« Random Excellence: Robert Phillips | Main | Flipperoo »

Friday, 11 November 2011


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Fascinating presentation, with which I mostly agree. I am in my best moments what Kerouac described as a bohemian-"a hanger on around the arts". Surely if I could paint I would, and in fact I consider it a superior level of art over photography. On the other hand I can create photographs that I and others enjoy, have been offered money for but have always rather determined to give as a gift to anyone who admired one enough to ask. I've come to believe the photography represents the art of the common man, maybe equivalent to pictographs and cave painting in another time. It is superior at telling a story and/or connecting with me-in my life as it exists at this moment, or a connection to a past which is still relevant to me-think Migrant Mother. The Tulips would fit in my home and lifestyle, not so the Bouquet. Wonderful discussions to follow this-I'm excited to read them.

The most expensive photography book I ever bought was (a second hand copy of) Mapplethorpe's Flowers, as a gift to my wfe who happens to be a painter.
I sometimes buy her books about painters but usually in the post Chrismas sales or in remainder shops.

I just wish I could have expressed as well! I do sometimes get a little worried about the ever increasing amount of people who call themselves or indeed are called photographic artists. I have been a photographer for over 40 years and freely admit to being quite obsessive, especially about print quality, with it. I have been told that I am an artist but far rather more feel I'm a craftsman as I do not believe I have the breadth of imagination or indeed that extra skill to ever qualify/

Well, speaking of "bullshit," which we Texans use pretty loosely and, as here, respectfully: "The problem, from an artistic point of view, is that photography starts with an external point—a subject—... [but] Painting starts with an internal, artistic response, from which it can't escape, but which is considered the nexus of all real art."

This is where the horse is buried. It is at least unprovable and in my opinion wrong to say painters don't start from an external point. What exactly is the painter's "internal, artistic response" TO, if not to the external world? I think all art, photographic, musical, painterly, probably begins with an internal response to the wonders and not-so-wonders of the world. Your argument just falls apart at its crux.

Great, great essay. And very relevant in light of the small uproar that occured over Rhein II.

This doesn't strike me as a conversation we need to be having in 2011.

This opinion piece strikes me as a good example of the definition of philosophy as "the art of going from hidden assumptions to foregone conclusions".

Camp says "In none of these areas do I think the best of photography can match the best of painting in terms of power, or emotional effectiveness, or aesthetic quality." That's his opinion, but hardly a substantial argument. In comparing, e.g., the Durer painting with an Eliot Porter photograph of a small but beautiful detail of landscape, I have roughly the same emotional and aesthetic response to both. Examples could be multiplied.

Camp continues "This is not just my off-the-cuff opinion, but the opinion of money. While some people deride the position of money as an art-critical medium, it is simply a fact that those artworks that are most widely accepted as masterpieces sell for the most money." Aside from the obvious difficulty of equating aesthetic power with selling price, the argument neglects the issue of rarity. There's usually just one of a masterpiece painting, but multiple copies of most fine photos. Rich people will pay a lot more for rarities than for one of a multiple.

On the other side, Camp argues fairly convincingly for the superiority of photography in documentation. True enough, but things get murkier in commentary on current events. Photography displays the thing in itself, while political cartoons - at the highest level - pack a visual impact that can last for a long time. Think of Daumier, Thomas Nast, Herblock, Bill Mauldin, ...

I think Mr. Camp makes a false distinction between commercial and fine art. The classic painters were mostly fulfilling commissions in order to earn a livelihood. I don't disagree with his premise about the highest art of photography being documentation, but there also it is mostly commercial art -- photographers doing documentary photography to make a living. On their days off I am sure many of those documentarians go out to shoot landscapes and such, thinking they are thereby creating "fine" art and not realizing that most everything they do aside from documentation will be forgotten as quickly as Salieri. (And if you ask "Salieri who?" I rest my case.)

My mother is a painter. I tell her that she has a great advantage in that she can re-arrange elements for the sake of composition and I as a photographer have only the option of viewpoint and timing. She just smiles.

Painting forces the viewer to fill in details, usually, and usually abstracts the subject in several more ways. Photography has more trouble with this. Thus, a painting may demand more work of the viewer, which work is pleasurable. Thus also, a painting is more open to interpretation by the viewer, and allows the viewer to project more of himself into the interpretation; again, pleasurable.

Art is what creates a reaction in the viewer, and painting has quite a number of easy paths to building an interesting reaction.

Photographs can abstract, can hint without showing, can demand work of the viewer, and can permit open interpretation. Photographs work with color (or the lack of same), the use of shadow to conceal, the notion of objects present but out of frame, the use of the plane of focus, and so on. These are, I think, necessarily more subtle tools, and all labor encumbered by the inherent sense of realism that photographs start with -- the viewer starts out thinking that all is present and visible, which they do not with a painting.

I have a little trouble with the thesis that painting is a "superior" art in any meaningful way, but I will cheerfully admit that painting has a head start in several areas that lead to art.

While in my youth, I bridled at the notion that photography is not art, there is something in the argument of John’s essay that strikes a chord with me. Let me explain. Lately I’ve been thinking about photography in contemporary terms. There seems to be a growing respect or recognition for the art of curators, the people who collect art. This is saying that a person’s level of taste can be considered a sort of art in itself.

Well, in the same way that John points out that photography’s greatest strength in art is its ability to document, this is the essence of curatorial art. Painting and classical sculpture are the epitomes of creation-based art, where the artist wholly creates the art a viewer sees, but for the most part, a photographer can only capture things of visual or personal interest to him or her. With a photograph, a photographer is saying, “Look what I found. Isn’t it interesting?” They didn’t create the object represented in the image, but they did choose to photograph that object. Of course, I know there are some exceptions to this, photographers who go to elaborate lengths to construct sets and create the objects found in the image, but most of photography is curatorial-based art.

And if it is curatorial-based art, doesn’t that make photography a lesser art than creation-based art. That’s assuming that the essence of art is creative self-expression, which is a lot to assume. So if that is the way it is, what is our response as photographers supposed to be? It doesn’t make the process of photographing any less interesting or the viewing of works any less meaningful. Is photography is first-class art form? Maybe not, but who cares? Perhaps the question isn’t very meaningful to the individuals engaged in either making photographs or appreciating them.

An excellent essay, John. One that everyone who puzzles about the "meaning of art" should read.

I am a bit on the run at the moment and cannot smoothly note each point that comes to mind. I would like to discuss some of your points more, but a few jump forward to me.

"Painting starts with an internal, artistic response, from which it can't escape, but which is considered the nexus of all real art."
That's a darn (or, in the spirit, is it durn?) good swipe at portraying not just the genesis of painting but also drawing and sculpture.

But, in the previous sentence you say, "The problem, from an artistic point of view, is that photography starts with an external point—a subject—and a mechanical capture, from which it can't escape." Well now you're sounding like a 19th century painter! Of course the whole Pictorialist movement aimed squarely at disproving that assertion...to varying degrees of success. My own opinion is that your thesis ain't necessarily so. (Sorry, once ya get into this mode it's hard to escape.) Yes, it is true that so much of photography, especially amateur varieties, is (often unknowingly) obsessed with accurate documentation. Sharpness. Detail. Tonality. Nowhere is this more true than landscape photography which I generally find howlingly uninteresting.

But I hardly need to note that the medium of photography can easily be nudged to break its literalist boundaries. An endless line of photographers have left a long trail of wonderful examples of expressionistic works. (I could write a whole monograph on this topic!) But at-hand here on TOP we actually have an adjacent example; Gursky's Rheine II. Yes, in fact, in its reductionist style it breaks the documentary boundaries of photography, expressing the vision that prompted the artist to make the image at all.

Gotta run for now. But want to leave readers with a bit of a 'tweener. Specifically, documentary photography that. over time, has also come to be seen as a body of expressive art.

