Photography's Return to Painitng

Discussion in 'Philosophy' started by billy_mabrey, Oct 5, 2007.

  1. There is a new trend I see appearing in people's photography, thanks in large
    part to the digital photography era in which we are immersed. This trend is one
    of photography emulating painting.

    In fact, this movement happened before about 110 years ago when the
    Pictorialists were pushing for photography to be accepted as a true form of art.
    It was a time when photography was considered by most only as an industrial
    process and lacking of the craft and imagination required of creating painting
    or sculpture. These first time fine art photographers incorporated atmosphere
    and texture into their photography with various shooting tricks like vasoline on
    the lens and other printing techniques. I myself print with gum bichromate
    photography and am thrilled with the results these old techniques offer.

    Soon after, photography became its own art and the Straight photography movement
    of "clear photography" was born giving rise to the f-64 group and those many who
    followed throughout the rest of the century.

    From photography on tv, computer screens, magazines, frozen tv dinners, cell
    phones our pockets, we are bombarded with images of people, places, and things
    in a rising crescendo. The visual impact straight photography once must have had
    seems to have been slowly dying out in proportion to the number of images
    flooding our visual system. Photography in the straight sense is evaporating,
    aging, perhaps even dying.

    Quite suddenly, there is a rise of a new type of photography this century.
    Digital techniques, such as HDR photography in particular, seem to be moving
    photography in a new/old direction of emulating Painting. We find images of
    places, people and things, in an HDR photograph yet the values are rendered
    similar to how the eye perceives a scene. Light tones of the sky are darkened in
    a slow gradient from the darker shadow tones which are lightened, to reveal the
    details our eyes would normally see but hidden from the eye of the traditional
    camera shot.

    Photography is being used in the digital era to capture the world as we see it
    with our eyeballs, not as the camera sees it. Rather then a world of one snap
    shot, the HDR images represent a world of several glances into different areas
    relative to one another, combined and rendered for us to see and understand them
    visually. This is how painters paint the world, seeing one part at a time,
    painting one area at a time, relative to how they see the other tones and colors
    of a scene, not the actual colors and tones themselves.

    Digital photographers find themselves changing a color or tone here and there,
    digitally extracting uncle Joe from the background, or combining different
    photographs into one final image. This piece they created photographically is no
    different then a painter incorporating a model into a canvas already coated with
    the image of some other place.

    From my experience, photographs that emulate ideas of painting have an easier
    time getting noticed by the lay person and the super professional photographer
    next door. They also have better chances at getting into shows, and even selling
    better. They stand out from the noise. Comments on such painterly photos here at lavish the uniqueness of the new digital photographers who are once
    again turning to the ideas of painting for a freshness and revival of an aging,
    perhaps dying, form of art: the photograph.

    This is merely an observation of mine. What are you're thoughts??

