Painterly is not a Compliment for Photography
Many viewers say “oh, such a painterly photograph” when they like a photo you show to them. They mean that most sincerely, and to compliment the photographer on his or her achievement when they say “it looks like a painting.”
This unnecessary, unsuitable accolade has been attached to photography since its beginning. When Talbot, Daguerre, and Niépce created their first images, people saw them as “nature’s pencil” and photography as an extension of painting. Going back further provides a stronger link between creating an optical image and painting as painters used a device, camera obscura, to aid them in creating their art.
Although it might have been somewhat understandable in the early days and years of photography, this perception of seeing photography as an extension of painting, and a second-class one at that, is no longer justified, in my view. So, painterly is not a compliment for photographers. Viewers need to be disabused of this notion to fully appreciate photography. Let us not forget that photography also influenced painting in profound ways, a fact that does not make anyone utter “oh, what a photographerly painting” when they see Degas’ horses or dancers.
Degas, Horses, Dancers
Yes, he was influenced by photography like many other painters. Careful photographic examination established once and for all, for instance, that all four legs of a horse are off the ground at some point when they run. But at no point are they stretched from all the way back to front like all the paintings depicted them until then.
Degas painted his horses accurately and placed parts of their bodies outside his paintings, just as a photograph may do due to framing. His dancers were depicted not only in performance but often getting ready for it, in not necessarily flattering ways. After all, if photography could capture life as it unfolded, why could painting not, and still be painting.
Duchamp Stroboscopic Painting
Another example is Marcelle Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase as if photographed under a stroboscope, a style unheard of until the invention of photography. One medium influencing another is nothing new but this does not make one an extension of the other. See the first image below.
Photography has unique qualities and should be viewed with these in mind. Painters never felt obliged to put a frame around the frameless world or to see the world from a single vantage point. They organized everything neatly within the borders of their canvas and sometimes even twisted the perspective of different elements in their paintings.
Holbein, Multiple Perspectives
Ambassadors by Holbein is the prototypical example of multiple perspectives and a hidden image due to extreme distortion on one of these planes. These are not inherent characteristics of photography; the camera looks, establishes a vantage point, and frames the photograph. Everything fits into this perspective and some parts of the world are cut or cut out. Photographs are “selected” after an analysis of the environment where paintings are synthesized to reflect the mental image in the mind of the painter. Examples abound.
Regrettably, this view of photography as an extension of painting is adopted, even aspired to by many photographers. They revel in the notion that their camera and photographic technique can produce something “approaching painting.”
What Is Your Medium
I believe the growth of one’s vision in any art form depends on understanding the qualities of the medium one uses. Now, I am not suggesting that photography cannot be impressionistic, expressionistic, realistic, romantic, pictorialist, etc. Any photographer may produce a body of photographic work that will fit those styles without being compared to painting.
Studies of motion and its effects on photography can result in interesting photographs. However, this technique carried to the extreme in the line of creating something like a Rothko painting is merely “brush envy.” Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to impose a particular view on anyone’s art. I am merely defending the art of photography as a self-sufficient form, not needing the crutches of brushes and stretched canvas.
Some may argue the point by using the example of super-realistic paintings that can easily be mistaken for a photograph. I would like to point out the name used for this style, “super-realistic painting” which defines it in the domain of the medium rather than calling it “photographerly painting” and extending it to the domain of photography.
Photography is an Art Form
Photography as an art form can stand on its own two feet, and very well. Look at the history of photography, see the works of Adams, Weston, Stieglitz, Evans, Sander, Bourke-White, Lange, Hine, Cartier-Bresson, Cunningham, Callahan, Siskind, Shore, Eggleston, DeCarava, Meyerowitz, and many more. Also, acquaint the mind with the writings and works of Szarkowski, Sontag, and Robert Adams; enjoy the works of the above and other legendary photographers.
Then, leave the crutches of canvas and brush, learn the medium, use it, and enjoy it. The capabilities of the medium are very broad and with the advent of digital photography, they can be extended even more within the scope of photography and photographic art. Forget about brush envy.
And, please, don’t flatter me by saying how painterly my photographs are, or they look like paintings. They are photographs; I am a photographer, not a frustrated painter.