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Friday, 11 November 2011


Mike, the point of the article may not be about comparing photography to painting, but you can't avoid the fact that it does.

As I pointed out earlier, it's only photographers that care about how their medium stacks up against other art forms.

"Or perhaps Cotman's Greta Bridge?"

Hmm, I have no memory of ever having seen that before.


I disagree with the post, and I think that 01af has said it all. Also, I'd be curious to see how perception of painting will change in 5-10 years once the craft of painting will get more and more digital; just think where cintiq or ipad will be in a few years down from today.

"That's not really what this piece is about. He's just using the comparison to painting to better understand the nature of photography--what makes it last, what makes it valuable, what makes it different."

I get that Mike, I'm just horribly vague in my writing.

Greta Bridge - granted, it's not well known unless you know about British watercolours. I just picked it because I think it has obvious photographic parallels - the use of light and shade to define form, as opposed to just line, for example. But hey, c'mon - Constable, Caspar David Friedrich, Cezanne, almost any of the Impressionists - all used landscape subjects - Constable exclusively. Yuu musta seen sone of these? Even your own Winslow Homer, as mentioned by JC.

A thought provoking essay, as have been many of the fascinating and insightful comments prompted by it.

My own thinking has brought me to the work of Paul Caponigro, which, I believe, will surely stand the test of time, and to one of his own comments about it. He was asked in an interview which of his photographs he liked best. As I remember it, his answer was, "the ones which I felt I had been led to make at that particular place and time."
No matter how one might understand what he describes here, I take him as a credible witness. He points to far more going on in his work than a merely "mechanical" response to a totally "external" stimulus. In fact, it sounds to me quite a lot like "an internal, artistic response, from which [his creativity] can’t escape, but which is considered the nexus of all real art."

For further witness ~ take that startling photograph he made of The Apple....

I see where the author is coming from and agree to some extent, though I've not read the comments yet and in them I'm certain to find, as usual in TOP, more food for thought.

However, the comparison between the flowers painting by Brueghel and photo by Mapplethorpe made me think of the astonishingly exquisite flower photographs by Spanish photographer Pilar Pequeño:


I saw quite a few of her large prints at a recent show in Madrid, and I'm pretty sure "her" flowers are more (or at least as) moving to me than most of the flower paintings I've seen in museums, a long list that includes Monet's water lillies and others... Maybe it's because of the "painterly" quality of Pequeño's images? I don't know.

I don't generally comment on a TOP post twice but this one sticks with me for some reason.

Photography must stand or fall on the merits of the work created in the medium. Every form of expression has a unique range of qualities that provide a unique set of possibilities.

Second, After some careful thought I've discovered that the best and most moving 'In the moment' image for me is not a photograph. It is a simple sketch of Marie Antoinette on her way to the guillotine done by David. That surprised me.

I am sorry but I don't have much respect at all for the thoughts in this article.

Just to cover a few major failed points I see here:

- photography highest form is documentation - eh? What exactly is Ansel Adams Yosemite landscape shots documenting? How the forest looked like back then? What about abstract photographs? What exactly are they documenting?

- the logical fallacy used of "appeal to popularity" (opinion of money). Give me a break! I don't think I have to explain that one.

- photography starting with an external view? The good photographer does pre-visualization. A lot of these depending on the photograph may very well build something out of nothing doing their own setup of lights, subjects, objects and so on - or come back to a particular scene "when the light is right" because it doesn't match what they are after. These are no more external than the described painting work.

To reduce photography in its highest form to merely documentation as an art form is one of the most shortsighted thoughts I have ever read in the last five years. What happened to photographs that are set up or "found", or abstract that rely more than anything of aspects of light and how it plays on composition. Where exactly is the "documentary" aspect of it? What exactly is so "documentary" about Ansel Adam's landscapes of Yosemite? Are those actions, events, happening? No! Yet there are many photographs considered masterpieces that do not have an event happening or action or whatever.

I honestly don't understand this essay. Quite frankly this reads to me like someone who loves a particular camera brand but in this case, a particular form of art. "The art I like is better than yours." I honestly don't get it. And I thought this kind of arguments between painting and photography were already long gone down in history. Both are art in their own right and great.

". Yet, the paintings are vastly different, reflecting the mentality of the two men. If they’d both been shooting photos with the same gear, their photos would have been identical…they wouldn’t have been “Cezanne” or “Pissarro."

If that was the case, the gear is the only one taking the photographs. This very line of mentality is the one that goes with the thought of "I will buy a better camera so I can increase my skills as a photographer and be a better photographer" which of course is completely false.