    PS: It has been perhaps a year since I've written anything on here. Hello those
    still around and anyone new!
  2. I very much disagree that photography is a dying art form. It is an expanding art, encompassing traditional photography as well as digital, which has brought many new participants to the field. It is valid to use the digital tools to manipulate photographs. It is nauseating though when you see someone copying painting. You want to paint, paint. No talent or too lazy, then give the rest of us a break.
  3. Hey there Billy. Wed can paint with our fingers, we can paint with a brush, we can paint with a camera or simply paint with words...
  4. But being able to edit is a handy device?
  5. "This trend is one of photography emulating painting."<br>
    "In fact, this movement happened before about 110 years"<br>
    Julia Margaret Cameron was doing this around 1865 - highly regarded by artists and heavily criticised by 'straight' photographers.<br>
    She wasn't actually a whole movement though I suppose.<p>
    "photographs that emulate ideas of painting have an easier time getting noticed by the lay person and the super professional photographer next door"<br>
    But would you know ?<br>
    SPP does a product shoot for a mailshot campaign, and Lay Persons buy the products. They noticed alright, but they don't know who took the photos.<BR>
    Or SPP does a shoot for Vogue, thousands buy it. A lot of the current fashion stuff is quite far out.<BR>
    Professional photographers - or the designers they're shooting for - tend to use the digital techniques same as or before amateurs do.
    <p>(I had a particular couple of SPP in mind, doing a range of commercial, event, landscape, and fashion photography. And whatever technique is required.)<P>
    People have said of my film photos "it didn't really look like that"<BR>
    Now they'll say, "it doesn't look like a photograph"<BR>
    I don't really care. I don't do a lot of fiddling on the PC, and people are still puzzled about it.<BR>
    Funny thing, they sometimes think a picture must have been done using computer techniques, when it actually was just lenses and lighting, and maybe background material.<br>
  6. IMHO -- the key element that ties great painting and great photography together is composition. If you study great paintings you can't help but absorb the lessons of great composition, and these will inevitably guide your creative work in photography.
  7. It may be old, but reports of photography's dying have been greatly exaggerated.
  8. I think if something is well done and creative, I will like it. But if a simple photoshop paint
    filter is used globally or some stupid texture filter is applied for no reason other than
    because it looks creative, I will recognize it as a hack job just like any other hack job. I think
    much can be accomplished with today's technology in all sorts of artistic directions. I don't
    think a lot who think they are doing it are doing it. A few buttons and filters and software
    progams does not make an artists. I agree with David Schwartz, paintings are an incredible
    source both of inspiration and information,and not only about composition, but about light,
    texture, depth, etc. It's how the inspiration and information gets absorbed and translated into
    a photo that will make it good or not.
  9. I think painterly photos are making a strong comeback. I recently came across a booth at a local art fair where the photographer had canvas stretched on internal frames, no external frames, and all were of that genre. He said he is doing quite well, and shoots most of his images with an old Minolta x700, a camera I used to use myself 20 some odd years ago. A couple of women were looking at one 30x40 or so print and admiring it as the nearly abstract work of art that it was. He said he'd taken the photo with a disposable camera. The telling comment I heard from one of the women was something like "I could do that!" The photographer pointed to his eye and said "It's all here." I think it's not so much photography returning to painting as it is painting and photography merging into the art of digital imagery. The print is no longer the ultimate product of photographic art, just as the canvas is no longer the ultimate product of the painting art. Both now have a digital file as the ultimate product. For about $50 or so, you can get a thing that looks like a photograph or painting frame, but inside it is an LCD that displays a digital file. I wouldn't be at all surprised that as I write this somewhere an exhibition is being planned or conceived which will display all the images this way. There will be room for both an f64 and a painterly approach to the end product, and in both arenas the starting point could be either a photograph or a hand manipulating with mouse, track ball or graphics tablet. I'm not sure it makes much difference in the long run, the image is what counts. Like music or dance, the viewer and the buyer of images is looking for something that "works" for them. Advertising and popular culture has a huge impact on informing "the public" about what is art and what is not. But in the end the truly great stuff will prevail, I hope.
  10. jtk


    ".. the key element that ties great painting and great photography together is composition"

    I couldn't disagree more.

    "Great painting" typically refers to Rembrandt et al: their goal and success had to do primarily with realistic light, formal composition, and other technical characteristics as well as "acceptable" rendition of their subjects (no acne). This is exactly the goal of "Senior Portrait" and "Wedding" photographers.

    Rembrandt would be doing popular portraiture with digital equipment today, teaching wedding photo seminars in Las Vegas...he wouldn't be a "great photographer."

    Which gets me to my definition of "great painting," which has almost nothing to do with composition: Van Gogh, Picasso, and more recent painters. They brought something that had been lacking in painting in all of previous human history: evocative images.

    Looking at Picasso's work, one is unlikely to be as easily pleased as one would with Rembrandt as one has to bring education, attention, and an open mind to the experience. One has to openly engage. If one fails to appreciate Picasso it is one's own failure, not his.

    By comparison, Rembrandt like almost all pre-Impressionist, pre-Fauvist painters was almost entirely engaged in what today boils down to politics, poses, composition, and post processing.

    If this hints that I believe the world changed with Picasso, you're right. Stieglitz agreed, as have many other important photographers, such as David Douglas Duncan.

