Pictures and Pixels - Photographic Art and Beyond
National Salon 2016

György Szegő

A long paradigm shift | From pictures – through photographs – to the new image

It has become apparent that the issues of the actual parallelism and assumed competition of painting and photography from the nineteenth century are no longer of current interest. And yet the creation and processing of digital images exercised by millions every day now strongly suggests that the traditions of painting, graphic art and photography be reconsidered. There have not been many changes of approach on this scale in the history of civilization: only the central perspective and the Copernican revolution, the expansion of reprography, then the invention of photography can be compared to this. If several billion people are active participants in digitalized photography then there must be some dramatic change taking place. Since when? I think our starting point could be the avant-garde or – based on my studies – for my generation in a perhaps more closely perceivable manner the neo-avant-garde. It is a long paradigm shift that we can now experience.

Upon organizing this year’s National Salon with its “photography and beyond” theme, both new ideas and older, more traditional trains of thoughts have emerged simultaneously. Perhaps also because we are still capable of looking back, but also based on the acceleration of technological innovation we can expect some radical change in the conduit of cultural remembrance: our future. The consecutive generations of image users and consumers already find it hard to manage. We’ve run out of the closing letters of the alphabet to describe the differences between the characteristic skills of even just a generation. The process is rushing ahead at an even faster pace than the speed at which one generation is replaced by another.

What is it that generates these changes? The transformation of society and the development of technology, plus the new materials and new approaches exert their influence together. The classic act of photography created a latent image with exposure, which, through the application of chemicals is turned into a negative latent image then into a positive image by the photographer. The process resembles the myth of the major stages of the process in alchemy: nigredo (blackening), albedo (whitening) and rubedo (reddening). Accordingly, the person practicing analogue photography could still be in a personal relationship with magical creation. The loss of that could become a tragic loss. According to the theory of C. G. Jung1 everything that was described by enlightened Western culture as an irrational physical process is actually the analogy of a mental transmutation; by saying this Jung – in the very last moment – rehabilitated alchemy. So what can we expect now?

During my university years scientist/painter Iván Masznyik – operating later under the name of Iván Máriási – felt obliged as a teacher and master to introduce his students to the very core of the changes. This allowed people to experience the birth of the problem at the turn of the 60’s-70’s as a present issue; I am now grateful to be able to quote his ideas and refer to his selection of slides projected back then as a modern form of communication. In the R Klub of the Technical University our master presented a new approach to art and the world as such of elementary force.

What he showed in the image material of his presentation, the images of a new scale and approach offered by macro- and microphysics photography he was reproducing as a painter in refined graphic art and large scale murals. It was perceptible that everything was tumbling over. The fundamental work2 of Thomas Kuhn written about the structure of revolutions in 1962 wasn’t published in Hungary until 1984. Máriási felt more refreshing, what’s more, he exerted his influence on our senses. The projected orbis pictus method of the images of analogies was made successful around that time by the American husband and wife designers Charles and Ray Eames. This educational revolution of images – if only with our own technical background – also includes Máriási. He presented photographic material that - the Internet being non-existent back then – placed us students in a privileged status.

Today, when the creation and manipulation of images becomes an everyday human practice on an unprecedented scale, the image-making activity still rarely ever reaches the level of sublimated imaging. Digital photography openly reveals the fact that analytical cognition is an illusion. This technology of deceitful exclusiveness – with its promise of a growing resolution of images – is well illustrated by Karinthy’s short story The Circus. In response to the question of the circus manager, “Well, what can you do?” the hero of the story points to the violin. In the closing scene he crawls up a single thin pole: “…and, making use of the silence of terror, which tore open the mouths and gripped the hearts in the depths below me, slowly and quiveringly I began to play the melody”. The desire of the main character – “the melody, which long, long ago had resounded and sobbed in his heart” – in a bizarre analogy to our present issue is the pixel. The philosopher’s stone, a sample from the image of infinite resolution. In digital image processing a pixel is just a small dot of the picture – even if it has a rectangular shape. It represents the smallest element of an image/screen. All strokes of the brush, all signs drawn used to be pixels before. The more of these pixels present-day image makers control (the higher the resolution of an image is), the higher the “accuracy” of the image will be.

Accuracy? There lies an expressive interference in the term worth thinking about. “Pix” is the Latin root, an abbreviated element of “picture”. Marketing experts, the godfathers of the trendiest image manipulation software programmes only add derivatives to this: pixiz, pixia, pixie. If we intend to download these as a web-client, we get them mostly in Hungarian, too – for free, for the time being. When marketing applications an attempt is being made to sell a human connotation using the names of the biggest painters; and we already have to pay for them. Raphael’s name might still have a good sound today but may not ring a bell tomorrow.

