Beyond the Frame: Why Photography and Painting Are Worlds Apart

Affinities & Art

  1. It’s a widespread opinion that photography and painting have a lot in common. Both operate within a confined space (frame or canvas), using elements like projected shapes, color palettes, tones, lines, and perspective to construct their visual narratives.
  2. It’s no surprise then that early photographers mirrored the approaches and techniques of their painter counterparts. These early decades saw a flourishing of experimentation: from brushes touching photographic plates in the darkroom to camera-less creations and the emergence of photomontage.
  3. Hence, photographers today feel bothered by claims that post-processing violates the discipline. They see such views as arbitrary restrictions on their creative process.
  4. After all, one might say that photography is an art form, therefore it’s up to the artist to determine what is right or wrong, and what technique to employ. Isn’t art about freedom of expression? Isn’t beauty in the eye of the beholder?

From Stereotypes to Upheaval

I’m starting from the last point and working backwards. It will eventually make sense.

4. If we all claimed to be the sole arbiters of what constitutes art, free from any external critique, wouldn’t the world be overflowing with artistic expression? Yet, the reality is far bleaker. Instead of an explosion of creativity, we witness a proliferation of uninspired imitations, a stagnant scene where the same techniques are employed like recipes, solely to appease social media algorithms. But leaving quality aside for now, let’s delve deeper into the concept of rules in art.

I’m not sure when this trivial idea that art has no rules became such a de facto standard. Sure, rules can be broken, but that doesn’t mean there are no rules. The very avant-garde movements that broke all possible rules still came up with their own ones. Heck, even Dadaism had at least one rule (to destroy itself). A discipline without rules is just anarchy.
“As long as you have rules, you have a chance for freedom. To try to obtain freedom without being aware of the rules means nothing.” (Shunryu Suzuki).

If there are rules in Art, we abide by them, akin to how poets craft within the constraints of language. Within this framework, we remain aspiring artisans. Yet, some rare innovators defy norms, embarking unexpected paths. They’re the true artists.

Our understanding of art is a tapestry woven from cultural threads, personal experiences, and even our fluency in art’s “language.”

Think of it this way: someone unfamiliar with Cubism might initially not appreciate Picasso, just like someone who doesn’t speak Japanese might struggle to find beauty in a haiku. However, our knowledge and exposure to these elements can evolve over time, shifting our perception of beauty in art. So, while individual interpretation plays a role, there is still an objective foundation for artistic appreciation that can be learned and developed.

3. About editing photos. It’s true that altering images has been around since photography’s early days (think of Pictorialism), but it’s crucial to distinguish between basic adjustments like exposure, which enhances a photo, and heavy manipulation that fundamentally changes the image and potentially misrepresents reality.

2. “Advocating for purism is just a sign of an old mentality”. The irony is that the opposite is true. People compare photography to painting solely because they hold onto an academic view of what painting even is. Brushes, oil, and canvas automatically come to mind when discussing painting, even though it can take many other forms.

The idea that originality and technique define art is outdated. Marcel Duchamp’s ready-made concept completely changed the landscape of art. He challenged traditional notions of originality, technique, and even repeatability.

In a similar vein, photography isn’t about wielding a brush, it’s indeed about the ready-made, the existence of something out there in the world. Its trace with the outer world is a stark negation of the representation the painter does.
As with the ready-made, a photograph selects a part of the environment and imbues it with new meaning. Photography’s essence lies in capturing moments that would otherwise be lost, and elevating them to a new state. By focusing on a specific moment and excluding unnecessary details, that is, by framing the scene, the photographer transforms the ordinary into something extraordinary.

(If you want to know more about the relationship between photography and Marchel Duchamp, you can check this essay by Francesca Brunetti: Photography As Representation And Presentation)

While it’s true that digital and analog photography aren’t that different, and that after all photography hasn’t changed much since its inception, it is true insofar as we refer to the principles not the techniques in place in a pre avant-garde era.

Unlike painting, photography allows for infinite reproduction and simpler technique. Capturing an image only takes the pressing of the shutter, eliminating the need for intricate techniques and lengthy creation times found in painting. Holding photography to the standards of a bygone era of painting demonstrates resistance to embracing its unique capabilities and artistic merit.

To quote Claudio Marra: “A painting that – and here lies the serious misunderstanding – ends up representing not a possible model of art but rather the art tout court, the only aesthetic form to which relate, mainly because no other alternatives are provided, and also because it completely ignores what happened in this area during the twentieth century.”

1. While acknowledging their historical connection, photography and painting have diverged significantly. While the past is important, a rigid adherence to its methods can hinder progress. Nobody stops you from editing your photos, but be transparent about your process and the final product.

Photography is one, uses are many

Although core photographic principles remain constant, embracing its contemporary power goes beyond a sentimental look back. If you seek art’s true impact, look beyond romanticized notions. Merely calling yourself an artist while adopting an uneducated approach by simply employing techniques from Photoshop tutorials, won’t impress serious audiences.

With photography’s endless possibilities, focusing on your goals (what you want to develop) defines your path and ensures your vision shines. There’s no hierarchy. All genres, from photojournalism to landscapes, hold equal value, but manipulating photos isn’t a shortcut to artistic merit.

In the age of AI

Even though there’s no harm in editing your photographs, it’s crucial to distinguish between edits and composites. Understanding these differences promotes ethical representation in photography.

In the current landscape of AI-generated imagery, understanding the unique nature of photography becomes increasingly important. This commitment to authenticity distinguishes photography from other artistic mediums and ensures continued trust in its capacity to document the world.


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