Here at the Art Institute of Chicago curator Liz Siegel has recently hung Timothy H. O'Sullivan: The King Survey Photographs. This exhibit, which came to us from Kansas City's Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, features O'Sullivan's early 19th century documentary photography of the "new" frontier; the America West. Although the work was done to describe the mostly unknown geography anyone who spends time with these images can see that it took its task a step beyond surface definition and into the feelings of being in these places. So even when documentation is the the snapper's task at-hand the artist can still bring forth an inner inspirational spirit.

Will the great photographers fade and painters persist in the art world? Very doubtful for several reasons which....I'll have to leave for another time.

Unfortunately, really gotta run for now. (Apologize to readers for any hasty incoherency.) Great article, John! Just the type of thought provocation we needed around here.

For my part, I'd argue that "Portraiture" belongs down there with "Documentation" in John's categories. First of all, try naming a dozen great portrait paintings from the past dozen years. Then consider something such as Picasso's "Portrait of Marie-Therese"--I would argue that the impulse to "be" art in a painted portrait is at war with its need to be a document--namely of what its subject looked like. And often one is achieved only at the expense of the other. Portraits were a major subject of paintings for several centuries, but I'd claim that's only because photography didn't exist and painting portraits was the only way to get them--the only way to record what an individual looked like. Once photography came along, it simply did it better, and virtually all portrait painting (first, painted miniatures, which were very popular up to 1839) came to a screeching halt. Nowadays, the only reason a portrait is rendered in paint is for reasons of prestige (for instance, boardroom portraits or portraits of University presidents)--and in those cases, the artists aren't well known outside of the field, and the function of the painting as art isn't primary. Nobody hired Rothko or Pollock to paint their portrait....

Even in photography, the artistic function and status of a portrait is secondary to its documentary function. Photography's natural physical connection to its pretext (its subject) is an inherent advantage for portraiture.


To suggest, among other things, that "people like Steiglitz, Minor White, Harry Callahan, Robert Mapplethorpe and others will be lost in time" is as outrageous a statement as I have come across; and on this site, no less. Denigrating art photography—and art photographers, artists!—hardly deserves congratulations.

From what little I know, you're certainly right about the current place of photography in the art world.

My own personal entirely subjective experience is that no painting has ever moved me nearly as much as many photos. I'm not at all sure that's due to anything actually about the two art-forms, though; might just be something about me, or about the uses made of those art-forms and displayed in big museums.

In the long run I think we have to accept the primacy of numbers (though only in the long run). Number of people liking various works, and how much they're willing to pay, are relevant. If nothing else, the critics eventually have to explain why so many people disagree with them, and that often ends up with recognizing the value of the long-term popular works.

Of course, with the Mapplethorpe flowers, you have to also ask the question about who arranged the flowers, set up the light, and composed the frame before making the mechanical observation. Painting allows you to fix things rather than merely copying what's present. Photography requires you to get it right before making the exposure.

This spreads into the realm of portraiture as well. To do it right, so much has to be done correctly before taking the exposure. And that includes the interaction with the sitter. Where creating the emotion in the painting is the painter's skill. Drawing it out of the sitter is the photographer's.

I completely agree with you on the documentary art. Photography also adds a level of intimacy which painting lacks since the photographer had to actually be on-scene.

Hi Dave Jenins,

I'm sure most readers of your comment have seen Amadeus.


Do we have to compare painting or other art to photography. It seems possible to me that a photographer and a viewer can engage in a perfectly legitimate artistic dialog without considering painting, sculpture or any other medium of expression.

I think at least some artists and possibly a few photographers consider the real art to be the idea they are trying to express not necessarily the expression itself. Of course you can't exhibit an internal state of mind.

I have the feeling that many of the masterworks we revere so much from the past were essentially commercial works. Is art created for posterity or as an expression of the context in which the artist lives?

Sorry if this is completely muddled and wrongheaded. I probably don't understand enough about art to have a valid opinion. Maybe art like gold is where you find it.

"To suggest, among other things, that 'people like Steiglitz, Minor White, Harry Callahan, Robert Mapplethorpe and others will be lost in time' is as outrageous a statement as I have come across"

Really? Indubitably? So then you could explain to me who Maxime du Camp, Robert Demachy, Karl Struss, Leonard Misonne, and Etienne Carjat are?

You're probably right, but only because the photographers John named have already made it safely into the official narrative of the history of photography, and are unlikely to be dislodged from the history tomes by the mere passing of time. Once ensconced, perpetuated. But I could name an awful lot of photographers who were accomplished and celebrated in their time who are now mostly (and in many cases unfairly) forgotten. Everyone here raise your hand if you've heard of Les Krims....


All I can do is "ditto" Bill Pierce's comment, and add "Thank goodness for John Camp".

It's certainly true that the expression of a vision is not always obvious in photography. That Mapplethorpe photograph of tulips could be the work of a person expressing an idea or it could be the photographer had a frame left on a roll of film and he had recently bought flowers at the market. To say photography can't reach the artistic goals of painting sells the concept short of its potential however.

Conversely, for every photographer who laments the masses of snap-shooters roaming the planet there must be a painter who abhors the paint-by-number set.

"if you want to go looking for a true, lasting art in photography, you should look at things that can only be captured in an instant: an action, an event, a happening".

If that is true someone just paid $4,338,500 for a lot of bullshit.

I just want to thank all our veterans today on this day of remembrance. I will be taking some time today to remember all my buddies who are not here any longer.

Thanks for the enjoyable essay. There's one photographer who likely won't be forgotten over time: Ansel Adams. Interestingly, he made a point to join and develop the movement against painterly pastoralism in photography and argue that the camera should be accepted on its own terms for what it can do. Then he went on to take what many artists likely consider fairly conservative but striking and beautiful photographs, most of the time shooting commercially as well to pay the bills.

Photographs also carry an automatic price-reducing system with them. They can usually be faithfully reproduced at the "original" level, at least as long as the artist is alive. In this way a fine photographic print is somewhere in between a fine music album and a fine painting.

Makes me wonder where the photorealist painters fit into this analysis. I had never heard of photorealism until the art museum at my university hosted a showing in 2005. If you "pixel peeped" at the paintings, you could see they were made with airbrushes, but if you stood back at normal viewing distances, they looked like photographs. I viewed the show with fascination and enjoyment, but also with confusion. Painters trying to imitate photographers? I guess like Rusty says above, the photorealists have the ability to rearrange elements, which we photographers don't. But they still end up producing "photographs."

While this is an interesting essay and topic, I agree with Peter Rees. Isn't this back to Marcel Duchamp and others who fought to keep the definition of art loose, because as soon as you try to box it in, you end up with too many exceptions breaking the rules?

This is a conversation I've had with many people many times, and it usually devolves into a discussion of "Well, what's the definition of 'art,' then?" Since TOP has already covered that, I'll mention the other directions the discussion takes. (I apologize in advance for the following lengthy ramble.)

A more pertinent question for this post might be "What is the purpose of Ort?" If the purpose is to create beauty, then photography works as well as, or better than, other media.

If the purpose is to convey meaning, to say "something... about life," then here too I believe that photography is equally competent.

If the purpose is to create an emotional response in the viewer, once again photography is entirely capable.

Examples of these purposes abound; I won't impose my ideas of photos that fit these purposes because, as with any artistic medium, interpretation is up to the viewer and most probably would quibble with my examples. But a good number have already appeared in the earlier "sharp exchanges."

John Camp says, "If you look at a flower painting by Jan (Velvet) Breughel, you are astonished by the level of observation and creation." No, he is astonished; I'm rather overwhelmed and unimpressed. I see a mess of color, a sort of too-far-with-the-saturation-slider thing (and this from a guy who's still in love with Velvia). I see an attempt at beauty, but, while this may simply be my myopia, I see no comments "about life, [or] even... bugs." The photo, though, is more successful at both purposes. It has beautiful tones in the leaves and stems, the flowers, and even a fascinating differentiation in blacks between the background and the flower stand. (This probably wouldn't have worked nearly as well in color, although it I'm sure the effect would have been entirely different so who knows.) And, without detailing them here, I do see comments about life (but not bugs), though this may reflect my greater openness to photography.

