Degas, Buchanan and Photography

Book Cover for The Pained GirlsIt’s easy think of photography as social interaction. Something mercurial. In fact, photography at it’s best becomes historical. This is not to say that photography is just documentation, forensic police work. Rather that the artistic interpretation of our current world will become the future describing of our time. It’s odd how we are reminded of this. For me it was reading The Painted Girls. Cathy Marie Buchanan’s new novel is a moving fictionalization of real history viewed through the work of Degas.

Buchanan creates a stark and dark world in late Nineteenth-Century Paris. She uses a first person narrative told by two real sisters, one who was the model for Degas’ sculpture “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen” and several sketches. She weaves other characters found in Degas’ work into a fiction that recounts the narrow opportunities of French women in the 1880s. Her fiction is emotional and stands well alone. However, when read in with Degas’ sketches and paintings (available on her website) the combination is deeply moving. She brings animation to Degas’ art and Degas gives body to her words.

How does this relate to photography? In his time Degas was a popular artist. We think of him as we do Hemingway or Renoir, legends, classics chosen by history. But in all those cases, the artists were known in their time for their work and how it related to their current world. Degas created work that had meaning and resonance with his contemporaries. Parisians bought his canvas and sketches to decorate their walls. We look at them as classics from another era. To the 19th Century Frenchmen it was a representation of their world.  Now it is the lens through which we know the life of an adolescent girl struggling at ballet to put food on the table.

The photographs we create today will be the tools others use to understand our time. Photographic Art (big A) all the way to Instagram images will endure. By living we are making history. With our cameras we define it.

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