    Yes, much of photography is engaged in a "Return to Painting." And that's DE-volution, movement away from the magical essence of photography: a captured moment that's true.
  11. I wouldn't and don't claim to be a great photographer or artist, but I am trying to take my photographic approach away from the documentary form that I have been working in for so many years. One trick I have played on myself to get me to work more as an "artist" is a series I call "Homage to Edward Hopper" in my portfolio. While I would appreciate comments, good or bad; I really just put this forward as a another possible direction toward a painterly approach, without using the filters to that end in Photoshop, though I sometimes do that as well. My daughter, who is a much better artist than I, works as many here do, in a blend of techniques drawn both from film and other graphic arts. In a family of artists, I'm afraid I have been the black sheep--a critic!
  12. jtk


    JDM, I like that series a great deal, especially your "Nitehawks."

    I think it'd be worthy to devote yourself to do more like it.

    This one might seem a street photograph to someone who doesn't know Hopper, but more in this vein would become a major accomplishment, while remaining an Homage.

    A person excessively devoted to Photoshop might reduce your image to a cartoon.
  13. I agree with John. I think this is a great way, JDM, to pay homage to painting and a painter
    and allow it to influence you. The cartoon reduction is what I more often see on these pages
    of PN, so yours is even that much more refreshing and meaningful.
  14. "Soon after, photography became its own art and the Straight photography movement of "clear photography" was born giving rise to the f-64 group and those many who followed throughout the rest of the century." You've skipped over Stieglitz who had more to do with dumping Pictorialism into the trash heap than Group f/64. It was Stieglitz, through his galleries, publications, and the Armory Show, that influenced all who later started Group f/64.
  15. Thanks, folks. I do intend to do more in the series, it's just that Hopper did so many early morning paintings :-(

    As for the main topic, I'm surprised that no has mentioned that in painting there are a whole bunch of "photorealist" schools (see

    for example. These painters are themselves influenced by the trends in modern photography --sometimes the banal, sometimes not.
  16. Interesting take. About 2 years ago I might even have agreed with you, as it was the onset of digital cameras and my introduction to HDR ("What the heck is that!? How'd they do that!?") that reawakened my interest in photography.

    I have since abandoned the use of HDR and have a personal preference for photographs (both my own and those of others) that are manipulated as little as possible. This is not a condemnation of HDR, merely a personal preference.

    As to the growth of the "painterly" as being "as the human eye sees it" in photography...I'd argue that the work of, say, Edward Weston, is therefore "painterly". The range of dynamics seen in much HDR is no more representative of what the human eye sees than is the lack of same in an "out of the box" straight photograph.

    Discussions like this are often difficult because everyone brings to it their own preconceived notions, prejudices, and definitions Although I cited Weston above, I strongly disagree with his contemptuous dismissal of certain photographs as "pseudo painting". There are many photographs I love to look at that lack the sharpness beloved of the Straight photography movement. If such photographs are to be defined as "painterly" then so be it. But I do not think their attempt is so much to emulate a painting as it is to be approached in a mode of appreciation that could loosely be termed expressionistic or impressionistic.

    Just my .02, and some more mud for these waters.
  17. jtk


    To "strongly disagree...with Weston" seems not quite timely :) He's long gone.

    For that matter, he made his comments in the context of photography his era, not today's. is jam-packed with digicam Weston knockoff..I think he might say (and do) something different today than what he did back then. He wouldn't say today what he said back then.

    Time has passed and we've acquired more complex, nuanced, conflicting, and uneducated perspectives. Weston made his mark, others have moved the goalposts one way and another. One of the main directions in which goalposts have been moved is toward the sappy: mundane fantasy images and deceitful scenics (exaggerated skys etc), prurient generic pinup nudes ("figure studies" :) quite unlike his images of individual women, several of whom were sex partners (that directly relates to contemporary prudery,like that of 3X married politicians, which EW certainly would have laughed at). "Devolution" is one descriptor for today's game.

    I'm pretty sure the adjective "painterly" is new, didn't exist in Weston's time. I doubt he'd have objected to it if it had been around back then. "Painterly" is not at all like "fake painting," as in brush-stroked portraits on canvas-textured paper or heavily diffused "mysterious" blurs.

