Photography v painting. That hoary old argument*. Naturally enough, photography wins, with hands tied behind its back. The density of detail, that magical documenting of evidence – today was fine, there was no wind, the sun was brilliant, the shadows were dark, she was smiling etc. (We have to trust that no photoshop was applied … a big if nowadays.) Yes, okay, photography wins. Exceptbutmaybe … not.
What everyone knows – and this knowledge is refreshed everyday – is that the reproduced photographic image often takes on a kind of invisibility. We are assailed by those images from the breakfast newspaper or the first click of our morning web travels. And leaving the house, that assailing never lets up. We have learnt to look past most of it; we ignore it defensively. That’s one thing.
A drawing – especially a bad one or a good one (but maybe not one that’s mediocre), stops you and makes you look. That’s literally natural – it’s just that we have an atavistic relationship to the handmade we do not with machined stuff.
When I was up at Carnarvon Gorge in Qld a couple of weeks ago, my little camera was fully employed, recording lots of glimpses. What it couldn’t do was to make a single image that would provide some kind of comprehensive sense of being there. Almost no photos do that – what photos do is give you a good picture of the place (though not necessarily accurate, as we are often disappointed to find).
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A photo flattens spaces, or pushes it back in a perspective that isn’t much like how your eye sees. A good picture of a place – ie what you see through a viewfinder – is not the same as a picture that gives you an idea of what being there might be like. Now, this argument is bound to end up as mud wrestling with words, so I’m going to attempt a pictorial demonstration of the point.
For the sake of travelling convenience I had taken an A4 pad, and a little “field box” of watercolours. There was no time to do anything while walking the Gorge so it wasn’t till we got back to Rockhampton that I could spend a couple of days making the picture below – instead of, say, a 1/15th of a second camera exposure (just to point up the difference).
The comparison test:
There’s no claim of great artistic merit for this handmade; I’m not such great friends with watercolour. But I expect it’s good enough to demonstrate the qualities of an imaginative reconstruction of a landscape, of how a single handmade image – and it’s not a realist painting – may have an advantage over a single photograph.
So here are representations of Carnarvon Gorge, by a number of photographs, compared to a single painting.
(Acknowledging that Carnarvon Gorge, or any landscape, is or can be made up of a variety of spaces.)
The painting is 297mm wide by 1.26m deep.
The photos were shot on a current version compact digital camera. (And being photos they have no original scale.)
* An argument initiated, rehearsed and reiterated by
Walter Benjamin: The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction
Susan Sontag: On Photography
John Berger : The Uses of Photography
Geoff Dyer: The Ongoing Moment
David Hockney: Hockney on photography: conversations with Paul Joyce
‘Photography is crumbling.’ – D. Hockney