Why Not Just Use a Camera?
Cameras are just one way of translating information onto a 2D surface in a realistic way. But photography is not the only way. And definitively not always the best way.
There is a misguided belief that all realism is photography, and that all realism looks the same as photography (photorealism). But this simply isn’t true.
Cameras and artists both take in massive amounts of 3D information with the challenge of translating it into only 2 dimensions.
Yet cameras do it in a completely different way yielding completely different results than atelier-trained artists.
To be clear, both have their advantages and disadvantages. This article is intended to highlight what the differences are, and in particular, where realism drawing and painting excels.
When taking a photograph, the default situation is that everything included in the viewfinder when snapping the picture will be in the final photograph.
In order to change anything in the scene, the photographer must either remove it before pressing the shutter button, or afterwards eliminate it using computer software or manipulating it in the development stages.
The default in painting is that nothing is included. Anything a painter adds to a scene is done thoughtfully and with purpose. An artist rarely paints everything seen in a scene simply because it is there.
If a painter adds a plate to a dinner scene, it is done with an absolute purpose. This might be to assist the story-telling of the picture or to enhance its composition.
Because painting requires so much focus and effort for each object portrayed, no matter how large or small, painters per force must be judicious about what to include in their paintings and why they are including it.
“Take..the scene around the bedside of a dying woman, for example; seize and render the entire scene in a photograph, if such a thing is possible – it will be spoiled in a thousand ways. The reason is that according to the liveliness of your imagination you will find the subject more or less beautiful; you will be more or less the poet in that scene where you are also an actor; you see only what is interesting, whereas the camera records everything.”
– Eugene Delacroix Journals
Photography as the Only Realism
There is a contemporary and deeply ingrained cultural belief that the only accurate way to depict “reality” is through photography.
Because other artists throughout he 20th century largely ignored realism as a language, photography created a monopoly on “truth” in realistic imagery.
When we want to compliment an artist, we tend to say “That looks just like a photo!” because photography is the only point of realistic imagery reference for many people.
This monopoly on human perceptions of reality is ubiquitous, yet a photograph is no more “real” than flying pigs.
After all, photographs are just pigment on paper or light on a screen. And yet photography has become the standard to which anything “real” is compared.
Photography of course has its strengths, but it is not the only version of realism that exists. When knowledge of other types of realism are crowded out by the photography monopoly, humanity loses out on more expansive visual experiences.
What We Don’t See Hurts Us
I had the privilege of visiting the Borghese galleries in Florence, Italy several summers ago and was absolutely horrified by the picture-taking behavior of the majority of visitors.
I overheard one gentleman communicate to his wife, with a smug air in his countenance, that he was so clever as he had quickly gone around the gallery and photographed the artwork so he could look at it later without the crowds.
What a shame it is to allow a machine to do your seeing for you! To let it eliminate massive amounts of visual information that may have otherwise interested you had you looked at the real subject with your real eyes, which function much differently than a camera lens.
Do Cameras Have Feelings?
A camera lens, as a non-human and inanimate object, does not have human emotions. It does not make value judgements for you about what it beautiful, or ugly, or beautifully ugly.
This can be advantageous for describing some subjects realistically. And can be used to great effect by many talented photographers.
However, there are downsides that are not largely understood or acknowledged.
Photography may eliminate what you find most interesting about the scene before you – such as the color intensity of a sunset on the beach. (How many of us have tried to capture a sunset with our cameras and come within even 3 standard deviations of what we were visually after?)
The camera will average all that it sees and weigh them as emotional equivalents. Even when tinkering with the settings there are only so many choices a camera can make. The visual information is already greatly edited down.
The human eye sees 3 dimensions. The camera translates everything into only 2 dimensions. The information between the 3D version you see with your real eyes and the 2D version the camera creates is edited out is lost.
But who chose what to keep? You or the camera?
Whereas with observing from life to make drawings and paintings, artists are working with the full range of visual information and deciding what to edit out from the full spectrum of 3D information.
It’s true that additional manipulation can occur in the editing phases of photography, and many photographers are able to execute beautiful works in such a way.