    I think painters emulate photography more than the other way around.
  18. Whenever I go to photography sections in bookstores I get so frustrated. There are lots of titles like, black and white photography, lighting, portrait photography, and when you open them, they are the same things. Photoshop.All through the way. In fact photography is the only thing you can not find in any of them. I am not against digital manipulation because they do basicaly the same thing that you can do in a chemical darkroom. But the problem is that at first there should be a good photo and then, it should be manipulated. What happening today is, ppl take a snapshot first, and then paint it with photoshop to make up for their lack of talent.
  19. Consider what would be involved in the mechanisation of realist painting.

    First one would have to have a mark-making machine which would place spots of colour of exactly the right value in exactly the right place. We pretty well have it now. It's called an ink-jet printer. Its operation is remarkably analogous to the painter's arm, hand, and brush tranferring pigment from tubes of colour to the painting's substrate.

    Next, the mark-making machine needs a plan to follow to produce a picture. This plan is a file, a set of electronic values which encode the final picture. The painter also needs a plan. This is the mind's-eye picture which consists of a coded array of electric, electro-chemical, and neuropeptide signals laid out on a neurone-axon network.

    The mark-making machine needs to know how to turn an electronic file into a picture. This is achieved by software called a printer-driver. The painter also needs to know how to turn a mind's-eye picture into a painting. The software for this (the painter-driver) takes two or three years to download at art school.

    The picture file that underlies the output of the printer and the painter is synthesised in a data processor (computer core or painter's brain) from a number of sources. Picture files can freely include machine static or painter's whimsy but for realist work they mainly come from the suitably processed output of an optical sensor array.

    A machine type optical sensor essentially consists of a large array of sensitive elements (cmos, ccd, whatever) called pixels which may number in the millions - megapixel sensors. The output of the sensor is a stream of electrical impulses which are processed and stored in memory. The painter's sensor is the eye. It includes a fixed array of various sensitive elements accumulating to about 100 megapixels. The output of the eye is a stream of electro-chemical impulses that are processed and stored in memory.

    These are compelling analogies and parallels in picture production by human painting and by the mechanised equivalent; robot painting or digital "photography", in popular parlance.

    It is no accident that painting has been the premium medium of visual art for the last 800 years. Its capacity for versatility and expressiveness is unchallengable. I believe that mechanised painting, or "digital photography" as it is now called, may be greatest thing for the next 800 years. The pictures it can make are limited only by the imagination and sufficient data processing capacity..

    Tradition photography, in which a physical sample of subject matter flies through the air, through a lens, and into a sensitive surface to cause a picture to form where it hits is a very different thing. It is limited by the operation of the laws of nature and cannot make pictures of just anything the imagination cares to conjure up. I believe it is this limitation of traditional photography which will lend its pictures, few though they may be, a unique credibility and persuasive power.
  20. John Kelly -- I must come to my own defense. First of all, Rembrandt was not simply a portraitist, many of his great paintings were mangificently composed landscapes or allegories. His portraits of course are wonderful, full of psychological insight and -- oops! -- WELL COMPOSED! Indeed, your term "evocative image" is far too vague to be of any value in descriptive terms -- what makes something evocative is psychological resonance, effective use of the medium, and COMPOSITION! What makes Kertesz or Carier-Breson such wonderful phtographers? Adams and Weston? Avedon and Adams? They are all interested in a finely composed image. Cartier-Bresson learned everything he knew about composition from his studies as a painter. So, I must come back to my original point -- great painting, great photography, share an understanding of composition.
  21. jtk


    David, you've made assertions here without supporting them. Repetition doesn't help.

    Of the photographers you mentioned, only two seemed especially concerned with composition: Kertesz and HCB. But both are better known for other things: Kertesz more for subject matter and space ( call space "composition" if you like), HCB more for moments (within composed spaces of course, but moments primarily). Both were excellent compositionally, but that was secondary.

    The others did of course compose "properly", but that was again secondary, and of course to be expected.

    Adams had first to do with magnificent mountains and tones, Avedon with remarkable people and highly disciplined, very straight insights into them. Rembrandt was routine compositionally (and was often art director rather than painter), was known primarily for his light and for accurate portraiture that pleased his patrons. That you like his composition is fine, but it's not what he's known for.