Which leads me to the direction that annoys people most when discussing this topic: I think that photography is actually more difficult than painting. When a painter surveys a scene and begins putting paint to canvas, he can create an image that reflects his interpretation of the scene as much as, or more than, it reflects reality. There needs to be no distinction between the vision in the artist's mind and the finished product (assuming sufficient skill). He can even close his eyes and conjure an entirely imaginary scene. A photographer, however, can only record; she can't impose her vision. Regardless of the photographer's skill, the thing photographed must physically exist - even if it's Potatochopped past all recognition in the final product. The artist must "see" the object in a way that generates the intended reaction, by looking at it from an unusual perspective to create an evocative arrangement of shapes or colors, or by manipulating the way the camera records the light passing through the lens. To my mind, this necessity of being grounded in reality makes creating an effective photograph more difficult than creating an effective painting. Note that I'm not saying this reduces photography to a documentary medium; rather, I'm saying that it achieves "Ort" when it rises above documentation.

I would also argue, somewhat tangentially, that it takes an excellent practitioner to create something worth viewing in any artistic medium. In all media, the vast majority of stuff I've seen ranges from pleasant to pointless, but seldom rises to the level of "Ort." Since only a few can, or do, paint, sculpt, compose, or choreograph, while everyone and her grandparents takes pictures, the ratio of masters to practitioners is greater in the traditional media. Perhaps this skews people's (including Camp's) perception of the photography. Does the democratic nature of the medium saddle it with a pedestrian reputation?

While I don't usually convince many people of my perspective, that's because mostly they're stuck in the common definition of "an artistic medium." Photography as a medium hasn't been around long enough to become part of that definition, along with painting, sculpture, music, dance... I don't believe it's because of any inherent artistic shortcoming with photography.

Contrary to Camp's closing suggestion, I don't think the greats of photography, from its early days to now, will be overlooked. Instead, I think that, as photography becomes more established as an artistic medium, they will be regarded as visionaries and pioneers. Or, to be provocative: Perhaps, as the "modern" medium of photography grows in artistic popularity and generates its own list of masters and its own canon, the "legacy" medium of painting will fade and its masters and canon will be gradually forgotten...

John, I enjoyed your writing very much. It hits a soft spot in my mind (and reading the comments I think of others just as well) as I often think about such topics lately. Maybe it is because a tendency here on TOP to discuss such topics?

Regarding the critics - and I am sure there is more down the pipe - I would calm down: this is an essay, not a philosophical tractatus that claims completeness or provableness or the like. John even says that his opinion is not yet set in stone, so thought in progress...

Keep the good work up!

John started down the path of identifying the distinction between commercial art and fine art then took an abrupt turn. Not to say that the redirection was wrong, but it did leave a point unaddressed.

I believe that one reason why the majority of what we call "fine art photography" isn't accepted as such by the art collecting community is because we have turned it into a commodity. We have turned it into a commercial venture. A photo of xyz landscape might be simply awesome on every technical level, but is it art or is it a wall decoration? Even within the world of painting there is a distinction. Paintings meant to "sell" have good retail value, but rarely attain collector status.

In Paris, everybody is a painter. In Yosemite, everybody is a photographer. Of the images John has identified as having long-term art value were of first-time, never to be repeated events of historical value.

This is an enjoyable read that will spark some pondering. Something seemed a bit off-kilter to me at first read, however, and I hoped it wasn't just my nose. Jeff Glass's comment defined and nicely summarized the point of disconnect that I sensed.

I would have to agree with Mr. Camp. As a portraitist myself I see it every day - a decent painter will run circles around a great photographer - simply because he's free from the restraints of reality. He can show the subject for what he wants the subject to be, instead of what it looks like. And that's something precious few photographers are able to achieve. The only advantage (and dubious at that) photographer has is the ability to record reality to the most minute of details. For the most part this is irrelevant, however - unless you're going for this ultra-realistic kind of look that was so popular a few years ago (think Andrzej Dragan).
Rembrandt vs. Karsh? Ingres vs. Newman? Not even the same league...

Pasing by your main points because so far I've only skimmed your article sharing as I do reader Peter Reese's observation, I can impart a few quick thoughts:if money is your criterion, few living painters have sold a single work for 3 millon plus as has photographer Cindy Sherman. In a way it's apples and oranges because photography is more noted for works in a series than single images and any price comparisons should keep that in mind. Also you seem to be considering fine art photography from the standpoint of genre; I doubt if many fine art photographers (unless you define fine art itself as a genre) would consider their work to be an example of a genre.

I personally consider photography superior to painting, an opinion I am sure is not widely shared. The greatest strength of photography is that it doesn't depend on the imagination of the artist (or photographer).

Dorothea Lange kept a quotation by the English essayist Francis Bacon on her darkroom door: “The contemplation of things as they are, without error or confusion, without substitution or imposture, is in itself a nobler thing than a whole harvest of invention."

As Fred Picker said in the March 1994 issue of Shutterbug, "This Koudelka (print by Czech photographer Joseph Koudelka) on the wall contains the most amazing combination of things that I know happened, because when he made that photograph there was no electronic imaging. Here are two horses, standing in a certain position, a boy sitting on a bicycle wearing an angel suit with angel wings, here's an old lady scolding him, all in magnificent light and beautifully composed. Today, that picture could be made by some guy sitting in front of a computer. Knowing that would take all the wonder out of it."

In actuality, it isn’t likely “some guy sitting in front of a computer” would make such a picture, nor is it likely a painter would paint it, because they are limited by their imaginations. They can only do what they can conceive. But photography goes beyond human imagination. As novelist Tom Clancy has said, “The difference between fiction and non-fiction is that fiction has to make sense.” The magic of photography is that life holds so many amazing and wonderful things that are entirely unanticipated, unexpected, even unimagined in the deepest sense; that is, that no one would ever have thought of such a thing happening. And then, suddenly, right out of the fabric of life, there it is. "I can do a beautiful illustration, but it doesn't have that 'instant of wonder' that a photograph will have." (Art Director Tony Anthony, quoted in "Photo District News," February, 1987.)

Photography shows us things that lie beyond our imagination and compel our amazement because they really happened. It revels in the beauty, the mystery, and the strangeness of life. It is the most powerful purely visual medium ever created.

In your article you say

The problem, from an artistic point of view, is that photography starts with an external point—a subject—and a mechanical capture, from which it can't escape.

Painting starts with an internal, artistic response, from which it can't escape, but which is considered the nexus of all real art.

That's not necessarily the case. Many branches of photography start with the idea, from the landscapes of Joe Cornish where he will wait a year for the sun to appear in the right spot, to the carefully construsted fantasies of David LaChappelle.

Photography has another disadvantage in the art world because it is reproducible. There can only be one Mona Lisa and even if Leonardo had painted many Mona Lisa's, they would all still be unique and touched by the hand of the artist. Photos don't have that rarity value and personal touch of the artist

For me there are many photos that are the equal of anything I have seen in the National Gallery and that has noting to do with monetary worth or rarity

I never leave a conversation about What-Is-Art feeling like I spent my time wisely. Instead I feel its time to go outside and make some 'art', however and with whatever.

I'm not sure what your point is, Mike, but I am happy to give you the last word. (I recognize all of the photographers you listed, by the way, not least of all the talented, inventive, outrageous-at-times Mr. Krims.)

Initially I was going to voice my opinion on this issue, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that my opinion is not fully formed enough to do so.

I would like to say that it is important to consider John's perspective if we are to have a serious discussion about the place of photography in the art world.

Even considering the excellent writing that appears on this blog regularly, this post is, in my view, exceptional. Thank you for posting. I will now think about it for, at least, the rest of the day.

"There can only be one Mona Lisa and even if Leonardo had painted many Mona Lisa's, they would all still be unique and touched by the hand of the artist. Photos don't have that rarity value and personal touch of the artist"

Actually they do, to some extent (although I take your point). I'd say as a vague but defensible generalization that "vintage" prints are worth 10X what "modern" (i.e., recent) prints are worth, even if both are made by the photographer. Compare for instance an Edward Weston print made by Edward with one made from Edward's original negative by his son Cole. Very different in terms of value in the market.