There are several cases of different photos taken of the same subject- even the same moment by two different photographers- the kiss of the marine with the woman (V-J day) for example that are quite different, yet it was the same subject- you could have equalized everything by giving both the same exact camera and yet it would still be different.

Sorry to come late to this fascinating discussion, but the article's really got me thinking about distinctions in the actual act of creation in various art forms (art used here in its very broadest sense, including painting, photography, film, music, literature etc.)

While I consider myself a better photographer than practitioner of most other art forms, I can safely say that I have never experienced what might be called direct emotional involvement in the act of creation of a photograph. This is in contrast to the feelings of creative energy I might get while writing, drawing or composing.

I suppose what I'm trying to say, in a very basic sense, is that I feel emotional involvement/creative energy when drawing, writing etc, whereas I always feel distinctly detatched when photographing (and I cannot imagine the experience ever being different).

This doesn't necessarily have any bearing on how I respond to art (as a viewer, reader or listener) but I think it relates in some way to JC's comment that "Painting starts with an internal, artistic response, from which it can't escape[...]"

Not to get all George Carlin on you, but photography is hunting and painting is farming. In photography, you load your camera, go on a shoot, wait for your subject and press the shutter. (Maybe you even get a head shot.) If you do your job well, you have something to take home and hang on your wall.

In painting, you lay on a ground, apply a few washes, build it up over a period of time and if it's good you sell it. (You don't keep it, because then you don't eat.)

Very interesting conversation. I particularly think it's important for photographers to engage themselves with the concept of "starting with an external point".

If we are shooting with the intent of making an external point a work of art why are we then utilizing our hands and cameras as our "brush-strokes"? That philosophy will ultimately limit us to composition and depth. Important for sure, but the be all/end all? I think we can do more.

Some current photographers have been toying with this very idea and using the process of documentation as the "brush-strokes" vs purely focusing on camera techniques. For example, Peter Funch (http://www.peterfunch.com/)is his photography art or documentation? All the parts of the photograph are documents of course but together can they make art? There clearly isn't a distinct boundary but rather a continuum.

Excellent post by the way.

Fascinating article. I don't know that I agree with it 100%, but it's certainly thought provoking.

I'm puzzled, however, but the commenters who actually seem angry or offended by the piece. Many appear to be arguing that the author has no business saying what is or isn't art, and that he's elitist. But aren't those commenters in effect suggesting that the author should not express opinions that conflict with conventional wisdom? In particular, the notion that these issues were settled decades ago and cannot be reopened is bizarre IMO. "How dare he force me to think about these issues!" It's ironic.

Apples versus Oranges & Ort

Thank you John Camp for an article that has made some interesting and valuable points, and generated so many comments. However, I believe it a mistake to believe that continuously sustainable comparisons are possible or desirable between photography, the product of a human and a machine, and the hand based picture making processes of drawing, painting and the traditional print methods.

Yes of course, they are all comprised of fixed marks of tones or colours, on or from a flat surface – be it paper, canvas, or a computer screen. And yes, they are deeply rooted in the desire to make recognisable pictures that has existed among human beings for at least 30,000 years as evidenced by the cave paintings at Lascaux and other sites, a deeply human impulse that feeds into the making of both photography and the traditional autographic arts.

None the less, they are fundamentally different. The camera requires a subject in front of it that is reflecting or transmitting light, or a combination of both. A painting or drawing can depict in a realistic or at least recognisable fashion, something that doesn’t or hasn’t existed or occurred, such as Uccelllo’s St George and the Dragon. (http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/paolo-uccello-saint-george-and-the-dragon)

As John Szarkowski and others have pointed out, a camera made image always has clearly defined edges, usually framed as a rectangle within the circular field of the lens, within which the totality of the picture is recorded right out to the edges during the period of exposure (This is clearly demonstrated by Emmit Gowin’s circular photographs made on a large format camera using a lens with insufficient coverage for the film area, or any B & W negative printed to show the clear film around the image as a black line).

This intrinsic frame of a camera ‘cuts its image from the actuality of the world by excluding the greater whole, whereas, in complete contrast, a hand made image is built up over time as a series of marks, with no intrinsic edges. Sure, you will eventually run out of surface area, even in a scroll painting, but extra paper or canvas can be bolted on.

The camera is a near instantaneous picture trap devoid of emotions, social conditioning and intent, even though its operator possesses them. This contrasts with a hand made image that visually evokes some element or elements of reality is always time consuming, even when made by the most skilful individual using the most minimal of means (Henri Gaudier-Brzeska http://www.tate.org.uk/servlet/ViewWork?cgroupid=999999961&workid=4987&searchid=10131&tabview=image), which is mediated by the brain and is always subject to social conditioning.