    Composition has a near-universal meaning in the West, but you devalue the concept's real merit by mistakenly applying the term to everything of photographic merit.

    The discipline or habit of composition does play a role in the satisfaction the photographer and viewer experience, but it's nowhere near the apex of your photographer's work. Composition is nearly a technical matter, very similar to proper exposure and reproduction...we assume it.
  22. John -- I couldn't disagree more, but we should take this up over a drink or two or three sometime.
    Actually, composition is NOT assumed -- just look at all the crappy art in the world, and nine times out of ten the reason for the crappiness will be (in part) because the image is not strong. And the reason the image is not strong will in the end have to do with the structure of the image wihtin its borders -- my definition, at least, of composition.
    Do you live in NYC area? If so, we must meet up for a friendly free-for all!
  23. jtk


    David, I'm in New Mexico, but we shouldn't let that stand in the way of knocking a few back with this discussion in mind.

    I do generally buy your "structure within borders" thesis, but "strong" isn't similar to "good" (graphic composition is easy and mundane, we see it everywhere) and we have an exception that defies this strength thesis right here IMO, at 1:28. That's a coherent image that somebody else would compromise after the fact, cropping to make its "composition" strong (and I AM usually a believer in cropping). Its strength partially involves its casual non-composition. I find "street photography" almost always wonderfully composed, rarely more than "arch" or snide or cute, rather than "strong".
  24. "To "strongly disagree...with Weston" seems not quite timely :) He's long gone."

    John, I'm aware of Weston's demise. :) To better explain - My "strong disagreement" pertains to some of the opinions he expressed in his lifetime. But they are opinions which I believe some photographers still hold with today. In the Weston quote below, he seems to value "the very quintessence of the thing itself" above the "mood of that thing" transformed by "transitory light effects".
    Perhaps I assume too much in thinking that his comments would pertain to photos like the ones by Desme or Brassai that I've linked to below. But they lead me to believe that he would. Certainly, the emphasis upon the word "mood" strikes me as rejecting more than just added brushstrokes, canvas textured paper, or the soft blur of the pictorialists. Mood and transitory light (among other things) are primary elements in these two photographs. Whether either one is on a par with a Weston nude or pepper is a whole other matter.

    Where the notion of "photograph as painting" troubles me is when it devolves into the "mundane fantasy images" and "deceitful scenics" you make mention of. To me, Brassai's "Prostitute" is an example of a photograph which evokes the kind of mood or atmosphere that I associate with certain types of paintings. Yet it does so utilizing that which was there at the time, as opposed to utilizing Photoshop or Photomatix trickery.

    What's my point? Damned if I know. I lost track of it many sentences ago. Forgive me, it's late, and my thinking is getting muddled here.

    The Weston quote:

    "So the camera for me is best in close up, taking advantage of this lens power: recording with its one searching eye the very quintessence of the thing itself rather than a mood of that thing?for instance, the object transformed for the moment by charming, unusual, even theatrical, but always transitory light effects. Instead, the physical quality of things can be rendered with utmost exactness: stone is hard, bark is rough, flesh is alive, or they can be made harder, rougher, or more alive if desired. In a word, let us have photographic beauty!"
  25. jtk


    Steve, We may be more in realms of words and timeframes than eternal meanings.

    What is the source of your Weston quotation? A Day Book? Which one? A magazine? He lived long enough to become very popular among avid amateurs (as did Stieglitz) but they seemed (in print) more into Cartier-Bresson..."candid photography" and "captured moments." Maybe he was reacting against that?

    And maybe EW was like most of us, sometimes conflicted. Some of his images suggested things through their transitory lighting: Some of his nudes were especially harshly lit, including those we don't often see in protest of war (nudes with gas masks).

    Also... much of his work conveyed strong, even theatric emotion...the famous portrait of Nahui Olin of my favorites, along with his portraits of Bender and Orozco

    I have the impression that we see a captured moment as well as "photographic beauty."