Excellent essay. Here's my take.

John's words made me realize one important reason why I love the "Decisive Moment" school of photography, and aspire to it in much of my own work. It's something that photography does uniquely well: The instant of a fleeting human emotion written in facial expression and body language, captured with a composition, tonality and focus that works hand in hand with the content to create a greater whole.

Part of photography's problem is that not everyone can paint, but most people think that anyone can photograph. So photography is devalued. But photographing *well*? Not so easy.


Michael Johnston: cute
Jeff Glass: well done
John Camp: half baked
Peter Rees: final nail in coffin
Me: hard to see with this glaze over my eyes

...photography starts with an external point—a subject—and a mechanical capture, from which it can't escape.
Painting starts with an internal, artistic response, from which it can't escape, but which is considered the nexus of all real art.

Mr. Camp's article is thoughtful and well-written. It will stimulate some good debates with for those of us lucky enough to have art & photo friends who enjoy such talk (...wish I had a few more of those myself, living in the too techie world that I do...).

The observation quoted above immediately bothered me. How can an internal, artistic impulse be denied to photography, photographers? At least some of them ?? I know many whose initial impulse is the very same artistic impulse felt by, say, a painter. The only difference being that the mechanical means of expressing the vision starts with a camera rather than a set of brushes.

I can't argue the art world money thing however....but I think that's changing to include photography. We just saw the huge price paid for Gursky's Rhein II.

Ooh! Ooh! Teacher! I've heard of Les Krims.

Of course, I grew up in Buffalo, so maybe I don't get to claim credit. That and the fact that his work leaves me even colder than a $12 million stuffed shark does.

The Mona Lisa is more famous, but "MIGRANT MOTHER" is a better picture.
I know of no painting to equal the natural beauty of "Clearing Winter Storm."
Marie Cosindas' flower images can hold their own with anything painted in the classical style, (not necessarily including more modern work such as Van Gogh's "Sunflowers.")
Where photograpy falters is in comparison with abstract work.

Painting is to Opera, as Photography is to Jazz. Both Art. They just occupy somewhat different parts of the mind and heart. A little different rhythm. One could be called a more prominent Art but, that's a social construct. Not a law of nature.

My apologies, but I cannot resist this:

You ort to be in pictures....

A nice and intelligent article. But I think it's wrong in several ways.

One, you're not taking into account the externality of the whole thing. (Yes, it's intentional. :)) Old paintings have a great additional value because they are old. And rare. As already pointed up there, photographs are not rare in that sense.

Two, I think you're completely wrong about "commercial" art. You cannot tell me that the Sistine Chapel is not a piece of commerce. Or Velazquez's Infanta Margaret. Or Mona Lisa, for that matter. And so on. All of them were specifically created on order, for money. Commercially. Not by starving unheeded artists in garrets.

Where I think you're wrong here is that you seem to be equating commerce and commercial with the mass produced rubbish. The old artists were in it for the money. It was a craft, too, not only the art. And if I had to guess, I would say it was the Romanticism that brought the image of a starving artist as the representative of "pure" art. Idiots.

Three, you brought into collision two completely different styles with the flowers. Breughel's exuberant bunch of wild flowers brought from the meadow possibly an hour ago and Mapplethorpe's clinical vision of pale tulips, refined down to be almost a symbol of themselves. I also like the Breughel more, because I like that style more. But I suspect that the real value and worth of the Breughel is in the externalities.

Four, I'm not going to agree that photography is not equal in some fields, either. For instance, I think that Annie Leibowitz's portrait of Queen Elizabeth is worthy of standing among the old masters. It's an absolutely brilliant portrait. Painterly. :) Better than the said Infanta for me. Some of Leibowitz's other portraits are also excellent and masterly images.

I also think that Kertesz's Chez Mondrian is a brilliant picture, worthy of being in a museum among old masters. (I could probably name another photo or three this way, so I'll stop here.)

On the other hand, I agree about photography not being able to match some of the areas of painting. I don't see any photograph really matching a Pollock. Or Scream. In other words, those areas where artists manipulated their work to be distinctly different than the reality. Yes, photographers can manipulate their works in such ways, too, but it's not really photography anymore.

As to the money and the way it talks, I'd say it boils down to the externalities again. Painting is much more difficult than photography. That's a fact. It's unique. That's also a fact.

During the last couple hundred years, we as a civilisation have moved to the stage where the "real" painting is the one where the artist manipulates the reality in distinctly unrealistic ways. The purely realistic paintings are mainly considered "commercial" and (much) less worthy. As I said, photography cannot match such a way of presenting the reality. If it wants to be "real" photography, it has to be realistic. Therefore, for the money, it's less worthy.

No problem with the vast majority of the essay- well thought out, well written. But then, it is just the latest in a long series of why photography is a bastardized, lower art form forever to be secluded to the lower echelons of artdom- unless utilized as part of an overall creation by an already established artist.

The process, the "art form" of photography is forever tainted and "cheapened" because it derives its very creation from a machine, more so perhaps than any other medium. The latter cannot be denied.

But then, that's never prevented the accomplishments of "bastards" throughout history.

Next week on The Online Photographer: Mt. Rushmore is more art than all of painting because it lasts longer in a fire.

I think that the photograph of the Earth hanging like a delicate spherical island alone in space probably altered more perceptions, and more quickly, more radically, than the Mona Lisa ever did. But that photograph isn't really Art -- I mean, it wasn't created with artistic intent, any more than the photographs on the documentary list above were. I recognize the urge to compare photography and painting, because they both result in two-dimensional images. But the comparison really ends there, doesn't it? No one compares photography to dance.

I think too many questions are begged when attempting to compare great painting art with great photographic art. Might just as well argue about whether great paintings are greater than great drawings, great watercolours, great sculpture, great ceramics, great music, great films, great literature, etc.
The valid and productive comparisons are about greatness within the medium, not between media. The comparisons are then about the art and not about the medium and the discussions more likely to be illuminating.

Jeff Glass hits the nail on the head with regards to the problem at the heart John's argument.

Many people seem to think that photography is purely a reactionary art - hence the notion that photography excels with the decisive moment. I don't think that this is the case.

Many of the better photographers don't start with, and react to, something external. They start with an internal idea of a photo that they wish to take and, depending on the concept, they either go out to find it, or they construct it.

An interesting piece.

I don't know that I disagree with the overall point, but I am not convinced about the core measurement.

I feel this portion of the piece is critical:

"This is not just my off-the-cuff opinion, but the opinion of money. While some people deride the position of money as an art-critical medium, it is simply a fact that those artworks that are most widely accepted as masterpieces sell for the most money."

I certainly would not deride the position of money in this discussion - but I would question whether it's appropriate for photography.

A lot of the perceived value comes from the sense among purchasers of the skill / talent involved, and in the ability to replicate the piece. That perception is the reality in terms of prices for great painting. Interestingly, some paintings will gain great prices because of the artist, not because the painting itself is great.

So I wouldn't agree with the pricing being the key to deciding what's great. That doesn't mean I deride it's role, but money and taste are not always the greatest bedfellows.

This portion too requires a bit more thought:

"Painting starts with an internal, artistic response, from which it can't escape, but which is considered the nexus of all real art."

Perhaps I have misread, but this seems to imply that this doesn't occur with photography. Which creates a picture (sorry) in my mind of a famous painter sitting in front of their easel, painting a landscape while gazing at the scene. On the same spot, but perhaps a century or two later, a photographer is making a photograph of the same scene.

To my mind each has had an equally valid internal, artistic response.

The two products might fetch different prices, but that barely makes one less artistic than the other.

Goya´s or Horst Faas´s disasters of war without doubt Horst Faas.

Stephen McC.,
Isn't there a section in "The $12 Million Shark" where the author notes that, historically, contemporary works were less valued than traditional ones in the art market, but that recently that's been turned on its head, for the simple reason that there's not enough available supply of traditional art to make a real market? Essentially, he's saying that the money's been chased into contemporary painting because it has nowhere else to go, not because those are the most valued masterpieces.

Wish I remembered the book better. I never actually finished it.


