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Paintings and photographs: a complex relationship

'Grande Odalisque' by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. Image credit: Wikimedia
'Grande Odalisque' by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. Image credit: Wikimedia
‘Grande Odalisque’ by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. Image credit: Wikimedia

In the age of the Internet, photographs are a click or two away. We can find images of carnivals, churches, wars and discoveries within seconds. Almost every smartphone has at least one camera as part of its design and millions of people around the world have one in their possession. We use photography to capture moments of history, from intimate family portraits to ‘selfies’ in the café. Anybody can take a quick snap on their phones, often by mistake as we fumble through our pockets to answer a call.

Photography is said to challenge the very life of painting. Mick Finch writes:

The invention of photography was accompanied by enthusiastic claims that painting was now dead and just a redundant technique from an earlier and less technologically developed phase of western culture.

Though the claim that it has dealt a fatal blow to art is perhaps a sweeping one, photography has had a profound effect on the style and perception of painting. Across art history, many artists have sought to represent reality as accurately as possible, vowing to erase as much evidence that their visual depictions are painted representations as they could.

Photorealism represents a blend of painting and photography, in which an artist reproduces the scene shown in a photograph as accurately as possible on a canvas. Artists such as Chuck Close have used photography to produce precise, compelling ‘photorealistic’ portraiture of friends, family and famous faces. From afar, one would struggle to decide whether the image was painted or printed, something that some artists would consider a fine achievement.

One advantage for photographers is the ability to improve their work after they have taken their photograph. Painters must tamper with their work to change it, ensuring that the same image is never created twice. For a photographer, armed with computer software and technical support, making images more colourful, lighter and more vibrant is painless and all changes can be reversed should the original be required. Airbrushing, superimposing and more techniques enable the photographer to transcend the constraints of the still image, once more blurring the boundaries between paintings and photographs.

So is painting really dead, or at least dying? Slain by photography? Perhaps not – photography is not the ‘next level’ of artwork. There are some things that painters can do but photographers cannot.

Photographs of course cannot represent things that do not exist: it would never be possible to show your friends your photographs of fairies or the subject of last night’s dream. Waking up in the middle of the night, the artist can sketch a representation of the exciting or terrifying things that appeared in his dream, but the photographer can only describe them from his memory.

As such, photography can seem constrained to depicting only the natural world. Even the most beautifully orchestrated photography, capturing the finest detail in the best light and focus, cannot present the ideas that reside in our imagined worlds. Photographs capture moments in time, in an unchanging place and unchanging circumstances. But painters are free to replicate events, both in our world – history, violence, love, celebration – and other worlds – dreams, hallucinations, the supernatural. They can change their images’ colours, tone and size with ease.

Perhaps we make the mistake of seeing painting and photography as nemeses. It’s a mistake to examine photography as the successor to painting. We appreciate these media for different reasons. Good paintings are judged on how and why the marks of the paintbrush have been made; good photography is admired for the photographer’s choice of lens, lighting, focus and more. Both the painter and the photographer intend to create something for us to see, in ways that one can imitate (photorealism) but not replicate in the other’s medium.

Photography has not struck painting a fatal blow; arguably, it has breathed new life into it.

This article was informed by a public lecture given by Professor Greg Currie of the Department of Philosophy at the University of York. Professor Currie delivered a lecture on ‘Paintings and Photographs’ on the 6th October, the first of a series of lectures exploring philosophy and the arts.