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Neil Folberg
The French Impressionists

Statement by Neil Folberg, "Travels with Van Gogh and the Impressionists"
I found it interesting to consider that the medium of photography was coming into its own just as the Impressionists were making their mark on the world. In France, Nadar, Gustave Le Gray, Hippolyte Bayard, and Édouard Baldus were some of the early proponents of the new medium. Le Gray in particular had a visual sensibility that was related to that of the Impressionists; interestingly, he started out as a painter and exhibited work at the Paris Salons of 1848 and 1853, before turning his attention to photography. Could such photographic visions have inspired some of the Impressionist artists?
The idea of capturing transient phenomena certainly fascinated these painters - and this capability was of course the great promise of photography. We see this interest very clearly in Monet’s work: think, for example, of his 1873 painting Impression, Sunrise, the piece that gave the Impressionist movement its name. But the new visual approach was not confined to obviously poetic effects of winter, twilight, and grand landscape; it extended in both painting and photography to everyday life on the streets, in the cafés and guinguettes, in the train stations and countryside. It was, in fact, a sociological change as well as an aesthetic one.
Still, despite its inspiring potential, photography in the 1880s was a cumbersome process: emulsions and prints were handmade, cameras were large and difficult to handle, demanding skilled operators willing to suffer a fair amount of discomfort to make images. Emulsions were slow and required long exposures of static subjects, denying the instantaneous vision of contemporary life that the medium would later offer. So although some of Impressionist painters might have been conceptually attracted to the medium, they would likely have found it lacking in spontaneity (and of course color, which was a prime interest of these artists). Degas experimented with the medium for a couple of years - with very interesting and beautiful results - but eventually lost interest in it ... perhaps because of its technical awkwardness.
If the Impressionist painters were resurrected today, they would naturally be turning their attentions to modes, subjects, and media far different from those they utilized in the mid- and late nineteenth century.
For this series of images, I was of course working in the world of contemporary France, with elements of the Impressionist aesthetic in my mind, but advanced photographic tools in my hands. I have tried to channel the Impressionists’ approaches through my own, and to make photographs that reflect their individual interests and perspectives.
When I showed my Impressionists series to Weston Naef, curator of photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum, he posed a question: "You have so many identities and voices in these photographs that I‘m bound to ask, which one of them is you?" There is a genre in contemporary photography in which the artist poses him - or herself in different vestments and situations; I have chosen instead to try on other artistic identities - identities of creators whom I admire greatly. It has been an amusing and challenging process, and inevitably my shortcomings as an artist may show through these costumes.
I always try to keep a sharp critical eye on my own efforts, and this project presented the distinctly uncomfortable proposition that I engage with giants. This engagement led me occasionally to construct images with a kind of wryness, or a sly sense of humor, which is evident from time to time in these photographs. Humor will have to be my substitute for humility. My larger purpose in this series is to bring the Impressionist concept to the contemporary viewer in a new way, and to invite you to revel in their work, which remains as fresh, relevant, and compelling today as it was at the time of its creation.
This series treats the oeuvre of Pissarro, Cézanne, Monet, Manet, Morisot, Renoir, Degas and Van Gogh and is drawn from the forthcoming book by Abbeville Press (due Fall 2007), "Travels with Van Gogh and the Impressionists" on which I have collaborated with writer Lin Arison. 



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