Another thing John's post has made me realize is how little I think of art in terms of categories. When he mentioned landscape, dozens and dozens of photographic landscapes leapt to mind, but I couldn't think of a SINGLE landscape painting. Unless Pieter Bruegel the Elder counts; his "Return of the Hunters" haunts my dreams.

Even a day later, I just haven't come up with much: all I can think of is Van Gogh and Grant Wood.

What are the other, um, memorable landscape paintings? I just can't think of all that many. Whereas I could think of landscape photographs all day and all night.


In response to a few of the comments:
@ Dave Jenkins:
Your argument suggests that you got to where I’m going before I did. I didn’t use your words, but I also consider photography superior to painting in some areas – specifically, in the areas you discuss. “Photography shows us things that lie beyond our imagination and compel our amazement because they really happened. It revels in the beauty, the mystery, and the strangeness of life.” Yes, it does.
@ Paulo Rodriguez:
You miss my point. Joe Cornish may plan his shots to an exquisite degree, but then he shoots what’s there. What’s there is external to him. A painter, at precisely the same place and time, might paint something that in no way resembles what a Cornish photo reflects. Might be better, might be worse, but it would be different. The scholar John Rewald, back in the first part of the Twentieth Century, went back and photographed many of the scenes Paul Cezanne had painted. Guess what – the paintings looked hardly at all like the photos. The photos were mundane agglomerations of trees and rocks and buildings, the paintings were some of the best landscapes ever done by a human being. The reason for that was that Cezanne painted what he perceived and felt about the landscape, not necessarily what was there. Again, Cezanne and Pissarro sometimes painted the same scene, side-by-side. 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.” The thing is, a painting is an object in itself. Is a photograph a thing in itself, or a representation of something that would be better if you were standing there looking at it? Would you have been more awed by the actual Clearing Winter Storm, or Adams’ photo of the “Clearing Winter Storm?” A Cezanne painting IS the clearing winter storm, not a representation of it.
@ Ken N:
See the above; also I don’t deny photographers an artistic pulse at all. But I think many photographic artists struggle to find an artistic status, which will be denied to them as long as they labor in fields where painting will always (IMHO) be dominant. With a great photographer, people will say, “Great photo, but not as good as the painter X who does the same kind of thing.” With a mediocre photographer, they just say, “bleh.” So in some sense, this blog post is as much about status as art – I’m suggesting that that if you have a drive to find yourself as a great photographic artist, the place to look is in documentary work. There’s nothing wrong with any of the other stuff, including snapshots – I’m a great snapshotter myself – but that’s not where you’ll find that status as an artist. Somebody in the comments suggested that the famous Migrant Worker Mother photo is better than the Mona Lisa. Well, I think that’s a valid argument, and I’d be willing to take either side of it. That photo is not only a document, it’s a powerful image of an inescapable reality that gives it an impact that, in many way, paintings can’t reach; and in that, it’s fundamentally different than, say, a landscape. (For example, possibly the most famous equivalent painting would be “The Gleaners.” IMHO, the Migrant Mother is better.)
@ Carl Blesch,
Who wrote, “Makes me wonder where the photorealist painters fit into this analysis.”
Remember the truism that 99% of all artwork is crap. In my opinion, photorealism is a kind of craftwork without much value, although it does encapsulate a lot of work and a lot of technique. But in the end, you ask, “So what?” Is this better than a photo? No. It essentially is a photo, and usually a fairly inane one, simply printed in a rather laborious way. In that, it’s like many minimalist creations (see Richard Serra) that have a certain art-world currency that, IMHO, will not persist. Something, in fact, like the Gursky photograph. That photo, I suspect, you’ll be able to buy for the same dollar-price in fifty years, but that’s after 1,000,000% inflation. (Yes, the end IS nigh, but that’s a different post.)

Finally, I would like to say to all those people who are skeptical/cynical about discussions of the meaning of art, or what art is or isn’t…well, fine. But I like these discussions. I think about art all the time, and I don’t think anything can be art, and I don’t think art can be anything that somebody says it is, and that some art can be better than other art, and that some "art" isn't art at all, and I don’t apologize for any of that.

If a collector at an auction spends, say, $4,338,500 on a complete and genuine score of Don Giovanni, hand-written by Mozart himself, then will he own the music? No, he won't; he'll just own a precious collector's item. The music will still be available to anyone who is listening to a bunch of singers and musicians who do not depend on their scores being hand-written originals.

Does this make music as an art form less powerful than, emotionally less effective than, or aesthetically inferior to paintings? It does—if we follow John Camp's logic. However when I'm istening to music, my eyes will water and my back will shiver more often than they do when I'm looking at paintings ... so, no, I most definitely don't agree with John, not at all.

Photographs are no paintings—so please stop confusing these two art forms! Photographs are neither inferior nor superior to paintings as an art form; they are just different ... even though they apparently look very similar. The special point with a painting is, it's a collector's item and a piece of art at the same time; these two properties cannot be separated—similar to sculpture or architecture but very much unlike music, poetry, literature, dance, or actor's play ... or photography. A photograph, as a piece of art, can be every bit as powerful, emotionally effective, and aesthetically pleasing as a painting, even though a print thereof, as an collector's item, usually won't be as expensive as a painting. The price of a collector's item does not define the quality of the art. These are two entirely different things.

...For my part, I'd argue that "Portraiture" belongs down there with "Documentation" in John's categories. First of all, try naming a dozen great portrait paintings from the past dozen years...

One is enough for starters: Lucien Freud.

—Mitch/Chiang Mai

"The problem, from an artistic point of view, is that photography starts with an external point—a subject—and a mechanical capture, from which it can't escape.

Painting starts with an internal, artistic response, from which it can't escape, but which is considered the nexus of all real art."

I don't know where you have been for the last 50 years, but to make a broad generalization most of the art world including painters , photographers, film makers, sculptors, dancers, and musicians work along the following lines.

1) I'm thinking about something.

2) How can I convey that thought to other people with the tools, training, and materials at my disposal whether they are paints, earthmoving equipment, or a camera, my mother, and a chicken (shout out to Les Krims !)

IE, pretty much the same as Jeff Glass says.

For what it's worth, I spent today trying to make a photograph of the idea of water such that it would fit into a 17x70 inch vertical composition, and by the end of the day had incorporated the Staten Island ferry and MoMA into the process. It would have been so much easier to have just painted it.

Good point, John. Myself, I have always felt very much the same.

Ansel Adams is often a counter-argument.

He is a great craftsman, a teacher, a printer, etc. But - a postcard is a postcard is a postcard.

One of the best written,well thought out pieces on the "art" world I have ever read. I think it's all crap of course, but that is irrevelent. This is the position of most of the "art world" and Mr. camp has put into words what most of us have tried to figure out.

I won't nitpick or list pictures that I think should or should not have been footnoted. I think the the only test of art is the test of time. I can not see into the future.

Professional critics and curators to a very large and real extent determine what many collectors think has value. I believe it is important for photographers to understand how they think. I believe Mr. camp may have codified it better than anyone ever has.

Thank You

Dan Berry

I am always knocked out by an intelligently expressed, even eloquent observation of a topic (subject) Mr. Camp's article is certainly as effective as the bulk of very well crafted and frequently displayed photographs to a friendly group maybe as in this case almost a club competition. What's the joke about photographers? one to take the picture and 99 others to tell how they would have shot it differently?
A decade ago I had the opportunity to catch Jazz guitarist Stanley Jordan in a very small outside venue in Sedona. My wife, A Jazz fan, hadn't heard of him but was pleased to catch some live Jazz, after the first song she said, "It must hurt to have that inside struggling to get out" I have repeated that often to myself when I consider the difference between inspired "Art" and well honed "Craft" I have been laughingly accused of creating art with my camera, but certainly recognize that at best I have built something with the tools and materials at hand. While I have no argument with Mr. Camp's assessment, in fact agree all counts, I gotta admit that there are photographs that I would easily say are equally inspired art, but without perhaps the monetary value.

