to create a portrait of a subject or an object, and as a technique to view a landscape as a dynamic scene.
The start of impressionism as a movement is credited to Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley and Frédéric Bazille who all met during their studies. Their shared interests in painting landscape and contemporary life as opposed to historical or mythical scenes helped them to develop this new style of art, this new movement.
Claude Monet is probably one of the most famous and celebrated of the impressionists. He was renowned for his use of natural light, for painting outdoors (Plein air) at many different times of day in an attempt to capture changing conditions. Monet tended to paint simple impressions or subtle hints of his subjects, using very soft brushstrokes and unmixed colours to create a natural vibrating effect, as if nature itself were alive on the canvas. He did not wait for paint to dry before applying successive layers. This created a "wet on wet" technique which produced softer edges and blurred boundaries that suggested a three-dimensional plane, rather than depicting it realistically.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, also one of the pioneers of impressionism, focused on the figure and the internal psychology of the individual. He was known for his use of vibrant, saturated colours and depicted the daily activities of individuals from his neighbourhood of Montmartre. In particular he enjoyed portraying the social pastimes of Parisian society during the 19th Century. While Renoir, also painted outdoors, he really emphasised the emotional attributes of his subjects, using light and loose brushwork to highlight the human form.
THE DEVELOPMENT OF IMPRESSIONISM
As the impressionist movement took off and become more accepted, the artist Paul Cézanne became a preeminent figure in the field. Cézanne was really the first artist who bridged the gap between Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. He learned much from Impressionist technique, but evolved a more deliberate style of paint handling. As he entered the latter stages of his life, he paid closer attention to the structure of the forms that his broad, repetitive brushstrokes depicted. As he once put it, he wished to "redo Nicolas Poussin after nature and make Impressionism something solid and durable like the Old Masters." Cézanne’s aim was to break down objects into their most basic geometric parts and depict their essential building blocks as subject matter in itself. This experiment would ultimately become highly influential for the development of Cubism by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque.
Cézanne ultimately came to think of colour, line, and form as constituting one and the same thing, inseparable aspects for describing how the human eye actually experiences nature. He sought to make his artistic practice a new kind of analytical discipline. For Cézanne, the actual canvas itself took on the role of a screen, providing the viewer with the opportunity to interpret what they felt the image was showing them, and to attach their own emotional significance to the piece.
IMPRESSIONISM AND ICM
To me, the very basic ideas and concepts of impressionism are very closely intertwined with ICM. ICM as a movement is doing almost exactly the same as impressionism did in the 19th Century. ICM is very much a case of breaking all of the rules of conventional photography and distilling it down to a feeling, an experience, rather than the replication of a scene or subject. When a photographer goes against the must fundamental rules that are often vocalised as being unbreakable amongst the populist photographic community, the photographer can experience freedom and spontaneity.
Much like Impressionism was, ICM and more abstract techniques, are often met with derision amongst our fellow photographers. The constant need for extremely sharp, literal and allegedly ‘perfect’ photographs is a hallmark of many of the general photographic forums today. That’s not to say those photographs don’t have their place and I don’t expect ICM, Impressionist photography or even abstract photography to become mainstream techniques anytime soon. Although my own feeling is that these photography styles, or genres, are slowly gaining a rise in popularity and ought to be considered a more serious pursuit than some may give them credit for.
ICM and impressionist photography share a lot of the same qualities as the impressionist painting movement. It is all about creating photographs that are an expression, a feeling and sometimes a very abstract view of what lies before the photographer. It is more about perceiving, about context being completely removed or twisted beyond recognition. The very nature of Impressionist photography invites you to just experience it, rather than to simply view it and make a judgement. Often these photographs are created with the intention of a visual experience that is misunderstood, it may deliberately lead you to believe that something is what it is not.
What draws me to this medium of photography is that this work is a purity of expression. There’s no definition, no set methods to get results and it is as much about vision and intent as it is practice, skill and technique. It’s more than just waving your camera around as some of the more conventional photographers suggest. I think we spend too much time as photographers learning to capture what the camera sees literally rather than experimenting with our imagination. To me it takes a greater level of understanding and visual imagination to create something compelling in the world of impressionist photography. Of course, technique and skill helps and hopefully that is something that I may be able to help pass on in future posts.
The next post will be a closer look at some of the early impressionist photographers, a look at their style and their work. We will end with some of the most recent impressionist photographers and have a look at where we are heading next as this process and techniques evolves. Before I go I’d like to encourage a little assignment if I may. In between now and the next post in this series, go and take a look at some of the work from the impressionist painters that I’ve talked about here. Familiarise yourself with their art and feel free to open some dialogue in the comments section about some of your favourite work that you see as you explore. Also I’d love to hear any thoughts or feelings that you have about this post.
I look forward to hearing from you again and can't wait to share the next instalment in the coming weeks.