Number 6:
Photography and Drawing:

Published May 2005

Part 1: Line in Photography, and an Introduction to the Linear and Painterly Methods of Photographic Drawing

God Drawing the Universe with a Compass
From Bible Moralisee, Reims, France, 13th Century

God Drawing the Universe with a Compass
William Blake, England, early 19th Century

How do we distinguish the oak from the beech, the horse from the ox, but by the bounding outline? How do we distinguish one face or countenance from another, but by the bounding line and its infinite inflections and movements. Leave out the line, and you leave out life itself; all is chaos again, and the line of the Almighty bust be drawn out upon it before man or beast can exist.

          --William Blake

When we speak of photography as drawing we inevitably invoke line, the basic element of drawing. It is also so crucial an element of photography that for the several months between the introduction of the medium in January, 1839, and the coining of the term “photography,” the new pictures were called simply drawings. The word photography itself comes from the ancient Greek photo. for light, and grafein, meaning to draw or to write.

Photography: Drawing with Light. Light Drawings.

Brief Observations on the Nature and Work of Line in Photographs

Here is a photograph of hands by the 20th-century German photographer August Sander, together with a rough tracing with an emphasis on the hands.

Consider how much of the two hands, including the impression of the texture of the mother’s skin, is created by line. Consider, as well, how much the impression of texture in the child’s dress (in technical art terms, her costume) is created by line.

Comparing my approximate tracings with their respective originals can, I think, reveal important things not only about the lines in an individual photograph but about line in photography generally.

Of particular interest here is Sander’s understanding that in photography, as in drawing, a line is not the place where one tone gives way to another. In drawings with pen, pencil, charcoal, chalk, etc. lines are marks on the paper. In photographs, lines are the impressions—images, illusions--of such marks.

Most of the marks in this picture are created by shadows of skin and cloth upon themselves, and of body parts on background or adjacent planes.

Of equal interest here is Sander’s understanding that in photography as in drawing, lines are not only the contour lines of things, creating the shapes of things and differentiating between what is inside the shape and what is outside it—differentiating between an object (here, a hand) and what is not the object (here, cloth). They are also forms in their own right. And as forms they are under the same pressure to be specific, and to show variation one to another, as are all other forms of a picture.

In light of this, consider Sander’s lines again: how so many of them develop as they go: widen, grow thin, darken, lighten, undulate, become straight, seem to be interrupted and resume, diverge, get caught in eddies, and in many cases evolve into larger forms –e.g., the diagonal shadow to the left of the mother’s hand--that must be called shapes rather than lines.

Moreover, some of the visual work these developments carry out is often independent of the work of delineating the shapes of and defining the boundaries between a picture’s several objects. The continuous developments of lines contribute to a picture’s feeling of movement. The activity, energy and unpredictability of these developments justify a figure of speech often used with respect to lines: that they have “lives of their own.”

Lines also help create the mood, or the tone, of the picture’s imaginary world Consider the shape Sander’s use of lines in the child’s dress gave to the mother’s little finger. More like a deformed than a normal finger, and alluding to non-human things, this one anomalous form enhances the singularity of all the other body parts. Thus it disorients us and creates a dark undertone that subtly locates the picture on the boundary between a tender observation of maternal care and childhood’s trust, and that of a sudden awareness of the grotesque aspects of appearances and, perhaps, of existence itself.

This dark sensibility and the resulting sense of disquiet, of menace, even, is consistent with Sander’s photography beginning in the 1920s, when he was associated with many German Expressionist artists and became deeply disturbed by and actively opposed to the rise of Nazism. As we shall see in some 1920s Sander photographs which I will reproduce below, Sander’s drawing often begins in observation and ends in a subtle but unmistakeably nightmarish vision of the human figure. So obvious was this to Hitler’s regime when, in the late 1930s, Sander began publishing his encyclopedic portrait-study of the German people—so different was his version of his countrymen from the Nazi myth of the Master Race—that the government confiscated the entire edition and allowed Sander to continue photographing only if he limited his activity to the making of passport and identification-paper photographs.

In this respect, Sander’s use of line in the creation of the human body, both in this picture and in his work of the 1920s and ‘30s, is reminiscent of a moment in Franz Kafka’s 1925 novel The Trial. A flirtation scene between the hero, Joseph K., and Leni, a chambermaid, begins in realistic description and the ordinary banter of boy meets girl:

After a while [Leni] asked, “Do you have a sweetheart?” “No,” said K. “Oh, yes, you do,” she said. “Well, yes I have,” said K. “Just imagine it, I have told you she didn’t exist and yet I am carrying her photograph in my pocket.” At her entreaty he showed her Elsa’s photograph; she studied it, curled up on his knee.

