Photography vs. Painting?

The work of a great Jamaican painter, a catalogue essay and a long-passed member of the London Group answered the question… A reflective essay by Charlotte C Mortensson.

I still remember my irritation at being closely questioned about why I had switched my practice from painting to photography. It was six years ago at an evening of London Group artists’ talks. My annoyance was, in part, because an injury a couple of years earlier had forced me to cut back on painting and to take up photography so it had not been a voluntary choice. Once the injury healed I stayed with photography but I was unable to rationalise why, except that it felt right. Despite the fact that it’s now common for artists to switch between media, I have continued to be asked the same question. In this, there is often the implication that photography is a lesser art form than painting – which I disagree with.

It was when I saw the seminal exhibition, Neither Day Nor Night, by the great Jamaican artist John Dunkley at the National Gallery of Jamaica in Kingston this spring, that I could finally justify to myself why I stayed with photography.

Back to Nature, ca 1939. mixed media on plywood. This heart-shaped grave is almost certainly Dunkley’s own. The references for the flora seem to be taken from commercial photographic imagery.

John Dunkley, who was born to a poor family in Savanna-la-Mar, Jamaica, in 1891, has been my favourite artist for many years. I’m still rooted to the floor, entranced, whenever I get the chance to see his work. Sponsored by the Davidoff Art Initiative, this major exhibition at the National Gallery of Jamaica had just been exhibited at the celebrated Perez Art Museum in Miami. Because of the composition and meticulous execution, there is a certain photographic quality in Dunkley’s paintings. Surreal, but set in every-day Jamaica, they exude a sense of unease. His odd colour pallette of silvers, greys and black, make it impossible to know whether they are day or night – hence the title of the exhibition.

It wasn’t until I read Dr David Boxer’s meticulously researched essay for the exhibition catalogue that I learned that Dunkley’s interest in painting had almost certainly been instigated by photography. As a member of the London Group, my curiosity about in his work intensified when I read of his association with the English-born artist Edna Manley. She had been elected to the London Group in 1930 and continued to exhibit with the group for some years despite living in Jamaica with her husband, the politician Norman Manley.

Director and Chief Curator of the National Gallery for over 35 years, Dr Boxer spent four decades researching Dunkley’s life and preserving his artistic legacy. He acted as the curatorial advisor for the Dunkley exhibition, Neither Day nor Night, until his death in May last year. In his essay, Boxer explains that, like many Jamaican men of his time, Dunkley travelled to Panama for work aged about 21 at the time. Significantly, Dunkley’s wife Cassie wrote about his employment with a photographer in Panama from whom, she says ‘he got an insight of the art.’ Boxer writes that training with a photographer would have exposed Dunkley to hand-colouring black and white photos, a technique widely used in the 1920s. This would explain the strange pallette of blacks, white, greys and coloured tints that Dunkley went on to use in his paintings. He would also have learned the effectiveness of cropping – evident in his compositions – as well as the concept of combining photographs, a technique which was already in common usage.

Dunkley returned to Jamaica to live in 1931. In this he was fortunate. Countless Jamaican men who’d gone to Central America to find work perished or disappeared. Many were unable to raise the funds to return home. Dunkley did not set himself up as a photographer – the cost of the equipment would have been prohibitive. Instead he opened a small barber’s shop in downtown Kingston in the heart of what would then have been the city’s slums. Here he started to paint and, later, to sculpt. His studio was a small area behind a screen in his shop where he worked when he didn’t have customers. The walls of the shop were decorated with photographs from Life and Time magazines, boxing magazines and the main national newspaper, the Gleaner, postcards and his own paintings. Dunkley used photographic references as triggers for his work.

He had returned to turbulent times of poverty and civil unrest in Jamaica. In 1937 Dunkley came to the attention of an important group of artists and activists. Amongst them was Norman Manley, who helped take Jamaica to Independence in 1962, and his English-born wife Edna Manley, mentioned earlier in this essay. An influential artist she became important in Jamaica’s anti-colonial movement. The group wanted to establish a national identity – looking at Africa and at Jamaica rather than at Europe – in preparation for Independence. At that time Jamaica was a segregated country, and only European and European-influenced art was considered worthy of attention. Dunkley was one of the artists the Manleys most admired. They bought some of his work and Norman Manley spoke of Dunkley in parliament describing him as, ‘One of our greatest painters and I think perhaps the most interesting sculptor in terms of appreciation of traditional African forms.’

As another example of cross-pollination, it was probably seeing Edna Manley’s sculptures that encouraged Dunkley to sculpt and, I venture, his own intense and socially-engaged work, particularly his sculptures, would have influenced her.

Dunkley died of cancer on 11 February 1947 aged 56, fifteen years after his return to Jamaica. In that short time he’d produced a small and unique body of work. The term ‘Dunkley-esque’ is in common usage in Jamaica – and the English-speaking Caribbean – to describe an ambiguous, unsettling atmosphere and palette.

Jerboa, 1939, mixed media on plywood. This desert rodent is not native to Jamaica, but Dunkley would have been aware of it as part of the iconography of World War II – the Jerboa is the divisional insignia of the British army’s ‘Desert Rats’. Dunkley combined it with a depiction of Anancy, the spider of Ashanti mythology.

What struck me most when reading Dr Boxer’s essay was that he sought to understand Dunkley on his own artistic terms and within his own turbulent times. This clarified to me that every artist’s choice of medium must be seen in the context of their life. I look back at my former career as a journalist and see how it has shaped my work as an artist. When producing features I always enjoyed collaborating with newspaper photographers and I picked up a lot of technical information from them. Later, as an artist, my first love was painting, but I was conscious of how those years of selecting photographs, cropping images for layouts etc, had trained my eye. My enjoyment of research feeds into photographic projects.

The medium an artist chooses is partly instinctive. But, as Dr Boxer’s essay about Dunkley so clearly sets out, it is also influenced by what we’re exposed to through our lives, the art school that we go to, if any, the society in which we live, current trends, our health, how much time we have. For many artists there’s a need to be in physical contact with their materials. Painting and sculpture are tactile, but getting to know and working with a camera is also physical. I enjoy feeling the weight and balance of my camera and how it functions. It is an extension of me.

Working a lot in Jamaica, I also know that the choice of medium is as much a question of money and resources today as it was for Dunkley so many years ago. Artists go without food to enable them to buy painting materials. There are sculptors who work with broken bottles because they cannot afford sculpting tools. In Jamaica working with digital media is for the middle classes.

I’m very fortunate in that I can choose my medium. At present I prefer to be outside taking photographs and working on long-term photo projects rather than being in my studio painting. I’m photographing people more, and I enjoy the interaction with them. Painted portraits can express so much. Equally, a good photographic portrait can convey a whole world. I’m no longer wistful about painting. I’ve examined how I got to where I am now in my artistic career and, at this stage in my life, photography works.

John Dunkley, Neither Day nor Night continues at the National Gallery of Jamaica, Kingston, Jamaica, until 29 July 2018.

Charlotte C Mortensson

Her photos (and some paintings) are on: