Playing Strengths-The Case for the Photography

PollenFromaPearBlossom, originally uploaded by carolsLittleWorld.

A few weeks ago, I was “confronted” with a conversation about photography. Did you ever have one of those conversations-usually it’s with a frustrated beginner-that starts off very abrasive, with negative energy, very passive aggressive, saying things like, “Well, don’t you…” instead of asking what it is they really want to ask? It’s more in the tone then what they say really, but, at the time, I was confronted by this novice chap. He thought he could sort of “stump” me by confronting me about painterly images.

“Why go through the trouble of making photos that look like paintings,” he asked, “why not just pick up a brush/canvas and paint?” It was an interesting conversation, because it started out with the confrontational tone and kind of went downhill from there. Frankly, he revealed his bias against photography as an art and mostly because he thought he sort of “had me over a barrel” I gave him a lot to think about in the end. I guess he felt bold, sort of like “let’s stump the professional,” but, the truth is, I’ve already thought this through and could easily justify my position on the subject, not to mention history is on my side, as I’m far from the first photographer to do any kind of “painterly” image.

The fact is:
1. I do paint. I have always painted and done photography so, in theory, I could have countered his question, actually his assertion, with another, “why restrict your creativity to one medium? Why be so limited? Aren’t artists supposed to be open minded?”

That’s not really a valid response though, because there are many photographers doing these sorts of painterly images who don’t paint. And why should they paint? If they are getting the look they want, if they get the results, combined with the ease and flexibility the camera affords them, why limit themselves to a more “traditional” medium? Because he said so? Ha!

Perhaps my most “on point” answer though is this:
2. I have always been a photographer who strives to combine the real with the abstract. In images I would label as my most successful (artistically speaking) I have always included an element of the “real” and an abstraction (of sorts.) Things like motion blur, color shifting, blurry/out-of-focus images play into that, but, basically, I use the camera to give me the best of both worlds-having the real combined with the abstract allows me to sort of have my cake and eat it too.

The reason I do this, and the reason I sort of “relegate” these images (this work) to photography (rather than a more paint-based medium) is because I feel that this is playing into the strength of photography as a medium. Put simply, I’m using photography for what I think it’s good at.

It’s hard, and rather a useless exercise I feel, to paint images that contain both photo realism and the level of abstraction that I’m accustomed to with photography. If I’m doing something that’s purely abstract, completely abstract work, I tend to paint it because, again, here I’m playing into the strength of the medium-it’s easier to create a pure abstract with paint than it is really with photography, at least in the way that I think of (and do) purely abstract work.

As an artist, I don’t restrict myself to one medium, no, but, in using more than one I have to evaluate several factors. My strength in the medium comes into play, yes, but also the notion of “is this really the right medium for the job?” There’s no point applying yourself, learning or mastering a new medium, if it doesn’t do what you want-if the medium is limited and you’re trying to “stretch” it to do something, to be something it’s not.

For example, with abstract images, the way I do them, they have a lot of texture and layers-those are better done (in my mind) with paint, because a painting is not a flat surface. You can build up texture in an abstract painting, something you cannot as easily do with photography. Photography does not have a natural opacity about it, though you can sort of “force” one in Photoshop.

What photography lacks in some of the traditional “painterly” elements, it makes up for in other ways. Photographs are more easily reproducible. They are easier to ship. That element of “reality” is a heavy draw visually as well-people “see things” in photographs-images have a more direct connection with the viewer and, in a crowded gallery, one in which you are competing for “visual recognition,” a photograph can really “draw you in.” There’s also a strong connection between photographs and memory, a connection between the surreal and photography as well. Our dreams can almost look like (or feel like) photographs. Photographs are less expensive to produce and sell for (generally) less than paintings, making my art more accessible to people looking to purchase it. The list goes on.

As an artist, I draw, I paint, take photos and even sometimes play music or write fiction. Each of these has strengths and weaknesses-it’s up to me, as an artist really, to play into those-to exploit those strengths when selecting a medium to express myself. Saying, “well, it looks like a painting so I should use a brush” sells that short in so many ways. Only a novice artist would really limit themselves rather than explore the possibilities. Another way to look at it is the old expression, “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” I don’t want to limit myself, my toolbox, no, instead, as an artist, I strive to use the best, most productive tool for the job. If that should happen to render photos somebody thinks “look like paintings” so be it. I don’t really care about that-so long as the work measures up to my personal vision, I’m happy. All of these things-the camera, brush/paint, pencil, etc. are just tools to craft a vision, none is an end result by and of themselves. I don’t use a camera because I want to use a camera, I use a camera to get photographs, and those photographs craft my vision. If I didn’t have a camera, or couldn’t use a camera to do this, I would simply use the next best thing.

So, perhaps the best answer to the question of “why not paint?” might be, “because my camera does it better.”

Until next time…


  1. mythopolis
    March 20, 2010 / 1:28 pm

    Art is a Verb.

  2. Kala
    March 20, 2010 / 7:33 pm

    Lovely depth of field with this pear blossom.

  3. Carol
    March 22, 2010 / 5:12 pm

    Mythopolis, you are so right about that! That's the thing I really love about you…you come along and say it so well.

    Kala, thanks! I'm loving spring so far. I hope it gets to blooming around you way soon as well.

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