By the Renaissance the ranking of topics for painters took shape: the man on top and studies observing the tiny details of nature below. For centuries this rebirth of the classic ideals and the “grand art” with the mythological or historical topics it conveyed stood its ground. As enlightenment came, though, it was replaced gradually by an interest in experience providing each phenomenon of the visible world with an own value, extending the scope of the art of painting to the entirety of nature. The scientific paradigm shift practically marks out a new road. The validity of Thomas Kuhn’s aforementioned work in the field of art is disputed by many while it is apparent that the process is just as vivid today as it was at the time it was conceived.3 Its tempo, however, is accelerating, with special regard to the areas of visual art most affected by digital images: photography and everything connected to the image on this side of it and beyond.

“It was the human view that determined what the subject of the image can be, what’s big and what’s small,” Máriási wrote in one of his studies.4 The new visual impressions it conveyed, the new sources of visual art in the last third of the twentieth century became perceivable in their transformed reality through (electron) microscope-, X-ray- and aerial photos and by the 70’s even cosmic photography. It turned out that the metallurgic resolution of the electron microscope, the new dimensions of cellular and cosmic photography demonstrate an analogy with emblematic canvases of abstract and informel painting. The stratospheric scale of photos of a glacier, the crater of a volcano, the deposits of a river delta or a space photo of a cloud front made abstract images more “human”. These new aspects of photography disclosed “another universe” with a flood of sights. Máriási quoted Marcus Aurelius in connection with this: “Even the additions of nature’s creations have some attractive charm to them. Parts of the bread get crackled during baking […] and these crackles somehow look great there.”5

Máriási compared the images of nature’s creations never seen beforehand and in that way to the graphic art of Hans Hartung or the paintings of Jean-Paul Riopelle. Because looking at objects a bit more closely or from far away the aspect of things may change in a perplexing way. He mentioned a fourteenth-century exception, too: Ghirlandaio’s old man with his warty nose and an aerial picture of a present-day crowded beach. Forty years ago he claimed prophetically that “humanity is a skin disease on the surface of the earth”. Seeing the analogy with the great form systems, he was, with his observation, ahead of the revelationlike statistical conclusion offered by today’s flood of images. “We look down to the ground, to our footprint in the sand then we look up to the starry sky, the ‘star sand’ and we find the same in the tiny as in the gigantic, the same ‘granularity’, abundance, agglomeration, the same multitude of elements organized into unity by a structural movement that is analogue at various levels” – he wrote about the analogy of the photos of a footprint and the star sand.6

An inconceivably small part of the giant cosmos, the world of atomic scale opens up another inherent universe. Undoubtedly, four decades later photography covered up in digital clouds and the virtual dimension of pixels led to a similar aesthetic revolution. The master’s warning fits here perfectly, too: “the main virtues of extremist contemporary philosophy, the intellectual inclination for analysis and the transgression of the human scale in our approach represent serious hazards”. He thinks this is a threat to artistic spontaneity; he thought that permanent decomposition will result in the loss of seeing the whole picture and of the need for unity, instead of the whole the part, the atomized will become the own target and ideal of analysis. “The situation is more than critical. Art is in a lethal solitude and it may not even be necessary any more. The relationship of artist and art expert becomes distorted, the elegant audience wanders helplessly about in exhibition rooms between wrecks, junk and balloons… then exhibits itself on a pole,” writes Iván Máriási in the summary of his doctor’s thesis, with a hint to Karinthy’s short story. In accordance with his vision Máriási was often short-tempered and downhearted but when he was lecturing, he was permeated by a radiating vigour, a real sense of flow. He was a star of the spirit – the university’s aula was decorated by one of his star panneaux for a long time, too. The long paradigm shift had already started back then, his work as a teacher was an excellent introduction to the paradigm shift for us.

In his theoretical examples he typically referred to “grand” painting, he barely touched upon the practice of using photography. In Vienna, though, already before the turn of the previous century, in 1888, the comprehensive photography school named Höhere Graphische Bundes-Lehr- und Versuchsanstalt was founded that served as an educational and research institution of photography and its applied procedures simultaneously. Until 1938 it had had 1,300 students, several of whom became reputed art photographers of the new century in various genres. By this I would like to point out that in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy the importance of photography in visual arts was discovered in time. Unfortunately, in Hungary the program of the renewal of traditions was marginalized soon thereafter.

