Although in the early days of photography relations with painting and other visual arts were shaped by confrontational postures, scornful accusations and apocalyptic sentences that foreshadowed the end of an era, the brief history of the discipline is not exempt from fertile encounters, round-trip paths explored by artists who have practiced both genres. And while each medium is subject to its own resources, there have been territories where these common spaces of collaboration bring mutual benefit. Without attempting to go into detailed arguments or exhaustive enumerations, serve as an example of how the pictorialists’ aesthetic claims have served to justify the artistic aspirations of very later photographic practices or the way in which our visual culture inclines us to see in Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” a Madonna with Child of Renaissance painting.
Perhaps where the line separating the two visual Arts is narrowest is in staged photography, where we find well-known examples of photographers (Henry Peach Robinson, Oscar Gustav Rejlander or Gregory Crewdson) who compose genuine tableaux in which they work down to the smallest detail of the composition and illumination of the scene, achieving an effect that far from pretending to be real has a cinematographic character that favours the development of the internal narrative of the scene.
Other artists/photographers have included references to classical works of painting, not so much for inspiration or as a compositional resource, but as a visual framework on which to build their own interpretation of the proposed theme. A game is established with the spectator, where the visual reference to form operates as a mediator who guides him through the new content proposed by the author – incorporating new elements into the denoted image, which add or modify the meaning of the connoted image.
This includes the work “Murillo Fotógrafo” (Murillo Photographer) that the photographers Laura Leon and Jose Antonio Lamadrid presented in 2018, on the occasion of the IV Centenary of the birth of the Sevillian painter Bartolomé Murillo (1617-1682), in different exhibition spaces in Spain – Murillo Hall of the CajaSol Foundation (Seville and Cadiz), Museográfica del Mosaico Romano de Casariche Collection (Seville), etc.
The work, which includes twelve large-format photographs, reproduces as many paintings by the Sevillian master, minutely respecting the formal aspects of each original work: composition, lighting and chromatic tonality, but substituting the characters of Murillo’s work for real figures and protagonists with stories that, in addition to revealing the documentary vocation of the authors, are the point on which this interpretation of the work of the Spanish Baroque painter revolves. The reading proposed by the authors complements and updates the intention of the original work; thus, for example, in the return of the prodigal son we witness the moment when Álvaro Ramírez, the real victim of an eviction, is welcomed by his maternal grandfather and a group of relatives and friends who hurry to offer their help. To the left of the scene, in Murillo’s painting, the customary or ambient print of the farmer and the child pulling a calf from Murillo’s painting are replaced in the photograph by a father with his son pushing a shopping cart, integrated into the narrative in a more coherent way, since the gesture of the father, as if wanting to flee the place, seems to indicate the indifference of certain sectors of society to these “unconfortable” situations. To the right of the painting, enveloped in the gloom of shadows, what could be the petty brother of the parable is updated in a neighboring gossip that with morbid curiosity looks out for a brief moment to find out the cause of so much commotion.
It does not overlook the solvency with which the authors have resolved the technical difficulties involved in a project of this magnitude and one can guess the production and realization efforts required to mount some of the scenes, especially those of a choral nature. For example, the complex plays of light and shadow in Murillo’s painting have been translated almost literally, thus contributing to recreating the baroque visual climate that surrounds the Sevillian painter’s compositions. The colour has been treated with sobriety, as if to maintain the chromatic range within the scope of the palette of oils available in the 17th century. The backgrounds of the photographs, painted by Diego Ruiz – and the personification of Murillo’s self-portrait in one of them – contribute definitively to creating the atmosphere in which the scenes take place.
We cannot ignore the documentary intention of León and Lamadrid’s work, a gaze that, wrapped in an effective visual framework, invites reflection on social issues such as existential consumerism, hedonism or social justice. In the individual portraits included in the series, of undeniable expressive force, the authors illuminate with the light of the Andalusian painter personal stories that illustrate the lights and shadows of modern existence: depression, ill-treatment, precariousness, gender equality, family… It is undeniable the merit of the conceptual approach that underlies this work, capable of posing a modern critical reflection based on the biblical stories and scenes of Murillo’s customs.