But once Leni has determined that Elsa’s hold on K. is “no advantage,” the scene suddenly, and shockingly, veers toward the grotesque as Leni says:

“If that’s all the advantage she has over me I shan’t lose courage. Has she any physical defect?” “Any physical defect?” asked K. “Yes,” said Leni. “For I have a slight one. Look.” She held up her right hand and stretched out the two middle fingers, between which the connecting web of skin reached almost to the top joint, short as the fingers were. In the darkness K. could not make out at once what she wanted to show him, so he took his hand and made him feel it. “What a freak of nature!” said K. and he added, when he had examined the whole hand: “What a pretty little paw!” Leni looked on the hand with a kind of pride while K. in astonishment kept pulling the two fingers apart and then putting them side by side again, until at last he kissed them lightly and let them go.

Line, Drapery, and Abstraction

An important aspect of line in photography generally is seen in Sander’s handling of the seams, creases and folds in the fabric of the child’s dress—to use art’s technical term for such passages, in the drapery, where lines, conceived as forms, create rhythms and patterns of their own.

“The outline of an object,” wrote the art historian Charles de Tolnay, “is always an abstraction (actually we see only hues and values); it is the projection of the limit of the object on a surface.” (History and Technique of Old Master Drawings, New York, 1972; p. 36.)

In many photographs (as in many drawings), passages of drapery become fields for extended development of line, which developments remove that part of the photograph from the realm of representation to that of abstraction. In some cases, the person wearing the clothes is only the nominal subject. The true subject is the pattern and play of the lines within the drapery, as in the picture to the right, by the 19th-century English photographer Julia Margaret Cameron.

In each of the skirt’s two panels the drapery’s lines can be considered both as darker marks against a lighter ground and as lines enclosing shapes. Therefore, below are two tracings. The first emphasizes the shapes in the left panel and marks (faint) in the right one and in the bodice; the second reverses the emphasis.

In order to show the abstract qualities of this picture more clearly, here are two more tracings, each one treating a panel of the skirt as a separate picture:

First, the left panel, with the lines considered as the outlines of shapes:

Now the right panel, with the lines considered as dark marks on a light surface:

These tracings, of course, indicate nothing about the marked difference between the slender, supple, rapidly developing, delicate and playful lines of the costume and the thick, slow, monumental, solemn and somewhat lumbering lines of the background drapery. Yet the contention between these two worlds of form must be mentioned here, for this clash is in large part responsible for the picture’s drama, which can be explained by neither the model’s pose nor the contemplative expression on her face nor the languid gesture of her hand.

We have seen similar development of line across a whole picture in the Andre Kertesz photograph reproduced in February’s column as an example of what John Szarkowski called “the play between pattern and deep space.”

As Szarkowski points out, “half of the lines converge toward a vanishing point in deep space, the other half knit the image together in a pattern as shallow as a spider web, in which the pedestrian dangles like a fly.”

Of Various Kinds of Lines

January’s column touched briefly on photography’s first important critic, the mid-19th century French writer Francis Wey, who hailed the first paper photographs to be exhibited in Paris (July, 1839) as a radical critique of a style of drawing based on the dry and rigid use of contour lines.

The photographs Wey praised were by Hyppolite Bayard, one of photography’s inventors. The picture below, of the windmills of Montmartre, c. 1848, is an extreme example of Bayard’s interest in subtle and non-linear transitions between shape and shape, and, when lines were unavoidable, in softening them.

In Bayard’s self-portrait of 1840, below, some contour lines are so soft and/or indistinct that it is difficult to tell where some objects leave off and others begin, and some forms in the shadows are more like marks on the paper than representations of things. In Bayard’s 1847/50 view of Montmartre we see another example of his handling of line that so excited Frances Wey.

In praising Bayard’s draftsmanship Wey was taking a stand on the side of romantic draftsmanship, as exemplified by Delacroix

as opposed to the classical school, as exemplified by Ingres, whose work is strongly governed by precise contours:

Wey’s enthusiasm stemmed in part from his belief that because—as was then believed—the lens described appearances as they really are, photographs showed that romantic drawing truly represented reality and Ingres’ kind falsified it.

Much has happened since to show that the lens, like the pencil, is merely an instrument and that the lines it can make are as various as the artists who use it. The sleeve in Robert Frank’s c/ 1956 photograph of a New York bar

is closer to some of the lines in the Delacroix drawings, above, or to drapery in the work of Delacroix’s contemporary, Daumier

than to Ingres’ lines or drapery.

In modern art, including photography, one finds several kinds of drawing in a single picture. Here, again, is the Kertesz photograph, together with a tracing showing only some of the top third.

The purpose of this tracing is to isolate certain lines from the “spider web” of shadows, steps, bricks and rails that Szarkowski points out.

