We’ve heard a lot about how the advent of photography impacted the world of painters. Now 150 years after the invention of the film camera I think we have adapted to the camera to the point that many artists use both photography and paint. The two media have cross-fertilized.
I began my artistic explorations with a camera. In fact I had never set foot in an art museum. That could undoubtedly be said for the majority of today’s iPhone picture snappers. So even as photography had co-opted the artist’s role as recorder of people and events, it has empowered the masses to begin to see the world in artistic terms. Prior to the camera, very few people could become skilled in representing reality on a surface. In my case I learned a lot about light, color, depth and composition by shooting pictures. And many of the principles discussed in photography magazines were developed over the ages by master painters.
Now the motivation to create a lasting image must be similar for the painter and photographer. I’ve often felt that making a picture was an attempt to capture something interesting or beautiful, fixing it for all time. For the abstract artist that something would be more from a fleeting imagination, now made permanent and unchanging. Like renaissance painting, photography began by making accurate representations of people and events. And like painting, photography has grown to embrace the creative and abstract.
Imagine painting without a camera. Every painting would have to be in vivo, en plein aire, with live model, etc. The ephemeral photo is indispensable for many of us. As a model, it can sit there for many hours or weeks without aging, moving, darkening or changing. One must be alert to the limitations of painting from photos. The camera has only one eye where our two are better at perceiving depth. Painting on a flat surface is also like having one eye and artists have developed various tricks to imply depth. Both film and digital photography cannot register the range of color and value that the eyes can. And likewise paint cannot reproduce emitted light, like the sun or TV screen, only reflected light. The artist must then be fully aware of media and consciously manipulate it, be it paint or digital, creating an image that cannot be real but must be stimulating to the mind.
One might argue that there is something more organic in painting from real life, that the camera interposes a machine between the artist and the scene. The camera itself cannot take in a full panorama, nor can it smell, hear, or interact with a model. But hold, I’m being too petty as paint and brush are as inanimate as the camera. Photographers work in milliseconds and must be hyper-alert for that right moment. Painters can take more time. More in tune with modern reality, the photographer will grab and run, where the painter is more contemplative.
Photography is akin to printmaking as it is designed to make multiple, even endless, reproductions. So painting still holds that vaunted position of being the “one and only”. Still photography, like the industrial age that spawned it, challenges the artist to seek inspiration rather than repetition.