Here’s the Thing of it…


cirque du soleil, photograph

“Whereas the experiential focus of the sculpture, […] the collage, or the performance is the here and now, the experiential focus of the photograph is the there and then.”

Brooks Jensen

Another insightful contrast between photography and other art forms by Brooks Jensen. Maybe one reason I like him so much is that he spends a lot of time comparing and contrasting photography with other mediums in order to tease out the unique qualities, good or bad, of photography. I find myself doing the same, because I feel there are a lot of unique characteristics of photographs that make them occupy a singular place in the art world.

Jensen makes the point that when observing most art forms our main perceptive experience is the piece itself – we look at the painting, the sculpture, the dancer. With a photograph we tend to look through the actual physical artifact (such as a print) to the scene it depicts. He says the photograph acts as a window in ways other art forms generally do not.

One result is that the image we create as photographers can play a secondary role to the viewers experience. Jensen talks about ways photographers attempt to turn their work into an artifact rather than a window. Having spent a number of years painting, I often find myself missing something in my photographs that I found in my paintings. I think it is in part that the paintings were things that had a life of their own, that could exist independent of anything in the external world. My photographs have a more ephemeral existence, one that is derivative of what it is a picture of. Compared to my paintings, they lack a, existential thing-ness that is somehow satisfying, both to the artist and the observer.

So this could be thought of as a downside of photography and one may ask, why do that instead of paint (or something else)? I think each of us has a medium that matches our talents, aesthetics and interests best. I read an interesting explanation of this by fellow photographer (and painter) Diane Miller that I completely related to – she said that she was more pleased with the results of her photography, though perhaps less please with the process itself. I think I’m in this camp as well and feel that the results of my photography express my persona best.

But I’m sure at some point I’ll dip back into the paints, just to get my hands on all that thing-ness.

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6 responses to “Here’s the Thing of it…

  1. We do look at, yes, but I don’t think we see unless we continue looking and get well past the frame. With looking and more looking, there can be great discovery. I find that true both of painting and photography when done well.

    I like to understand an artist’s process and how it’s used to achieve a particular result; but when face to face with the result, I want to look at that result and not concern myself with the process. When process gets in the way, and it can, the result becomes just the last step.

    • There are hopefully many levels on which any work of art can be considered and probably the more the better for the viewer. I think with a painting there may be less chance of getting “past the frame” than with a photograph which perhaps offers less in itself to stop one’s looking. From what you say, maybe this is a good thing!

  2. when I look at other works – I simply do not care what the medium is– I only look at the work– the message or connection I get– but for me personally with my own work– I think the connection between my hands and my eyes and brain is integral– whether I am moving around paint, or papers, or objects in a box– I need that tactile feedback that I don’t think I would get with clicking a camera. But I love to look at photographs– esp. black and white

    • I think most viewers have a subtle connection with the tactile quality you experience first hand in a painting that isn’t there in a photograph. That “tactility” causes more fascination with the painting as an object, which is, of course, different than considering it for the “message or connection” you mention.

      I think in general artists and non-artists view artwork very differently and it can be useful to consider how and why there is a difference. Certainly important if we share our work with the public.

      I wonder if the more you paint, the less you consider the medium, the technique, etc. and the more you focus on the message beyond all that. I know the more I photograph the less I obsess about gear and technical issues in favor of the less tangible qualities of the image.

  3. I find it interesting that so many photographers have worked to make their pictures more painterly – initially in darkroom processes, and of late, using the computer software applications that can so do much more to our image files. Is it because most of us, as photographers, are frustrated that we don’t have the ability to pick up a pen or a brush and create magic? (You are a rarer breed, Bob – to be good at both.) I know for me it is – my watercolors are failures, – as are my drawings! But I still really like the look and feel of watercolors and pastels; so for me, having the ability to create a similar effect via the computer is intriguing. The end result is what I’m aiming for – a look or feel to the image that is simply more painterly.

    • Brenda

      I’m always interested when people say a photograph looks like a painting, or they want it to. I suspect each person means something very personal by that, focusing on some aspect of painting that is meaningful to them. To some it means, soft or diffuse, since paintings can have a lot of soft edges while photographs often don’t. Or it may refer to a more subdued color palette. Or it may indicate the photograph is less literal, more expressive or interpretive.

      I think it is invariably used as a compliment, which is interesting in itself. Somehow a photograph that looks more like a painting is improved. I wonder if someone thought a painting looked like a photograph if the same could invariably be said?

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