Painting v Photography?

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Oodnadatta Track 2005

We visited the TarraWarra Museum of Art  on Australia day to view Master of Stillness: Jeffrey Smart paintings 1940-2011. I’m trying to remember the last time I was so affected by an exhibition.

I left the gallery with two burning questions on my mind.

Firstly, how is it that I can be so moved, not just by the interesting subject matter, the beautiful capture of light and the superb compositions, but by the minute detail within the compositions? Why is it that the placement of one small element in relation to another within a small area of the canvas can almost bring me to tears?

The complete and total perfectness of just where a line might dissect another brings me incredible joy. I know that when I produce a photograph in which I feel the composition is pretty much as good as I could wish for, I get a feeling not just of great satisfaction, but something that is almost spiritual.

Putting on my amateur psychologist’s hat, I might speculate that having grown up in a world in which I felt there was no order at all, that I seek perfect order within art and feel a great deal of emotion and satisfaction when I find it.

The second question is an old one and one which one of my tutors at RMIT, photographer Emma Phillips, put very well when she asked students: “Since the camera has the ability to capture the ‘real’, why do we so enjoy paintings that enter this territory? What, if anything, does it say about our reverence for the painted work over the photographed work?”

At the time, I didn’t really have an answer for this. These are questions that have perplexed me for a long time. Often, after visiting an exhibition of paintings that I enjoyed, I would ask myself, why bother? Even though photography as art has made terrific inroads (more so overseas than here in Australia) I still can’t help but feel that, as a general rule, people don’t take photography as art  seriously enough.

The fact that I sometimes ask myself “why bother?” certainly says something about my own reverence for painting however much I believe photography to be a powerful and important medium.

Painters like Jeffrey Smart, through superb draftsmanship and amazing talent, produce work of a ‘real’ nature where they are able to construct their compositions as they wish from scratch. A photographer working with similar subjects as Smart, however, doesn’t have the luxury of having complete control over all the elements within the photograph (unless they wish to spend uncountable hours in Photoshop. No thanks!)

Even moving about and placing the camera in the best position for a ‘perfect’ composition can be fraught with difficulties. (Gee, if only the traffic on this freeway would go away so I can set up in the middle lane where the power poles will be perfectly aligned for my masterpiece…)

Anyway, having said all of that, I am reminded of the adage “comparisons are odious”. Comparing painting with photography is more than likely just going to cause one to go around and around in circles.

For me, I shall continue to believe in what I do as a photographer and look out for those occasional ‘perfect’ compositions that will give me goose bumps when I view them.

4 responses to “Painting v Photography?

  1. Painting and photography are two different forms of art. As you said the painter can create an image using just the imagination and paint. A photographer has to construct the image from what is already in existence. Even using photoshop the photographer has to have the source images to start with. There is so much that can be conveyed with photography. And there is lot more that can be conveyed with painting. There is something about the surface of a painting that a photo can’t match. It can draw me in closer than what a photo can do at times. There is the texture of the brush strokes and the effect that they produce. There doesn’t be the same with a photo. The economy of line can suggest a gesture; a simple line can evoke a smile, a frown.

  2. Smart is not painting the real. His representations of urban life are constructions of a particular interpretation of urbanity.

    • Hi Gary, I agree. I had the word real in parenthesis. Do you think that perhaps in our photographs we also, sometimes, represent “urban life as constructions of a particular interpretation of urbanity”.

      • We do for sure. But photography is more tied to the objects, events, light, form and colour in front of the camera than painting. So we have to do a lot of walking around to find the scene and lighting conditions if we want to fit into the constructions of our particular interpretation of urbanity. It’s a different process to painting, whatever the similarities.

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