Canvas Legends and Photography

Among many companies turning photographs of famous 20th century figures into artistic canvas representations, Canvas Legends are one of the finest. The representations are massively appealing; they seem to offer something that the photograph is simply unable to. But what explains this move away from photography, towards what might even be thought of, despite taking its inspiration from contemporary art, as a retreat to an older form of representation, the image on canvas. Certainly the appeal is related to the less precise, less perfect representation of the individual that the canvas print offers compared to the photograph. Take any example, say, Frank Sinatra:


For Roland Barthes ‘the photograph is a certificate of presence.’ Of course, this seems an obvious point; a photograph acts as a kind of proof, a guarantee that that thing in the photograph existed in exactly that way at that time and in that place. In a way that Facebook and Twitter make us increasingly familiar with, if you see a photograph of yourself that you have no memory of whatsoever, you still have to believe it. But Barthes’ suggestion is that memory did not work in this way before photography, that the effects of a new, accurate and authentic representation of identity is to change the way we remember our pasts; we now think of ourselves in a factual, linear way (think about how the family photo album, or the Facebook Timeline, combine linearity with photography). We also, and perhaps this is a more specifically modern phenomenon not relevant for 19th century photography, feel that this linear narrative is out of our control, it somehow compiles itself, just as Facebook pages build themselves; your life is told, but you don’t tell it.


One of the first photographs, by Niepce, in 1828

And that sense of having your life told for you, a process everyone feels, is somehow epitomized by certain celebrity ‘legends.’ Having their lives written for them seems even to be a particular feature of the figures that Canvas Legends have been drawn to make use of: Michael Jackson, Tupac Shakur, Marilyn Munroe, Muhammad Ali.

What the Canvas Legends print somehow offers is a way out of this narrativity. In a way there is something of the photographic language of ‘capturing a moment’, as for example with Ali here:


But the work that Canvas Legends do on the photograph (each image is based on a single photo) is to remove the detail, to blur the edges of the moment and the memory. The point that the print makes is that the moment is not experienced at its point in history. Here for example, the ring and the crowd have gone, the now-blurred identity is transported out of its narrative moment. Indeed, all the images seem ageless, without their place in history. The point is that the moment is not experienced at its place in narrative but only later on, when it is read and represented, when its significance as the ‘moment’ has been formed by later events. Canvas Legends, both literally and theoretically, could not have come before photography, because it responds to it, showing how the photograph’s claim to represent the moment at its time in history is a false one.

Like when you realize that what you thought was a childhood memory was in fact created by a photo on your parents’ mantlepiece, Canvas Legends draws your attention to the fact that when you look at their images, the moment they represent is being created at the moment of looking, at the moment of reading and representation, and not at its point in history when it actually ‘happened.’ They show something like what Walter Benjamin describes when he writes that ‘the historical materialist blasts the epoch out of its reified “historical continuity”’. The ‘moment’ is produced by a connection between the image and its recipient, and not in its place in a timeline of linear history.

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