Manet and street photography

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    Ian McNab


    La serveuse de bocks (The beer waitress) by Édouard Manet (1878–1879)

    I came across the above painting by Manet yesterday in a Guardian article on the Impressionists, and I was immediately struck by how ‘photographic’ the visual design of the picture seemed. First, there’s the “dirty framing” – the technique of placing the main subject behind or between closer foreground subjects or features – a technique which makes the viewer feel immediately present in the scene. Then there’s the bright female figure on the left, cut in half by the frame as so often happens in street photographs. (You can almost hear the club judge, can’t you? – “Should’ve darkened that bright dress down, or, better, cropped the figure out all together”) And there’s the direct gaze of the waitress, who, if this were a photograph, would seem to have spotted the photographer taking aim.

    But this isn’t a photograph: it’s a painting. Yet it’s painted, it seems from memory, with a precision and detail of observation that a photograph of a fleeting moment would describe – a startling feat of instantaneous observation and precise recollection.

    The French painter Éduard Manet (1832-1883) was a young man when photography became widely popular. He was a friend of photographer Nadar, and of the poet Baudelaire, who advocated the ‘painting of modern life’ – the life of the streets, bars, cafes, bordellos, theatres and dance halls – rather than historic or biblical scenes, landscapes and formal studio portraits of the rich and famous. And Manet himself did take photographs, and knew what visual results the camera could produce.

    The picture above is not the only example in Manet’s work of painting that resembles the pictures made by later street photographers. And his younger friends and associates – many of whom became the famous leaders of the Impressionist movement – also painted pictures whose subject matter and visual design will be readily recognised by anyone who has photographed life in the streets. Indeed, many of the great exponents of street photography – Cartier-Bresson, Kertesz, Brassai, Doisneau – seem to have derived inspiration from these painters.

    In an interesting and well-illustrated half-hour video, Carleton Thomas Anderson examines the connection between Manet’s painting and photography. And the painter and art critic, Alexi Worth, has published a more scholarly, art-historical article on the two-way influences of photography and Manet’s painting.



    Pete Robinson

    If a camera club photographer was asked to paint a picture of this scene he would paint it by the rules judges have taught him or her. There wouldn’t be someone half cut off on the edge of the frame. There wouldn’t be someone looking out of the frame. The photographer might even apply some vignetting to keep the eye in the middle. But this is a real life painting. This is how it was. The artist had the opportunity not to paint half a lady on the edge of the frame, but chose to do so because this is how it was and it adds to the atmosphere of a busy cafe. If club photographers were to enter this in a competition, like you said it would be criticised for the reasons you given. Real world street photography is all about capturing a moment, a gesture or an expression in a split second. You don’t always have the chance to wait for someone to leave the frame or recompose the image or you’ll lose the moment. I’m disappointed when judges criticise street photography for distracting elements when that is how it was. In my opinion It’s all about the moment.



    Nice article Ian, Peter, you are well familiar with my opinion of of “club judges–to boot”— and I would not mention the Impressionist”s and photo club judges in the same breath. As I have preached for so long photo clubs need to make a significant change of direction. Just look at the Manet Ian has posted–it keeps my eyes glued to the screen, Well done Ian.

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