ORT, or German for place, town, locality and a few more……

Interesting article and opinion – love the Duerer piece, certainly it was radical for his days to spend effort on just dirt and some……sure he caught a lot uninvited comments for that absolute useless application of fine art.

Still, there are nowadays and in the end two ways to achieve a work on paper/canvas, one has always been the place of the painters, to take in some surroundings and re-create a piece out of a very human centric place, a creative mind and all it’s potentials – still in the end a human based creation.
Then, not too long ago an offshoot of the painter’s world, that obscure camera, not only aided the painter - to the day ( how many paint now purely off a photo, instead their environment?? funny, no!?), but then it claimed to be an art all by itself and troubles arose.

All I know is that good old photography, with it’s recent discovery, pausing a bit, temporarily, an era where creation of an image “in camera” or at exposure forced a strict definition of a specific place and time to be the essential part of the work, the key for the created content, all massive manipulations of shaped glass, Swiss clock type mechanics, chemistry aside. It is no issue if photography is strictly objective – surely not, but a very specific technique with unique creative elements and requirements.

Film technology aided that approach very well, to fixate a moment, not at all exclusively, good photography takes place digitally as well, just with a lot more painterly temptations to consider. The classic photograph brings together the creative mind and a very precise space /time point of image creation, less human centric in nature then a painter ever was inclined to consider, as the object of a photograph forces itself into the image, changes the way our creativity acts and creates, less human centric though seems to be the key difference.

A photographer has to have a good set of skills and vision and then meet/seek the moment he sought and didn’t know too much about, upfront. That is a different skill set and art form, unfortunately being wishy-washed away in some momentary confusion, pardon photoshopped away in some indifference, while actually the painters and photographer’s ways are seemingly melting back together into one medium, to create works on paper/canvas, as now all painters photograph and everyone can “paint” now with a camera and a PC, slipping up awfully on PS sliders, still offered w/o a severe warning pop up, maybe in CS6!?

Long way of saying: I’ll take Stieglitz to Mapplethorpe’s flowers, Sudek to Friedlander and wager to meet back up again in a century and see how these collections will fair in history,………………I will bet my last, or all two dollars, on this collection to be of greatest value and broader appreciation - while the greatest days are still ahead for photography! Sure the masses and commercial apps will be pushing pixels, wildly, there will be also a few pushing shutters for yet unseen, new and exciting photography forcing us to reconsider all that innate human centric infancy, again and again.

The "Tulip" photograph is exquisite and beautiful. However, if money was a non-concern and I could choose any one thing to hang on my wall (availability not a concern), I'd choose a Van Gogh still life (or any such artist) and not think twice about trampling over the Tulips photo (or any other photograph) to get to the painting. I think Mr. Camp hit the nail on the head. Or maybe it's because I cannot draw a straight line and secretely envy those than can.


Agree wholeheartedly with Mr Camp, and not just because I have always delighted in the work of Durer. (Should umlaut, but can't...)
Photos to me are illustrations rather than art, better on a printed page than on a wall.
But a nice big seascape by Turner or a pastoral scene by Constable, or Picasso's Guernica, and there are many others -- they DESERVE a wall, Mr J.

Wow, this is really something! We've been transported back to late 19th Century ideas of photography and art. I'm not quite sure where to begin to mount a defense. Maybe near the beginning, with Eugene Atget creating simple "documents" for artists and "records" of a disappearing Paris, yet somehow he failed ... then to Walker Evans (the mind works on the machine, rather through the machine ... there is no documentary photography per se, just documentary style photography of course) ... and then Benjamin's “The Work of Art In The Age of Mechanical Reproduction” might explain ... then there was post-modernism and ...

Speaking of high art did you enjoy your story on the USA Network?

As a painter who has adopted photography as his primary medium out of practicality for the last few years, I disagree with the conclusion that John reaches here. He's basically taking the Clement Greenberg essentialist stance of stating that the best work in a medium is exemplified by work that hews most closely to its unique character (although Greenberg would obviously smirk at the Dürer and Brueghel pieces with which John illustrates his essay).

For me, one of the greatest pleasures of photography is the delicate irony of using the wrong tool for the job. Taking a highly painterly photograph taps into a powerful critical tension. Whatever one might think of the recently record breaking Gursky photograph in connection to its price-tag, it is certainly a powerful image, and its power comes from its blunt, yet nuanced dialogue with Modernist painting.

Whenever I am in an art museum, I end up walking around and laughing a lot (and incurring a lot of dirty looks) - there is a sublime absurdity to making a work of art. It has occurred to me that the only thing more absurd than painting an abstract painting is painting a representational painting. There is a great power in that, and I would be loathe to disinvite photography to the party, simply to keep its reputation intact!

Thanks for the good read!


Photography is, and probably always will be, considered as "lesser" than painting in the art world and in the minds of the general public. Painting has numerous advantages bestowed upon it when compared to photography:

1. History: Famous paintings have generally accrued their reputation and iconic status by virtue of their quality, age and rarity, and priced accordingly. Compare photography's relatively short history and inherent reproducibility and you see the problem the medium is faced with.

2. Freedom: Painting was freed from the shackles of representation and documentation upon the advent of photography. Arguably, photography will most likely never be freed from this.

Painting is also never COMPARED to any other medium. Painting is painting. Photography, on the other hand, has from it's inception always been compared to painting (and generally found wanting). Whether this comparison is right / wrong / fair / unfair in specific instances, the fact that it occurs is undeniable.

In some ways photographers only have themselves to blame for this. How many landscape, portrait and still-life photographs are produced that merely mimic the visual and theoretical conventions established by painting? A particular pet hate of mine is the endless photographic still-lives aping old master vanitas paintings, replete with appropriate props and (sometimes fake) soft window light. These still-lives are undoubtedly a technical challenge to execute well, but I'd like to think that photography as a medium could move on.

Photographers (and I don't include the average person using their camera for happy snaps) are surely their own worst enemy.

3. Perception: Let's face it, photography suffers from the perception that it's EASY. We should all thank* Kodak for fostering the misguided notion that simply pressing a button is enough to create a photograph. It may not be sufficient to create a GOOD photograph, but most people do not make this distinction in their minds. (How many of us have been told a variation of: "Wow, nice image. You must have a good camera." or "Nice camera, I bet it takes great photos.")

*(NB. I would have suggested cursing Kodak, but I don't think the company needs any more help in this regard at the moment.)

There is also another way that photography suffers from it's greatest strength of accessibility, ubiquity and reproducibility: Potentially iconic and historically relevant photographs that may be recognisable to the general public are erased from the public consciousness almost immediately due to the speed at which contemporary media operates, as well as the sheer quantity of visual media with which we are bombarded with everyday. Admittedly, this is a problem faced by all visual media in the 21st century, whether painting, illustration or photography. Nothing PERSISTS in our minds like paintings did in centuries past.

In the context of photography, every photography fan has their favourite Weegee / Winogrand / Friedlander / HCB / Kawauchi / Parr / Salgado / Wall / Gursky / etc. image, but have any of these truly entered into the general consciousness to be considered iconic? In fact, will they ever get the chance to do so?

Finally, what fields of photography have truly embraced the inherent strengths of the medium? Off the top of my head: perhaps reportage/documentary (including street photography), advertising (in terms of the reproducibility of the medium), science, and some art photographers.

Personally, I consider Hiroshi Sugimoto (especially his Theatre series exploring the concept of time and light) and Garry Fabian Miller two contemporary photographers that truly "get" what the medium is about. Ironically, Sugimoto is not a classically-trained photographer and Miller practices in the field of camera-less photography. But, again, despite their works' (arguable) beauty, rarity, quality and theoretical rigour, how many people in the street would be familiar with their work?