In contrast, a photograph is a slice out of time made with and by an impartial machine that records light entering it simultaneously across the frame for the duration of the exposure. (Harold Edgerton, Henri Cartier Bresson, Michael Kenna).

Additionally, the camera shutter ordinarily operates far faster than the perceptual processes of the human eye and brain, so that a photographer recording a scene with moving elements with even a fairly pedestrian shutter speed, such as a sixtieth or one twenty fifth of a second, cannot see, but only can only try to anticipate what the camera will record. Human vision, like a drawing or painting, is incremental as the very limited area of the eye’s sharp focus is constantly and largely unconsciously shifting across the visual field all the while feeding neural data to the brain where the brain integrates it into the constantly ongoing process of vision. In contrast, the camera’s picture is a narrow slice across time.

Consequently, Garry Winogrand could make the perfectly logical comment that he photographed “To see what the world looks like photographed.” This explicit recognition of the role of the camera is a comment impossible for any painter to logically make about their tools, methods and outcomes.

Magnum’s David Hurn has pointed out that the two fundamental controls of photography are where you stand in the world and when you press the shutter. As Bill Pierce, who posted the first responses to John Camp’s article, can confirm from personal experience, if you want to photograph the civil war in Lebanon, you need to be in thick of the lethal mayhem in a specific area of Beirut when it is taking place. In contrast a painting of ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ is an imaginative depiction made at a distance and after the event.

The visual logic of arranging marks on a flat surface of a rectangle can and do overlap between photography and painting, etc. However, in this respect, where one medium has borrowed from the other, photography’s unavoidable relationship with reality emerges as the winner. Chuck Close and Degas, for example, have both usefully used photography as a research tool that positively feeds or fed into their paintings. However, the converse is not the case. Despite the ludicrously high prices paid for Jeff Wall’s Photoshop collage based on a Hokusai picture ‘A Sudden Gust of Wind,1993, or the multimillion dollar Gursky, they are banal, formulistic and visually dull. The few photographers who have successfully borrowed from painting, and include the already mentioned Les Krims and David La Chappelle, have done so by photographing tableaux they have created that acknowledge and emphasise the gap between actuality and the idealisation of the paintings or cartoons they have referenced.

(As Mike has pointed out, the prices that the ignorant super rich pay for such dross is an example of conspicuous consumption by competing individuals or institutions. The whole phenomena, including their ludicrous size and stupid sums of money spent on them would be a certain target for Thorstein Veblen’s satirical teeth, if he was still with us. They exist in a highly manipulated market that creates artificial rarity, since it would be perfectly feasible to produce enough identical and signed versions of ‘Rhein II’ for every single reader of T.O.P., the only limitation being Gursky’s susceptibility to repetitive strain injury. Also, these fatuous creations are not photographs, no matter if so described by curators and other so-called experts, they are dull collages made from photographically generated sources.)

Another defining characteristic of photography is that it intrinsically produces many, many pictures. Even someone like Richard Avedon using a slow to operate and expensive 10” X 8” camera, made close on two hundred negatives of his famous bald beekeeper, which he then edited down to two images, then to the one that is generally reproduced. Photographers who know what they are doing make a lot of pictures then edit ruthlessly. Making a single photograph is a reductive procedure, in contrast to a painting or drawing, which is an additive and synthesising process.

Consequently, and almost without exception, the making of a successful body of photographs emerges from the effort of making a lot of pictures in the form of sustained projects around topics of importance to the photographer. Editing then eliminates the great majority of these many slices through time and space because they don’t work as pictures. Hence Elliot Erwitt’s dryly sardonic comment that few photographic projects take longer than two and a half seconds.

I personally think both good photographs and good paintings are wonderful, but each should be left to get on with what it does best. Apples and oranges, both of which are ill served when we treat them as interchangeable. This common category error is in my opinion, further compounded i by the use of the word art, which has been so hollowed out since Marcel Duchamp onwards that its use serves only to confuse rather than illuminate. I much prefer the suggestion of Milton Glazer, who has suggested that we talk about - work; good work; and excellent work.

It's a difference in process. Great paintings rarely spring fully formed out of nowhere. Usually there is a photograph involved, or a series of sketches or preparatory study paintings before the final version. Perhaps not as mechanical a process as photography since there is less often a metal machine involved, but certainly just as calculated and technical.

@ Steven Halpern
Since you're an English speaker writing in English, it's okay to use the name "Florence" for the Italian city. "Firenze" is the native Italian name but it sounds both silly and pretentious coming from the mouth of an English speaker. Or do you also refer to Italy as "Italia", Germany as "Deutschland", and Japan as "Nippon"?

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