Photography and art

by Dominic Blackwell

Of course photography is art. There are many concerns shared by photographers and other visual artists. Composition, value structure, colour choices and so on are independent of what tool you have used to create the image. However, the relationship between photography and the other visual arts is complicated and somewhat controversial. As someone who enjoys creating images using photography and via painting and drawing I may have some insights on some of these points of contention.

The first, simpler one is the issue of the infamous ‘black shadows’. A lot of artists use cameras to take pictures of scenes they paint for future reference or as an aide memoire. They often complain that the shadow areas do not have the detail that they see in the real scene. There are a few levels to this issue which need unpacking.

The output of photography or painting is a surface which reflects light of varying frequencies in different ways. There is no way for such a surface to replicate the ranges of brightness in real scenes which can include direct sunlight. Therefore painters and photographers have to be satisfied with mapping the real brightnesses to the range their medium can represent.

Next, the human eye does not work like either a painting or a photograph. It is capable of focusing on a small area and adapting to the brightness in that area. Thus a painting or photograph corresponds to an approximation of the eye scanning the scene that is captured. And of course the image maker has the added need to attend to global relationships between brightness that the human eye can gloss over when looking over a scene.

In addition, some painters who take photographs are not as familiar with the technique of photography as they are with their chosen medium. There are not any ways to get past the fundamental compromises imposed by the lack of brightness range or approximating the behaviour of the human eye. However the default ‘black shadows’ look in many amateur photos is not inevitable. By carefully processing RAW images rather than trusting your camera to produce finished images and even by combining several captured images into one using so-called HDR techniques, it is possible to produce something much closer to what you think you see with the eye. Of course these methods have advantages and disadvantages in terms of aesthetics but my point is that with the right approach and modern image editing software the photographer has as much control as a painter over the brightness and level of detail in his or her images.

However, while the issues around brightness range and detail are well appreciated by other fine artists, there is a more insidious issue which is often overlooked. This is the fact that after lens distortions and so on are taken into account, the camera produces a literal account of the shapes in front of it. This is why a beginning photographer can capture the likeness of a portrait subject easily whereas achieving the same goal in drawing or painting takes a lot more work.

I think the problem has come from a fetishising of the accuracy of the photo. There are two places this comes from. The first is from technically literate artists often working in digtal media who too easily use the digital equivalents of tracing to copy the shapes from photos. The second is some realist traditional artists who have become obsessed with measuring precise distances on their subjects and reproducing them in their art.

Of course there is no right or wrong in art, only taste. However I think artists of all kinds sacrifice important artistic freedom when they try to produce a literal ‘photorealistic’ rendering. One only need look at the work of the best caricaturists to see how visual likenesses can be captured with a few well judged lines. The way the human brain processes images, particularly of people, is much more complex than the way a piece of film or sensor can.

I don’t believe that precise measurements of the subjects seen by the great artists of the past would correspond to the measurements seen in their paintings. Howevever, I think a sensitive human observer of the original and the artwork would see all kinds of relationships including emotional truths which cannot be measured by either software or fasitdious use of physical measuring aids.

If the balance was just on this side, I would have less interest in photography. Its literalness can be a drawback which can get between the photographer and the image in the mind. But the way a camera can capture fleeting moments with great accuracy allows the photographer to do things that the painter cannot. Fleeting moments of movement and light can be captured by the camera with a speed that the eye cannot match let alone the brush or the pencil.

So I will continue to draw and to paint and to take photos. The freedoms of composition in drawing or painting from the imagination will inspire me to be less accepting of lazy choices when weilding a camera. And the effects of light I can grab when behind a lens wil inspire me to try to create richer and more varied traditional and digital art.

Perhaps when photography has been around for a few more centuries these issues may be clearer and the controversies less intense. But the benefit of being around as the possibilities of new media appear is the chance to be involved in exploring the new frontiers. And of course that is why image making is so rewarding, whether with brush, pencil, graphics tablet or camera.

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