Still, many more people were engaged in creative experimental research. An instinctive and pixelated case in point was graphic artist, animation filmmaker, director and poet István Orosz’s show of projected images at the Műcsarnok, comparable to Borges and Máriási. In his exploration of Dürer’s rhinoceros, Orosz took the unicorn in Pliny’s Naturalis Historia as a starting point,7 which – since early sixteenth-century Europe had never seen a rhino yet – can be considered to be early research into virtual creatures. Orosz compared woodcuts of rhinoceroses by Giovanni Giacomo Penni, Hans Burgkmair and Albrecht Dürer (all of them from 1515) and the related literature. Although the artists were different in style, all three followed the same Pliny-based recipe: “It is the colour of a speckled tortoise and is almost entirely covered with thick scales.” The cutters used their chisels to emboss a circle pattern and/or dots in the beast’s “shell” which Orosz interprets, among other things, as links in a fancy chain mail. Also, “[...] characteristics of the heated imagination come to mind. Or we seek them involuntarily, since they are so typical of the age... Was it that the Teuton mind was more predisposed to thrills or that they believed more firmly than other nations that the path to salvation was strewn with horrors...,” asks Orosz ironically, he himself being highly skilled in old and revolutionary graphic techniques. He goes on to list Schongauer, Baldung, Bosch, Grünewald and Bruegel, all of them beast specialists of the temptation of Saint Anthony theme which was becoming part of the artistic canon around that time. He believes that rather than being a reflection of the applied graphic artist’s joy, Dürer’s rhino conveyed the pleasure of the prophet of the Apocalypse. I also attribute the tortoise speckles to the “horror vacui” or “fear of the empty”. Perhaps modern-day pixels are like those old beast scales.

I would like to quote musician-mathematician Mihály Sipos (who recently appeared with the famous Muzsikás folk band at the Műcsarnok) who often recalls the famous ancient triple proposition: “1. The world does not exist.” 2. If it does exist, it cannot be known. 3. If it cannot be known, it cannot be expressed,” but, he always adds, we keep trying. Educated on Kodály and Bartók, the Muzsikás have truly created contemporary folk music.

In other creative areas, too, we are witnessing unforeseeable leaps, including new geometry in architecture, non-Euclidean geometry, new mathematical forms, non-uniform rational basis spline (NURBS) surfaces, algorithm modelling, nonlinear animation, particle structures, optimising algorithms, which are signs of a completely new architectural idiom.8 The ornamental and decorative arts seem to have made a comeback. Architecture has been undergoing the digitising process for a few decades now; the IT breakthrough in photography and “photo-based” imaging goes back just over a decade. We are only just trying to figure out its significance. And that is not to mention the individual skills of the giants of the fine arts. In comparison with “everyman’s” colour sensitivity, in a letter to his brother Theo dating from 1885, Van Gogh describes 27 shades of black he had seen in the works of Flemish painter Franz Hals, and derides modern colourists for painting “white on white”. In the meantime, he sought the best shade of yellow in his own painting. Attention to tiny differences helps creativity. The scale of pixels can contribute to creativity in the same way as the macro-outlook of seeing things as a whole.

The Enlightenment offered the royal path of analytical thought, scientific methods and knowledge. It is clear that, rediscovered by Máriási, the demand for seeing as a whole affords sufficient fuel for scientific doubt. As early as in 1924 Malevich said we can only perceive space of we cut ourselves from the Earth and lose our bearings. It was for the very same reason Leonardo experimented with flying and observed the clouds. In his book On Painting (1513) he encouraged painters to try and see faces, animals, trees and even entire battle scenes in patchy wall surfaces and whirling clouds. Should Leonardo be eponym of cloud-based computer technology? He also suggested hearing names and other meaningful words in the ringing of bells. Psychology calls the ability to “single out” things from chaotic perception contemplative attention. It is a serious challenge, discovering the new in the schematic. The new follows from tradition.

Finally, I would like to go back in time, by reminding you that images existed before the ascent of man. In his concept for one of the first Esztergom biennials Gyula Pauler discussed the rise of photography by saying how he considers the first photograph to be the fossilised image created by a photochemical reaction on the shell of a broken dinosaur egg. Let Pauler’s perspective be an encouraging forecast for the First National Salon of Photography.




1 Carl Gustav Jung: Mysterium Coniunctionis. Collected Works of C.G. Jung (Book 14), Princeton University Press, 1977.
2 Thomas Kuhn: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. University Of Chicago Press, 2012.
3 Tamás Gergely Kucsera: “A paradigma fogalmának a művészetek valamint a művészetelmélet területén való használhatóságáról” [The usability of the concept of paradigm in the arts and in art theory] in Magyar Művészet, 2014/1.
4 Iván Máriási: A modern esztétikai gondolkodás sajátosságai [The characteristics of modern aesthetic thought], doctoral thesis, 1975.
5 Marcus Aurelius: Meditations, Dover Publications, 1997
6 Máriási, op. cit.
7 István Orosz: Rinó-évforduló [Rhino anniversary] a special reprint of his talk given at the Műcsarnok on 10 March 2016.
8 Bálint Botzheim: Az építészet határterületei – Űrépítészet [Architectural borderlands – space architecture]. DL A papers, 2015.