Of particular interest are the irregular and sketchy lines of leaves and branches (which recall Delacroix’s and Daumier’s lines), as opposed to the straight and much more precise lines of all the other elements in the photograph (which recall Ingres’ precision).

The left corner’s tracing emphasizes lines that enclose shapes, whereas the right corner’s tracing emphasizes lines as marks within the over-all mass of leaves which fills the top right corner. (Trees in pictures are, classically, masses containing lines which in turn outline smaller and variously shaped masses of leaves and light).

Kertesz’ mixed style notwithstanding, many 20th-century photographers are governed by one kind of line or another, either during specific periods of or throughout their whole careers.

Edward Weston’s celebrated 1936 series of nudes of Charis Wilson, his third wife, are clearly in the Ingresque style of draftsmanship.

And it should be clear from the tracing, below, that like Ingres, Weston—at least in 1936—was intensely interested in how the lines that distinguish the figure from its surroundings develop on their own.

Of this development, de Tolnay wrote that artists :

who [concentrate] upon the description of the outline [are] obliged to renounce the characterization of the plastic quality [of the subject], the atmosphere and the play of light and shade, which would destroy the purity of line. But the line with its rhythmic undulation, its infinitesimal wavering, its coarse or fine character, is capable of suggesting the vital flux within the organic form, sometimes even its structure. (p. 36; emphasis mine.)

It is in part this “vital flux” that is implied in William Blake’s words about “the bounding line and its infinite inflections and movements...Leave out the line and you leave out life itself.”

I don’t know if Weston had seen Ingres’ work before 1936, or even that of Matisse,

whose draftsmanship is often Ingresque. In other words, I’m not citing either painter as an influence on Weston. The evidence of the 1936 Charis Wilson nudes is that for this project Weston, like Matisse, Ingres and countless other artists was passionately and inventively exploring the formal and expressive possibilities of a single kind of line, from bold and dramatic developments of line into form,

to subtle, tender and delicate developments that seem to caress the form they delineate:

Similarly, it is not necessary to establish that Robert Frank was influenced by or even knew the craftsmanship of Delacroix or Daumier to see that from the earliest pictures

New York, 1951

Paris, 1952

through his great work, The Americans, of 1957

to his work of the 1990s

he has been interested in the possibilities of lines and transitions like these, which countless other artists have explored.

Linear and Painterly

In photography, as in drawing and painting, there are two major methods of depiction, the linear and the painterly. The classic distinction between the two was articulated by the great early-20th-century art historian Heinrich Wölfflin in his Principles of Art History. The linear style, Wölfflin says “sees in lines, [the] painterly in masses.” Linear style aims towards exact representation and “sharply distinguishes form from form,” while the painterly eye looks at the whole and “aims at that movement which passes over the sum of things.”

Photographs like Weston’s nudes of Charis Wilson, in which line contains a shape, as, in the picture below

in which the line of Wilson’s hair against the sand, together with the contour lines of her hands, back and right arm, contain and define the shape of her head, are clearly linear.

With slight changes in its remarks on modeling, Charles de Tolnay’s characterization of the linear style,

Lines circumscribing the objects form a closed contour. Generally there is almost no modeling of the forms within the outline. In this way the effect remains individual. Each object is isolated by virtue of the closed contour and does not participate in a superior order.
     The beauty of these [kinds of drawings] lies chiefly in the subtlety and fineness of the shaded line.

reads as a description of Weston’s picture.

Photographs like Robert Frank’s picture looking through a barber shop’s screen door,

in which contour lines of the figure’s head and shoulders are sacrificed in favor of masses, are painterly.

The following comments by Wolfflin and de Tolnay, concerning classic drawings and paintings, can apply equally to Frank’s picture:

“As soon as the deprecation of line as boundary takes place,” Wolfflin wrote,

painterly possibilities set in. Then it is as if at all points everything was enlivened by a mysterious movement. While the strongly stressed outline fixes the presentment, it lies in the essence of a painterly representation to give it an indeterminate character: form begins to play; lights and shadows become an independent element, they seek and hold each other from height to height, from depth to depth; the whole takes on the semblance of a movement ceaselessly emanating, never ending. Whether the movement be leaping and vehement, or only a gentle quiver and flicker, it remains for the spectator inexhaustible...not the separate form but the total picture is the thing that counts, for it is only in the whole that that mysterious interflow of form and light and colour can take effect, and it is obvious that here the immaterial and incorporeal must mean as much as concrete objects... the emancipation of the masses of light and shade till they pursue each other in independent interplay remains the basis of a painterly impression.

