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Don't think you're paying me a compliment to say that this looks like a painting. Or a cabbage or a hammer. It's a picture.

Don’t think you’re paying me a compliment to say that this “looks like a painting”. Or a cabbage. Or a hammer. It’s a picture.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

THE INCREASINGLY COMMON USE OF THE WORD “PAINTERLY” AS A GENERIC COMMENT ON CERTAIN KINDS OF PHOTOGRAPHIC IMAGES has got me grinding my teeth, as it perpetuates the use of a term that is absolutely meaningless. Almost as meaningless as noting, or caring, at this late date, whether elements of painting are present in photos. This argument goes back so far that I feel compelled to provide the following “Cliff’s Notes” in order to compress 150 years of bickering into a compact format.  Presenting:

A COMPLETE CHRONOLOGY OF PHOTOGRAPHIC “TRUTH”

a)  We are just as good as painting.

b)  No seriously, we are.

c)  Who said that? We are so not like painting, which is old and tired.

d)  Well, we’re a little bit like it, but we kinda feel weird about it.

e)   Wow, I’d love to photograph that painting.

f)    Man, I’d love to layer paint on that photograph.

g)   Hey, I found a way to make my photographs look like paintings!

Enough already. We never praise a painting by saying it looks “Photo-ish”, so why make the opposite comment? What visual flavor makes any image fall on either side of an arbitrary line, and who the $%#&! cares? The only comment that could possibly matter is to remark that something is “a great picture”, but even that is superfluous. Does it speak? Did it work? Is there something there? Was anything amplified, simplified, defined, revealed in said picture?

This kind of semantic drift persists because, amazingly, some people don’t think photography is miraculous enough without being laden with little linguistic Christmas ornaments that display their acumen and intellect. These are the same people who fret that processing is “cheating” and that expensive cameras make better pictures than cheap ones, and it’s a disservice to any authentic discussion, like the fact that those who wield brushes and those who wield Nikons can both exalt, or denigrate, the human experience.

You don’t have to paint me a picture. You just have to tell me a story.

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2 responses

  1. Oh my goodness I do not even know where to begin. I used to think that digital processing was “cheating”. Boy was I ignorant and it was not bliss. When I started using digital and had to process my own photos I realized there was so much more to it. It really gave me the freedom I had longed for and to create images the way I had imagined them .I still try to stick to more of a traditional approach, but this is my choice now not the labs that I used to use. I think the word painterly might imply more talent beyond just the click of a button. I have always admired painters and the talent they have. Unfortunately I cannot paint. But I do have( at least I have been told) an artistic eye and love creating. Expensive cameras do not necessarily make better pictures if you do not understand how to use it or the intricacies involved with photography. Photography is art! Some choose to process more than others but it is their vision not mine. Just like some “paint” with brushes others paint with their fingers. I like to believe that I am a painter of light. So I guess I am a painter afterall.

    October 26, 2013 at 8:19 AM

  2. Great post!!!
    I here the same thing except what I hear is oh another HDR image So EFFIN WHAT, anybody can do that! Yeah if you get up at 4am 🙂

    I recently showed some of my work and guess what, as I talked with the viewers I was pleasantly pleased to hear “that image is so calming” or ” Wow, that photo is so dramatic love the way you captured the sky” guess what most all of the photos were HDR and not one person noticed.
    Thanks again for a thought provoking post,
    -Steve

    October 26, 2013 at 9:10 AM

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