Photography and Painting

“It takes a lot of imagination to be a good photographer. You need less imagination to be a painter because you can invent things. But in photography everything is so ordinary; it takes a lot of looking before you learn to see the extraordinary.

– David Bailey

This is an uncommon viewpoint and, i think, one that can only be understood if you have done a lot of both painting and photography in a serious manner. I believe most people believe painting is a more difficult artistic activity because it takes more pratice before a good piece results than is the case with photography. One can occasionally take a good, or even great, photograph, even with little experience – no one produces a great painting without a lot of practice.

But I tend to agree with David Bailey – the challenge with photography is to take ordinary scenes and do something original and creative with them. In painting, you have such license to add, subtract, change or alter what’s in the painting. The constraints of photography, the “ordinariness” of the subject matter, make it really hard to do something unique. And now there are so many photographic images out there, simply by sheer numbers it has become difficult to differentiate yourself. Finally there are fewer options in photography about the medium used for the final product – there isn’t the range of papers, textures, paint types available as there is with painting that can make paintings so interesting to look at.

Now admittedly both pursuits are very challenging and worthy of our efforts. For me personally, I find that it is easier to be creative with painting than with photography, where I usually feel that my efforts are just not really new and exciting, albeit somewhat competent. And it’s the creative juice we’re all after in the end!

8 responses to “Photography and Painting

  1. Let me ask you , Bob: David Bailey is a photographer?

    I can understand the paradox (and somewhat, the irony) of what he says… but I don dot think he’s right.

    First of all, today, with digital photography and all, it is as easy to be “creative” in photography as it is in painting (and of course, painters that do very realistical work aren’t more free than a photographer…) Photoshop it and that’s it! Of course, if you are not a photo-purist (but you can pe a (realist) painter purist too…

    Second, I don’t think that great photographers, like Robert kappa or Cartie-Bresson had a problem with “ordinary”… when you are in the middle of a war, when you are in a place where people – far away people – are doing/living their lives, it’s never ordinary and you need a good eye, courage and a solid/good camera – a Nikon or a Deutsch camera – to do a work of art/a document… No big imagination needed… Of course, if you photograph just around the corner that could be more difficult…even if, you yourself prove him wrong: your “toscanian” landscape is great, a painting in itself!

  2. Digital technologies are neutral in terms of creativity. It makes no difference if you are using a digital camera or a film one, when you press the shutter and that is what Bailey is talking about – seeing the extraordinary in the mundane. This was of course the brilliance of people like Cartier Bresson, Kertesz or Atget. To say imagination is not needed is way off the mark.

  3. I like seeing the soil in that image, you don’t get that a lot in landscapes. For me I have always gravitated towards painting just because I don’t know. Photography has always been more of a tool for ideas and textures to me. I have always dug experimental photography. Or what used to be experimental photography, now with digital editing programs eliminating the need for all those chemicals that’s good obviously, but you lose some of that old school technique. On the other hand digital makes it much easier to do a lot of different things and opens up endless possibilities really. They had some recent photography work at the local Nelson-Atkins Museum, very interesting extremely high resolution digital prints, I forgot the name of the process but they were pretty cool.

  4. Danu – I see your point – (David Bailey by the way is one of the UK’s best-known photographers since the 60’s) -but whilst I agree that today’s “point and shoot” trend, couple with photoshop can , almost without fail, produce something good, I would have to argue that there is a world of difference between “good” and “unique” – that certain something that always defines a great art/photo piece. I was looking at a blog the other day and the photo there was simply of a bare wall, with two small electrical outlets in the bottom right hand corner. Both Miki and I agreed that the photo had “something”. This has nothing to do with cameras, or photoshop, rather the intuition of the guy behind the lens, who saw the “something” before capturing it.

    Bob – Speaking as someone from an artistic sphere neither photo or painting based, I think perhaps when one is confronted by a myriad of options for painting, the colours, the textures of paper, etc. etc., perhaps this very embarrassment of riches can lead to a widening of the focus, but perhaps to the detriment of what the artist is trying to create. I know some of my best work has been done when I’ve had to squeeze ideas out of sound modules and recording equipment that have been limiting in their capabilities, and its this struggle that sometimes brings out the greatest results.

  5. As always, a lively interchange!

    I have to agree with Ian, Danu – digital cameras, photoshop, etc are just tools and do nothing to make the artist more creative. In some ways it can stifle creativity as the endless possibilities can strangle you. So many people think that with photoshop you just push a few buttons and you are done. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s just a new, and bigger, set of tools for the artist to try to master.

    I like Kev’s point that sometimes working with more “constrained” abilities can force you to be more creative.

    And Kev makes a great point – with advances in technology I think there are more “good” photos, but relatively fewer “unique” or great photos. And now there are just so many images out there you are competing with – to differentiate yourself from that crowd is a daunting task.

    Ed, the soil you refer to is actually vines that have turned brown. This time of year in wine country we get pretty spectacular fall colors.

  6. I was being ironical (ironic?) when saying it’s easy to be “creative” with Photoshop… I’ve worked – used it – for years now… I know it’s just a complex tool and if you ARE creative you are creative also with a small piece of pencil… and you can have all the last software and computers and do only trash if that “creativeness” is not in you…

    I do not have yet the means to put into practice my little ideas of combining spontaneos “on paper” creativity with digital technology… but one day, maybe, I will.

  7. Danu

    Yes, photoshop is an amazing tool, isn’t it? When I teach photoshop workshops I tell my students it is like chess – you can learn how to play easily but will spend the rest of your life trying to master it!

    I like what you say about the simple pencil – it’s a great reminder that tools, both sophisticated and commonplace, are not the source of creativity.

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