Great article, and really thought provoking (my congratulations to John). I'm not sure I completely buy the argument, though. I wonder how all this relates to your previous discussion about "naturalism" in photography; I mean, the "naturalistic" point of view is not exactly the same as the "documenting" one, and they need not coincide (I think something along those lines was mentioned back then). The exact limits of the "areas" into which John divided the "similar efforts" of photography and painting also seems debatable, IMHO; but that's an even more "philosophical" topic, so let's not go there.
Then again (and here's how I think both discussions might be related), what about all those "digitally painted" images? You could argue that its "starting point" could in principle be as "internal" as that of any XVIIth century "oil on canvas", right?
Never mind me, just thinking out loud here... (as usual, after reading TOP's great posts)

A very well articulated piece, though I may not agree with everything it professes, but certainly a very thoughtful and highly enjoyable read!

I have almost zero interest in, and very little knowledge paintings in general so I can't say much about it, but I do know the debate between art and documentary photography / photojournalism has been raging on for years. It exists even within the cadre of the illustrious group of photographers we come to know as Magnum - the art camp led by HCB and the documentary / photojournalism camp personified by Robert Capa.

It's interesting that in his latter years, HCB went back to the "higher" art form of painting and no longer took photographs.

What john's article has done for me is to crystallize my own conviction that I do NOT want to be known as an artist; nor do I want to do photographic art to sell in galleries or auction houses. (but if I can make 4.3 million per photo, I am willing to re-negotiate my stand :))

What pulled me towards photography was the ability to show the human condition visually, to document the state of the fallen world we live in. A photograph to me has to be real (naturalism as Mike puts it), and that's why though I shoot digitally now, the easy to alter nature of the digital image still bothers me on the inside.

A look at my book shelf confirms this: I have no books from any of the so called "fine art" photographers, but plenty of titles by Salgado, Eugene Smith, Elliot Erwitt etc. (yes I m aware that people like Salgado had exhibited and sold prints in galleries, but his first motivation has always been to document the world with pictures)

The Gursky photograph invokes a curious glance from me, and if it were to be honest, a "I can do that" kind of attitude. But staring at a print of Salgado's firefighters battling in Kuwait, or miners digging gold in Brazil brings a sense of awe and a "how the hell do pple work like that" kind of amazement.

This sort of discussion, in the end, has as much relevance for those who create art/work as ornithology has for birds: Fascinating for the ornithologists, not at all germane for the birds. If one is truly creating art, it is to meet a compelling need from within. It is the drive to satisfy that need (or more to the point, the INABILITY to fully satisfy that need) that pushes one along the path, no matter the media one chooses. It is then up to others (typically who do not create any art/work) to argue what place, if any, a work or artist holds in the canon of art, and determine a work's (or artist's) value. Those cannot be the concern of the creator of works, lest he or she become mired in opinion, judgment, criticism and other counterproductive enterprises. In the end, then, this article's audience is not for any one who makes art/work.

Mike: "When he mentioned landscape, dozens and dozens of photographic landscapes leapt to mind, but I couldn't think of a SINGLE landscape painting"

Uh? What about Canaletto?

So many people, talking, talking. I'll think I'll go wax my corvette. Or is my show on??

I find it interesting that one of the comments used the word "painterly" to praise a photographic portrait. Hmmmmm.

The "art world" is out of touch with real people. Taking a photo of the "Mona Lisa" simply does not compare to painting it.

My mother, rest her soul, was an artist. You see, I understand the difference. I cannot fool myself into thinking that I'm an artist because I can press a shutter button.

I'm a photographer, and damn proud of it. But if you take my camera away and give me a pencil and a blank sheet of paper, I'm dead. An artist can continue to create.

It's really simple, isn't it?

It's a very thought provoking essay. I personally have come to see photography as art for people who cannot draw, amongst whom I count myself. But what can be said of photorealistic painters, whose express goal is to recreate with paint the exact appearance of a photograph? Viewers are routinely amazed by the talent and skill that it takes to pull off such a feat, but why does the artist even bother, when he or she could much more easily have created the image with a camera? It must be that there there truly is a difference between a painting and a photograph that goes beyond subject matter, form, color etc. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Painters spend hours, days, months, years putting one brushstroke after another before they finally abandon the effort.

Photographers don't normally do that.

Both products have their attractions but, instinctively, we gravitate towards the great painter because we feel the wielded brush and imagine the difficulty of using it. Click vs. brush-stroke.

Off you all go!


Thanks, John, for an eloquent and thought-provoking piece, one of the best I've read on TOP.

John Camp: thank you for sharing. Well done.

Mike, "Return of the Hunters" is one of the so-called genre paintings, depicting a scene from life.

I think that it could be successfully argued that street photography is the modern-day genre painting, but it's too early for me to elaborate.

Landscapes, there's Constable's "White Horse", for example. Or Turner's "St. Gothard". Or Cezanne's "Poplars". Or Monet's "Japanese bridge". OTOH, I had to remind myself of their titles once I started thinking of them. (And I cannot think of any photographic landscapes except Adams at the moment.)

By the way, it may be worth noting that there isn't a single Monet painting of the Japanese bridge. (My favourite is "harmonie rose".) Had he been a photographer, I think he would have chosen just one.

First off, great essay. I think it really distills some ideas that I've heard touched on before, but never expressed so clearly and concisely.

WE often compare photography to painting and other forms of visual arts, but I wonder if there might be some parallels to literature. I would align the majority of paintings to fiction and the majority of photography to non-fiction and news articles.

Then again, I imagine there are far too many differences to write an internet post about, given the aggressiveness of commentators.

This is the worst article I have ever seen on TOP. Like A.V. stated above this discussion dates from more than a hundred years ago. Photography as an art form is widely accepted here in Europe for decades. The article is only about frustrated painters who think only their work is art.


Following on from my previous post ...

This whole discussion left me feeling annoyed and I just figured out why: Why are we still comparing photography to painting? Painting doesn't give a sh*t about photography. Yet why does photography always have to refer back to painting?

The sooner that photography loses the giant chip on it's shoulder about it's self-worth, the better off the medium and it's practitioners will be.

Case in point is the shock at the recent Gursky sale. It almost seems as if everyone is saying, "But it's a photograph. It's not even a painting. No photograph could possibly be so desirable." The irony is that most of the angst seems to be coming from PHOTOGRAPHERS. (Refer back to the previous paragraph.)

Very interesting article and comments.

I think it's too early to tell. Painting has been around for thousands of years, and the work that we look at and are moved by has stood the test of time. We don't see all the trash wall decoration paintings that have been tossed over the years.

Photography has only been around for a short time, more people practice it, and more of the pictures survive. So we see more unimportant ones, compared with the total, than we do with paintings.

Let's revisit this discussion in 600 years, we'll have a better perspective at that time.

Even though I find the article well written and thought provoking, I must say I respectfully disagree.

If one had to choose between a photograph and a painting, what would one choose, as the most powerful and most informative:

1. A photograph of Jesus and his disciples or the 'error' that was the Last Supper?

2. A portrait of Van Gogh by a master portrait photographer like Nadar or a self-portrait?

3. A photograph of the Rheine river or a landscape painting of it?

4. A still life of Lincoln's belongings or a painting of them?

5. A painting of God or a photograph of God?

6. A photo of one's family or a portrait of them?

7. A photo of one's favorite car, tree, doll, camera, etc or a painting of them?

8. Why do magazines mostly choose photographs instead of paintings?

9. Why is porn almost always photographic?

10. If the camera had not been invented, would the painters have turned into abstraction-practitioners?

11. The Godfather as an animated character or Marlon Brando?

12. And finally, the Third of May as a painting or a photograph?

Obviously these are ridiculous questions, and one needn't have to ask them, unless as a riposte to the assumption that art has a definition de-linked from human history. Isn't photography a human invention based on the human eye? Why dehumanize it?

To me art is communication above all else. And photographs and films have the greatest emotional effect on most individuals. Whether this tool has been wielded to its full potential - I don't know.


Well done!

Early on I decided for myself--or likely learned by absorbing from the photography giants whose work I had browsed--that a photograph might ascend to art if, as a minimum condition, it contains within itself visual evidence that it could only be a photograph, and could not have been made in any other medium, including paint on canvas, etc. In other words, if it's good, and it could only be good because it's a photo, it might be art.