    BTW, a plug for Masters-OF-Photography: I bought the DVD (second one's free). I know of no comparable photo book.
  26. John -- Per the link below, the Weston quote is "Photography -- Not Pictorial" from Camera Craft, Vol. 37, No. 7, pp. 313-20, 1930

    I hope I have not given the impression that I have an axe to grind where Weston is concerned. (In retrospect, arguing against an aesthetic opinion which he may or may not have had is probably a foolish waste of time...although it can stimulate discussion.) My knowledge of him is derived from this book here, that critical anthology there, a website over there...etc. I'm looking to expand my library -- any suggested book(s) dealing specifically with Weston? You've piqued my interest. If I'm going to spout off about a dead man, perhaps I should know a bit more about him, eh? ;-)

    I have wandered through the M.O.P. website, mouth agape, quite a few times. I need to take a look at that DVD. Cheers, Steve
  27. jtk


    Steve, I've just started to read your Camera Craft article...wonderful stuff...thank you.

    "Have we not had enough picture making?more or less refined "Calendar Art" by hundreds of thousands of painters and etchers? Photography following this line can only be a poor imitation of already bad art."

    ..Edward Weston

    Don't know what EW would think, popping out of the grave in 2007 to confront Photoshop. I suspect he'd hate it but love our keypads, outdoor reverence, and wimmen. And I'm certain he'd be disappointed in our overall limited literacy and poor writing skills.

    Daybook II was my bible from the late Sixties. Then I drifted away from photography as well as Weston. After I came back to it, my girlfriend gave me fresh Day Books I and II (a less funky replacement for the old one). A fine writer and serious thinker, he consorted with poets, dancers, genuinely dangerous revolutionaries, the wealthy (Bender for example) and lots of women, knew poverty...not too many of us seem to reach that far out of our little caves these days.
  28. jtk

    jtk the way, I like the small dramas and gestures in your images.
  29. I doubt anything is going to return to what it was. Even if people wanted that, there
    seems to be something in our individual and collective psyche not allowing return. If we
    were returning to something painterly in photography, i think we would find the various
    filters in Photoshop "in the manner of....[this or that painter] to be quite popular and we'd
    be using them frantically rather than holding them in disdain.

    When i review my mental cataloques of oil painting, water color, or photography history, i
    think the art i remember and am impressed with most from antiquity onward is the artist
    exploring something in a new way; not necessarily with a new gadget or gimmic. But he
    was willing to study something over a long period of time and learn from it and about it.
    From his learning he was able to express something fresh, even tho he was painting
    poppies in a new way, as they had always been pictured in a new way for
    thousands of years. And so photos and paintings of poppies have evolved.

    Sometimes we think a picture of something we haven't seen before is quite fresh material.
    But i feel it often is an old pictures of a new things. I've often wondered what the world
    would think of St Ansel if his photography had of necessity been confined to land east and
    north of the Hudson River. I think one would have to conclude differently what Ansel's
    contributions to photography were ? his real contributions.

    Photographic art, no matter how polaroid, no matter how instamatic, no matter how digital
    will continue to involve the old blood, sweat, and tears stuff that leads to new
    understandings. From what i see, painters are struggling with all this just as much as
    people clutching new digital cameras. What i hope i sense is that we digital pilgrims are
    turning to the old masters to see what frame of mind they must have held that make their
    photos or paintings something other than the posters and posies pictures we so often see
    and our society is turning out in huge quantity now. We may be ready to return to our
    files and contact sheets and sketches to see why these few things we did were good, and
    why all the rest could be easily scrapped. Do our standouts have anything in common
    with the great classical attitudes our admired predecessors held ? Can we wrestle with this
    and come up with something Olympian and soulthirst-quenching? Personally, i'm
    counting on it.

    Phil Temple
    Pepperell, ma
  30. Photography that imitates paintings of an old masters is quiet in fashion at movie makers. There is popular movie "Girl with pearl earring". Now all scenes and photographs imitates Vermeer's style. I like it a lot. And I was amazed with the photographs. So golden bright, innocent girl-made with such a beauty and light that reflected on her. Just perfect moments. The town, the village were represented in a Vermeer's manner. For me, it is progress in photographic world.

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