When a painter shoots from photographs

For some people, James Bama is an excellent and important, even a great, artist because his paintings of cowboys, Indians, and ranch scenes closely resemble color photographs. For others, he is not an artist at all, precisely because his paintings depend so dramatically upon photographs for their identity.

Thanks to the former group, Bama has become one of the most successful of all painters of the people and places of the American West. And thanks to the latter , he is almost entirely ignored by the art world at large.

He himself has written: ''Many great artists have availed themselves of photography: Cassatt, Degas, Eakins, Picasso and many others too numerous to mention, and it has enabled them to capture the moment, which is all but impossible when posing a model for hours or weeks. . . . The photograph then is just another tool and only as good as the painter who uses it.''

He is, of course, correct. Many great painters have availed themselves of photography to produce excellent art in other media. But it has only worked when the photograph was used as an aid, as a point of departure, or as a source of painterly raw material - not when it became the painting's ultimate frame of reference, the thematic and formal ideal toward which it aspired.

Art, after all, is more than imitation - no matter how breathtakingly ''perfect'' that imitation might be. Or, for that matter, how brilliantly ''photographic'' it might appear.

The issue with Bama's work, then, is not whether he uses photographs but how he uses them. Are his works paintings - or little more than tinted photographs? Do they communicate qualities other than those found in good, large, crisply printed color photographs? Or are they of interest primarily because they so closely resemble, and are defined by, the realities and qualities of photography? Is there, in short, more to his art than imitation, exquisite craftsmanship, and the ability to choose interesting subjects?

These questions have intrigued me ever since my first encounter with his work a little over a decade ago. It was obvious that Bama stood out from other painters of Western themes. His subjects were remarkably authentic and unglamorized and were painted in a manner that was altogether impressive. His cowboys and Indians were contemporary and real and lacked the false romantic aura so frequently found in paintings of the American West.

I particularly liked some of his studies of the odds and ends found around a ranch, and of such things as old saddles, guns, chuck wagons, and Indian artifacts. He was also excellent at depicting weather-beaten old trail hands, tumbledown buildings, and anything else that had withstood the ravages of time or the elements.

I found, however, that what I remembered most about his work after leaving it was its technical excellence and total subservience to the physical appearance of its subjects. His cowboys and Indians weren't men and women so much as exquisitely rendered depictions of wrinkles, leathery skin, great tangles of white hair falling over tired eyes, stubble on faces, determined eyes set under crooked noses, and all the dozens of other things that register evidence of a long, tough life out in the open.

As such, they were quite extraordinary. I felt that Bama had a very special knack for depicting the physical characteristics of things - be they worn leather saddles, the feathers of an Indian headdress, or the wind-ravaged faces of old cowboys. It didn't matter which he was painting; they all received the same loving attention and care.

For all the humanity in his paintings, however, Bama could just as well have painted his pictures upside down as right-side up. I don't doubt his sincerity when he insists he has ''never thought of trying to copy a photograph,'' but neither do I doubt for a moment that his art couldn't exist without photography to give it its form and subject. He may work from dozens of photographs rather than from one, and may make many thumbnail sketches before starting work on the actual panel, but the result is always the same: a painting whose very identity, viewpoint, color, and technique depend totally on precise photographic depictions rather than on his own personal perceptions.

It shows up in many little ways: in the indiscriminate sharpness of detail and total dependence on physical appearance in his work; in the starkness, blurring effects, and banality of his painted surfaces; in the undeviatingly ''realistic'' local color he employs; and in his total lack of painterliness.

But most telling of all is the fact that his pictures are interesting in direct proportion to the exotic or sentimental nature of his subjects. The more fascinating the subject, the more interesting and successful the painting.

Nothing could be so harmful, for it places him at the opposite end of the artistic spectrum from those painters who can turn three apples and a pear or a very commonplace landscape into a magnificent and moving work of art.

Bama is so concerned with pictorial ''accuracy,'' with the camera's ability to record blindly, that he fails to perceive the static and dead nature of much of what results. By limiting his vision, sensibilities, perceptual capabilities, and art to what the camera can record, he short-circuits his deepest creative potentials, and ends up as neither a painter nor a photographer. It makes no difference if he works from one photograph or a dozen, if he makes preliminary sketches or he doesn't. If his pictures are defined and given authority and credence by photographic qualities, values, and standards - and by little or nothing else - then his work is not art, no matter how exquisitely crafted or ''real'' it may be.

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