diamond geezer

 Wednesday, January 18, 2017

An art exhibition by the singer Bob Dylan was held in London a couple of months ago. I wish I'd been.
Bob Dylan, The Beaten Path
05 Nov 2016 - 02 Jan 2017

The Beaten Path features a wide collection of drawings, watercolours and acrylic works on canvas which depict the artist’s view of American landscapes and urban scenes. The Beaten Path invites the viewer to accompany Dylan on his travels as he criss-crosses the USA through the back streets, alleys and country roads. Reminiscing about a landscape unpolluted by the ephemera of pop culture, fleeting snapshots of America emerge from the exhibition.
You can take a look through all 200-or-so drawings and paintings on the gallery's website, here.

I'm particularly interested in this one.

According to the catalogue it's a watercolour, painted by Bob in 2015-6, and shows a Pier in Norfolk, Virginia.

The perspective's perfect, as the planks on the old iron pier lead off towards some domed pavilions at the far end. It's all very evocative.


I received an email earlier in the week from an interested party asking me if I recognised the image. "It looks very much like a photo you took in Blackpool in 2009," they said.

And you know what, they're right!

The illumination's different, but the alignment of the pier and lampposts is identical, as if the artist were standing precisely where I was standing six years earlier. "When I superimpose them they align perfectly," confirmed my correspondent.

What's more, Norfolk (Virginia) does have a pier but it doesn't look like that, it looks like this. Bob Dylan's painting isn't of the USA, it's of the North Pier in Blackpool, and it's been constructed not from the artist's perception but using a photograph I took. This is the actual Bob Dylan we're talking about, the 2016 Nobel Laureate.

It seems highly likely that a projection technique has been used to help to transform my photograph into art - Dylan himself almost admits as much.
"Some of these works have much complexity of detail. Some are less demanding … in some cases my hand couldn’t do what my eye was perceiving. So I went to the camera obscura method."
Such techniques are nothing new, they've been used by some of the greatest painters (for example Caravaggio and Vermeer) to help them to achieve perfect perspective in their work. What's of far greater concern is the production of a painting based on a photograph somebody else took, and appropriating the image as your own, and then telling everyone it's a location somewhere else.

It turns out there's considerable scholarly speculation that many of Bob Dylan's paintings aren't always what they say they are. In this particular exhibition, for example, the painting that's supposed to be of "Classic Car Show, Cleveland, Ohio" is actually located on Route 66 in Arizona, while "Motel, New Mexico" is really in Borrego Springs, California. Passing off a picture of Blackpool, England as Norfolk, Virginia is just the kind of thing Dylan does.
"In every picture the viewer doesn’t have to wonder whether it’s an actual object or a delusional one. If the viewer visited where the picture actually existed, he or she would see the same thing. It is what unites us all."
And it's not just random photos that have been appropriated. Several of Bob's paintings are actually sourced from film screengrabs, including stills from such classics as Rain Man, What's Eating Gilbert Grape, Lolita, Paper Moon and Paris, Texas. A full investigation of this recycling phenomenon has been carried out by writer and musician Scott Warmuth, who's written this lengthy essay based on painstaking detective work. When Dylan writes in the exhibition's foreword that "Appearances can be deceiving", that's no lie.

In my case, the Norfolk, Virginia image piqued the interest of a Dutch lady called Hilda, intrigued as to whether it came from another film or from a photo of a landmark elsewhere. She spent almost 24 hours researching piers across the USA, until eventually spotting no, it was the North Pier in Blackpool! Another researcher then noted that my Flickr photo was the definitive source image, and got in touch with me to check, and that's how I found out.

There wasn't just one painting of Norfolk, Virginia Pier in Bob's exhibition, there were two (plus a pencil sketch for good measure). This second version is in acrylic and is from precisely the same viewpoint as the first, except this time there's a couple getting amorous on the boardwalk.

The reviewer from the Irish Times liked this one.
"Dylan portrays a small-town America apparently suspended in the middle of the 20th century, when he was young, a world of diners, movie theatres, hot dog stands and classic cars. Even when he paints a contemporary scene, such as a couple on a pier in Virginia in 2015, the figures are dressed as if they could have been from the 1950s."
And how do I feel about the appropriation of my photograph? I'm not angry. It's not like the Daily Mail or Guido Fawkes pinched it, neither is it in my nature to expect massive compensation. I'm not exhilarated. My photo's been the basis of a minor painting by a major star, which is hardly life-changing, and I'm not the type to gush. What's more, there has been considerable speculation that Bob Dylan doesn't actually paint his own paintings, they're done for him, so where's the joy in that? But I am astonished, because who wouldn't be?

An art exhibition by the singer Bob Dylan was held in London a couple of months ago. I wish I'd been.

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