Photography is often criticized for having ruined a generation of painters. Whether you agree or disagree, it goes without saying that it has had a profound effect on the representational art world. Even artists that never rely on it as reference while painting have to agree that it has profoundly affected the way in which we view the world.
Recent generations have been bombarded with photographic representations of the world. Printed material, motion pictures, and the advent of television have all ingrained photography into our subconscious and altered our perception of reality. The human eye is only capable of seeing what the mind allows, images integrate with memories to form beliefs. We can only imagine what the world must have appeared like before the advent of photography.
As the science of photography developed, artists were quick to adapt the technology to their needs. History is ripe with many famous artists whose studios contained photographic references. One difference for these historic painters is that they were also very well trained, most having come out of the European atelier system or having apprenticed under master painters of their time. For them, photography was a tool, a means of recording references in which they could interject a human perspective. It is of note that the early 20th century photographers that wished to elevate photography to an art form mimicked painting. Albert Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, and George Seeley were but a few involved in the photographic movement referred to as “pictorialism.” Many of their photographic works are hard to differentiate from an etching or monochromatic painting.
As America embraced modernism, photography followed suit and a new movement emerged: Group F64. This movement also touted by Stieglitz promoted the idea of unmanipulated straight photography. What the lens is capable of recording is far different than the human eye. This is quite evident in the masterful photographs of Edward Weston and Ansel Adams. These razor sharp, highly focused, and often extremely contrasted images make us look at the world differently and definitely elevated photography into its own art form.
Camera technology has continued to evolve with the advent of digital photography, providing the capability to quickly record reference material, but as serious representational painters, we must never forget the importance of quiet contemplation with our subject matter. Analyze the aspects of focus, value contrast, and color nuance from the human perspective. The more sensitive you become to these, the better able you will be to interpret from photo reference. Photography is here to stay, and used wisely, it can be beneficial.
One of the most frequently uttered compliments the well-meaning public bestows is, “that painting is as good as a photograph.” It is curious that we have gone from the photograph being compared to the fine art painting to the painting being compared to the photograph. In response, I like to smile and say, “I like to think it is better.”
In part 2 of the conversation, I will discuss a few ways of using modern camera technology while painting.
MORE RESOURCES FOR ARTISTS
• Watch Maggie Price demonstrate her techniques for painting from photos in this free video preview. For the complete video, visit ArtistsNetworkTV.