So yes that means that the documentary style likely will produce art, and I see nothing wrong with using the artist's eye to produce the most satisfying documentary photograph. After all, the esthetic tools have been honed over thousands of years to make memorable images. Why not use them? I doubt that an artist could not use, could inhibit, the instinctive esthetic tools anyway, so I have begged the question. (Yes, begged.)

Anyway, John, I admire the pithy and clear statement, and, as an Honorary Texan and native Yorkshireman, I love the opening gambit. I like your style.

Well done, again!


In his remarks on money and art, Camp fails to make the point that value is a function of supply and demand. Paintings are one single copy. The number of photographic prints of any given image is determined by the photographer, but is almost always greater than one. Whether the price of any given photograph would rise to that of a painting if only one copy were available is a matter of conjecture, but almost certainly would rise above current market value.

In the comments section, John Camp responds to Paulo Rodriguez by saying..."Again, Cezanne and Pissarro sometimes painted the same scene, side-by-side. 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."

I'm surprised at John's comment on photography here, and I strongly disagree. In theory, the photos might be identical. But, they won't be (and certainly not the prints, which ultimately matter).

I can't explain exactly how, but great photographers, like great painters, often have a style that's recognizable. I'm not a huge Michael Kenna fan, but I know his work when I see it. And even if I used the same equipment from the same location, my photos (prints) wouldn't be the same. Same time, place and gear ignores the critical aspect of technique: exposure time, processing, and a dozen other factors.

To imply that painters use their talents and technique to reflect their vision, but photographers do not, i.e., that their work is merely a reflection of external events and the tools to capture them, misses the crux of great photography.

Ansel worshipers have been tracking his tripod holes for years, without duplicating his results. But, even if they could be transported back in time to the same moment in time, they would have failed there as well.

I think this gets to the same internal versus external aspect that others have discussed here. All things being equal, photographs from the same place and time, and same gear, would be equal. But they won't be, in large part because the great photographers use their internal eye, coupled with their judgment (when to snap the shutter, the *exact* place to stand, etc) and technique (including capture and post processing decisions) to create a print. The variables are considerable, and to reduce or ignore them to the point of mechanical replication is a weak point in John's argument in my opinion.

"(I recognize all of the photographers you listed, by the way, not least of all the talented, inventive, outrageous-at-times Mr. Krims.)"

Then you are far more knowledgeable than the average photographer....

Funny thing, though, as I was writing that post I thought you might say that, so I almost inserted a ringer name into the list; that would have been the real test, if you could have said, 'I recognize all the photographers you listed, except Federico Bolitario.' But then I realized that I really wouldn't appreciate if it someone had set a trap like that for me, so I decided not to be dastardly....


Thoughtful stuff from JC as usual. I guess I've said a couple of things before here which correspond with my own attempts to pin down photography - and both are related on a kind of way.

1) Without trying to define photography, it would appear to be closer to literature than painting. This obviously ties in with the documentary premise, but not all literature is documentary and one can see parallels with different forms of literature. (poetry, essay.. etc)

2) More importantly in my view is the thought which stems from Gombrich's cautionary note at the start of "The Story Of Art" - that there is no such thing as art, only artists. If we take this on board (and I think it's worthwhile) then trying to make comparisons on the basis of the objecta lead us down many blind alleys. If, however, we concentrate on the business of "the photographer" and what that might mean, perhaps we can arrive at a more meaningful distinction

I most definitely do not possess the intellectual stamina and training required to judge if this articulate essay is, or is not, the final word on the subject of photography as "Ort".

But I keep running into one thing. The author says: "Painting starts with an internal, artistic response, from which it can't escape, but which is considered the nexus of all real art." So I have to ask how a painter's "internal, artistic response" is different from say a shot taken by Friedlander on a busy street in which he captures a unique moment that has gone completely unnoticed by the thousands of other people walking past at that same time. Isn't Friedlander's (or in fact any worthy photographer's) vision exactly the same kind of invisible "nexus"?

Is it only by applying brush and paint to canvas that an artist's vision or genius is valid? Geez, that's kind of depressing.


It got me to thinking, always a good thing. And the comments are unusually thoughtful, too. So, one of the best articles in a very good TOP.

But... Is anybody else bothered by the cropping of "The Great Piece of Turf?" Searching the web, I found only one image that doesn't seem to be cropped, i.e. the grass not chopped of at the top edge.

Sloppy cropping (and I think this is a case of it) bothers my photographic sensibilities. Maybe painters aren't bothered as much?

Why do we even try to find parity or comparisons between painting and photography? I understand that intellectual pursuit is valued and respected thing but isn't this like comparing horseback riding to bicycling?

Outside of a college classroom, I guess I don't see the pont. It's just running in place IMO.

John, you may think Ort is a made-up word but it stems from the 15th Century. It means a morsel of food left over from a meal.

I'll leave it to you to somehow fit that into your adopted meaning of it.

I agree with Camp when he states that "photographers will be lost in time" but to that I would add "the vast majority of photographers" will be lost in time. And I think the problem is not that photography itself is a less expressive medium than say painting or sculpture, but because there is so much of it that lacks any real expression or merit that photography as a whole has become devalued. We have gotten to a point where photography is so full of really poor photographs, being produced by the billions everyday, that work of merit is deeply buried by the mediocrity.

Much of the contemporary styled photographic work being produced today that is lauded by the art establishment is little more than fashion or short term politically based. Subjects that future generations will not see as particularly interesting as so much will change in society and it's interests between now and then. And let's be real here is that the general population looks at much of this work and thinks that they or even their children could do it. Contentless and pointless work does not inspire.

The comparison that Camp made to the painting of flowers by Breughel and the flowers by Mapplethorpe I think is a good example. I can view a painting of flowers and be so blown away by the painter's ability to render such amazing detail and quality that that in itself makes me revere the piece. And if the painter has combined that impressive talent with content that is interesting then I am incredibly impressed. I look at Mapplethorpe's sample of flowers in a vase, and have to say to myself that I'd seen that type of image 1000 times before Mapplethorpe did it so it's not like he did anything unique or creative there, I've seen it better done, and as someone with extensive studio experience know exactly how difficult and how competent a photograph that is. I also know that there are perhaps a dozen photographers on Large Format Forum who could have done it just as well, perhaps even better. So to say the least I am not impressed with it, and have never been.

However what Camp seems to forget is that photography has a few other tricks up it's sleeve that painting lacks. One is that traditionally photography was a capture of a real event, and unless the content is edited, is still telling a real story, that is a story from real life as it happens. Paintings do not get the degree of credibility that photographs get when it comes to the truth aspect.

The other thing that photography does well is the use of the 4th dimension. By utilizing either super short exposures and freezing an instant, or by using very long exposures to expand time, a photographer can show what the eye can not see.

I think long term that landscape will become more valued, especially photographic landscape. I think this because we are altering the surface of the planet at an alarming and accelerating rate, and at some point the beauty of nature will be all but gone. We just welcomed the 7 billionth person to the planet, and the rate of population is also accelerating. Sustaining the natural beauty of the Earth will not last long against the requirements, of food, energy, raw materials and housing. And while a painting of a landscape lost may make the viewer ponder what was, the credibility of what really was , that only a photograph can provide, will resonate far more deeply.

I want to question the entire premise of the post, which is that art exists in distinct "levels," and that painting reaches "heights" that other forms can't. The old high/low debate.

The problem (as usual) is that those words are hopelessly vague. Sure, we appreciate Van Gogh as a master, but he was not recognized as such in his own time. So are we right, or were his contemporaries? Neither, obviously. So it goes with art forms. Surely oil on canvas was frowned upon at some point.

So the question becomes meaningless. You can ask whether they'll ever make a potato chip that's as tasty as a french fry, but you can't expect a rational person to engage in that debate.

"Why do we even try to find parity or comparisons between painting and photography?"

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.


> ... what makes it different.

Different from what?

Mike - you really can't think of any landscape paintings?

Hmmm, do you know Turner, just for starters? Maybe the Blue Rigi I would suggest. Or perhaps Cotman's Greta Bridge? Just off the top of my head...

The comments to this entry are closed.



Blog powered by Typepad
Member since 06/2007