However, the information of the three dimensional world has already been distilled by a machine and can never be taken back to the way a human eye first discovered it. If the photographer is not intentional in the choices they make before snapping the photo, they are likely to lose some of the information that they would prefer to keep.
Because atelier training is so rare today, most people aren’t even aware that there are more choices to create realistic imagery than those made by cameras. This is because we no longer practice seeing realistic imagery in ways beyond photography.
Comparing Oranges to Oranges
Consider this painting of oranges on the left by William McCloskey. He has transformed the fruits into whimsical and charming playmates.
Compare this image to a photograph of oranges on the right (courtesy of Wikipedia). It is a very accurate portrayal of oranges, and if that is the intent it certainly succeeds. However, they are not the same.
Yet they are both illusions of “real” oranges. Neither is an actual orange. But because the artist is working with the full range of information instead of a pre-edited amount of information, more choices are available to them.
End the Camera’s Monopoly on Realism
The absolutist, evangelical extremism and adherence to photography as the only true realism is absurd.
This devotion to just one very narrow way to organize 3D information onto a 2D space is truly astonishing, especially considering how many other perfectly valid, and often more informative, ways there are to visually describe the world around us.
Although the camera lens is just one of an infinite number of ways to translate 3D information into a 2D form, it is by far the most ubiquitous.
The sheer mass of photographs have trained our eyes that the camera’s interpretation, and only the camera’s interpretation, can be realism.
Realism is so much greater and broader and more interesting and more informative than that.
Let’s cheat ourselves no longer of the visual feast before us, and broaden our conceptions of realism beyond photography’s narrow stranglehold.
The best place to start? By learning how to draw. Or how to paint.
What do you think? Let me know in the comments below.
I think we need to be careful about the arguments that we put forward in an effort to demonstrate the value of a particular art form. If we are not careful, a problematic argument “for” can quickly be deployed as an effective argument “against”. (e.g., the camera cannot both “include everything” and “average all that it sees”, while a camera does not have emotion—neither does a canvas, paintbrush, or paint, while we can define photographs as JUST pigments on paper—paintings are just pigments on another substrate, etc.) Simply speaking, representational painting does have its own merits that are not effectively illuminated by problematic comparisons with imaging technologies.
This reminds me of a similar issue that was raised in 2007 by Project Zero in the New York Times regarding the arguments for art education: They wrote: “We feel we need to change the conversation about the arts in this country,” said Ms. Winner, a professor of psychology at Boston College and a senior research associate at Project Zero. “These instrumental arguments are going to doom the arts to failure, because any superintendent is going to say, ‘If the only reason I’m having art is to improve math, let’s just have more math.’ Do we want to therefore say, ‘No singing,’ because singing didn’t lead to spatial improvement?” Ms. Winner added. “You get yourself in a bind there. The arts need to be valued for their own intrinsic reasons. (2007 NY Times article regarding Project Zero.)
Hi Anthony, thank you for your thoughtful reply to this article. I am in the process of rewriting it to better reflect my intentions. Thank you for taking the time to give such thorough commentary. Kindly, Mandy
Mandy-It is true that no one has ever weeped looking at a poster. I was able to see pages from DaVinci’s journals in Japan. Seeing the simple line strokes took my breath away.
I have to comment that photography does capture a moment in time.
When done right is does evoke tremendous emotion.
Check out The Newseums Photo Gallery site.
I’m going to create a video explaining this article. The truth is, I agree with what Mandy is saying. And I have been a photographer for over 40 years. After studying design for over a decade now, I can accurately say that a photograph cannot come close to what a classically trained artist can produce on the canvas. Mandy is not saying that photography is not art. She is simply pointing out the limitations of the medium of photography. Those limitations are real and shouldn’t be ignored.
The artist that goes to the canvas has far more tools available to them than a photographer does even with the most advanced software. And I have seen many photographers that try and reproduce master paintings claiming that they are the same. They are not. They are not designed to the level that a master can nor do they have the technical ability to create the subtleties that the painter can on the canvas.
This article is not meant to offend photographers so please don’t take it that way. Again, I’ve been a photographer for over 40 years and I don’t find this offensive at all. I will try to explain this in a video.