Books: Francis Bacon’s passion for the camera

This is the first study of the painter’s use of photography


We probably know more now about Francis Bacon (1909-92) than almost any other 20th-century artist. This is ironic, given how carefully Bacon controlled and edited his part, but the painstaking reconstruction of his studio at the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin and the meticulous cataloguing of its contents (some 7,500 items) have given us an insight into his subject matter, source material and techniques that he would never have dreamed possible—or, perhaps, desirable.

In his lifetime Bacon was notorious for suppressing books and catalogues about his work that he did not like. Quite what he would have made of Martin Harrison’s richly illustrated study of his pictorial sources, much of it based on material in the Hugh Lane archive, we will never know. Dr Harrison (quoting Dennis Farr) tells the tantalising story of Bacon’s reaction to a request from “an archive” (presumably the Tate) to bequeath it his working documents: “he swept up ‘all the photographs and press cuttings that littered the studio floor, bundled them into two plastic sacks, and made a bonfire of them’”. Nevertheless, countless photographic images seem to have survived this cull, and in his analysis of their relationship to Bacon’s paintings, Dr Harrison has enhanced our understanding of Bacon’s deeply ambiguous iconography.

Bacon’s use of photographs and film stills was first noticed in the early 1950s, not long after their imprint began to appear in his work. In his conversations with David Sylvester from the 1960s onwards, Bacon readily acknowledged the influence of a small number of crucial sources: Muybridge’s photographs of humans and animals in motion, stills from Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, and reproductions of Velázquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X, a picture he claimed never to have seen in the original. Bacon’s appropriation of the photograph was, in fact, far more indiscriminate and voracious than this respectable shortlist suggests. Dr Harrison uncovers a whole layer of “low art” material which interested Bacon and which his friend, the painter and photographer Peter Rose Pulham, described as “bad press photographs reproduced through a coarse screen on bad paper”.

What particularly intrigued Bacon about the news photograph, apart from its real-life subject matter, was its instantaneous and accidental characters—qualities he tried to achieve in his own painting. From the 1960s, as his output of portraits increased, he used specially commissioned portrait photographs by John Deakin as a substitute for the actual presence of his subjects—invariably lovers and close friends—in the studio. In their sharpness and detail, however, Deakin’s photographs are a far cry from the blurred and smudged press images that Bacon liked to tear out of newspapers and magazines. Dr Harrison points out that Bacon only partly relied on Deakin’s photographs. His portraits, and especially the series of slightly under-life-size heads that Bacon began paintings in 1962 (on canvases 14 x 12 inches, not 24 x 20 as Dr Harrison states) introduce a note of dissolution and flux that is absent from Deakin’s more factual records.

Any assessment of Bacon’s use of photography must take into account the extent to which he assimilated and transformed his sources. One of the most esoteric of these was a publication on spiritualism, Phenomena of materialisation (1920) by a certain Baron von Schrenck-Notzing. Bacon never mentioned this book, although a well thumbed and paint-spattered copy was found in the studio after his death. Dr Harrison shows first how the head of the biomorphic figure in the left-hand panel of Bacon’s seminal Three studies for figures at the base of a Crucifixion (1944) is an almost literal transcription of a close-up detail from one of Schrenck-Notzing’s faked photographs of a séance. He then relates Bacon’s interest in psychic phenomena to a wider “predilection for photographs that penetrated the skin”, such as X-rays and pathological or scientific photographs of raw flesh. (Bacon owned a copy of K.C. Clark’s extensively illustrated Positioning in radiography, as well as a book on diseases of the mouth.) Dr Harrison further speculated that, for Bacon, “Manifestations of ectoplasm were probably...consonant with the chronophotographs of Etienne-Jules Marey”, given Bacon’s fascination with the effects of light on exposed photographs. Since Bacon once described himself as “a medium for accident and chance” and talked about the difficulty of conveying his subject's “emanation” when painting a portrait, I find it perfectly conceivable that he should have been interested in the irrational.

Dr Harrison’s title, In camera, is, in fact, a wordplay that not only alludes to Bacon’s secretiveness, but also allows him to discuss the photographic influences on Bacon, and also the representation of space in his paintings. Dr Harrison argues that Bacon was profoundly affected by the anonymous rooms he occupied and that these are often reflected in the bleak interiors which his figures inhabit. In camera presumably refers also to the English translation of Sartre’s play Huis clos, in which three people are forever trapped in a room, a “hell” of their own making. Other comparatively neglected themes touched on by Dr Harrison include the impact on Bacon’s painting of his little known stay at St Ives in 1959, and the example of Rodin’s bronze sculptures in encouraging him to achieve greater volume and plasticity in his treatment of the human form.

Such reflections, however illuminating, might seem irrelevant to an analysis of Bacon’s debt to photography, and it is true that they give the book a rather amorphous feel. Nevertheless, In camera is an indispensable work of reference for anyone wishing to follow the protracted dialogue that Bacon conducted with photography—and through photography with the art of the past, his own work, and real life.