And in de Tolnay’s words, the painterly style

...takes the surface as a symbol of concrete space saturated with light and atmosphere. [Emphasis mine.]....objects are no longer isolated but seem to be enveloped by this atmosphere and to share its life. Sometimes they are so completely absorbed that they no longer seem solid but simple condensations of the atmosphere itself. The entire drawing is a homogeneous unity differentiated only by subtle values. Contours lose their significance as limits. They are dissolved into little flecks or points. The modeling often passes through the forms with no regard for their limits, thus transforming them into degrees of light and darkness. Instead of lines one sees masses...The untouched paper gives the impression of light and, together with the dark touches, creates a pictorial effect.
     In this method the artist no longer concentrates upon the isolated forms but upon the total effect. [Emphasis mine] He abandons the anthropocentric for the cosmocentric point of view. He contemplates the spectacle of nature as it actually appears to him. Artists who work in this method must renounce precision in their characterization of individual objects, but they gain a greater exactitude in the characterization of the whole. They renounce the truth of detail in order to seek the truth of the Infinite.

In the drawings above, Ingres’ are linear, Delacroix’s painterly.

The Charis Wilson nudes are so sharp and detailed that it is almost certain that Weston used a view camera with its lens set at a very narrow aperture, whereas Frank’s pictures, above, are clearly small camera pictures and are so softly focused and have such shallow depth of field that it seems obvious that Frank used a wide aperture. In the elevator picture the blur in the figure of the woman on the left and in the silhoutte of the man on the right are most likely due to a shutter speed of 1/15 second or slower. Nonetheless, as we can see from the picture below by the early 20th-century German photographer Fritz Henle, in which almost all the forms are contained by clear, albeit soft outlines,

photographs with soft focus and/or shallow depth of field can be essentially linear. (The Henle tracing leaves off at the left because the tracing paper’s opacity obscured the left-most architectural forms.)

Also, in the 1920s Edward Weston used the 8x10 view camera in a painterly way. In last month’s discussion of heads and hands we saw that in his portrait of the Mexican painter Diego Rivera the subtle transition between Rivera’s head and its shadow implied a form that is that of neither the head nor the shadow:

If one were to disregard the transition between River’s neck and the shadow, along with other and much subtler transations throughout the picture, one would see a painterly composition with the following masses of light and dark:

In his 1924 portrait of Nahui Olin, although the shadow is fainter, more transparent than that of the Diego Rivera portrait, its effects are decidedly painterly,

creating a form on the side of Olin’s face that is neither the form of her hair nor that of her cheek. Another creates a form on the lower part of her face that extends across her jaws, chin, neck and shoulder, creating a shape that contains and defines none of them.

Also in the 1920s, while Weston was using his large view camera in Mexico for painterly work, August Sander was using his in Germany for his extremely linear and extremely expressionistic photographs of the German people.

Linear, too, are the 1920s architectural studies by the German photographer Albert Renger-Patzsch:

in which all lines so clearly and emphatically contain forms and isolate form from form, thing from things, some areas—like those of the street and the brick work under the viaduct arches—break down into a symphony of lines. Here the lines are parallel, the forms similar, the patterns they set up on street and under the arches regular. In other pictures, as the forms get smaller the lines get looser, more varied, and the distinct, heavier, more rigid lines contain areas that are themselves irregular and teem with variously irregular, sketchy lines whose energy and “life of their own” seem to involve call and response. (The lines defining the windows are at once too obvious and too many to trace.)

In New York about fifteen years earlier, Paul Strand was using a 4x5 camera in a painterly way,

especially in the modeling of his figures, which, in Tolnay’s words, “passes through the forms with no regard for their limits, thus transforming them into degrees of light and darkness.” But in Italy, in the 1950s, Strand’s style had become mostly linear, with a sensibility to the play of small lines in the background similar to Renger-Patzsch’s for that of areas like streets and empty lots.

Still, one can see vestiges of Strand’s early painterly concerns in these Italy pictures. I have indicated some of them in the heavily penciled areas and arrowed details in the tracings of the next three pictures.

The following Strand Italian portrait is at once extremely linear in the description of part of the woman’s body, but also extremely painterly in other parts. Consider the form that begins at the woman’s hair line just above her right eyebrow (point A in the tracing) and proceeds, through hair, and shadow to the bricks to the picture’s right (point B), then down through shadow and the sweater’s black stripes to her elbow (point C) and back up, via the stripes, to a point on her neck just below her chin (point D):

To see this form more clearly as a form, detached from its work as a description of the woman’s head and body, here is the picture again, with a tracing that lacks all details that are not part of the form itself.

And here it is once more, with the same tracing inverted:

Whereby one can see what an extraordinary form it is.

In next month’s column we will consider the enhancements to both lineary and painterly drawing that have been made possible by digital photograph and/or printing, especially those made possible to photographers working with small cameras.

Ben Lifson, who teaches the history, theory and practice of photography at the graduate and undergraduate levels at the University of Hartford (CT), also conducts private photography tutorials on three continents. For more information please visit his website, For information about the University of Hartford's photography programs, please visit the website

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