EXPRESSION: The Roles of Artist and Viewer in Painting and Documentary Photography

If a tree falls in the woods and…

We hear the phrase, “Art for art’s sake,” but we don’t hear, “Photography for photography’s sake.” This highlights an important difference and motive in an artist’s choice of one medium over the other. Painting can be used strictly to satisfy a need for expression, whereas documentary photography generally cannot. Of course there arguably are exceptions, such as Vivian Maier whose need to snap the photo outpaced her ability to process the film. That example begs another discussion of whether photographic expression is in the snapping or the processing, whether the mere idea of making a picture is as much a manifestation of expression as actually making the picture. The premise assumed here is that expression requires a greater degree of actualization than snapping the camera, and once the film is processed there is an assumption that the photo is looked at and kept to be looked at again; otherwise, there would be no need to develop the film, and then there would be no need to keep it. In painting however, it is accepted that from the artist’s perspective the mere act of painting completes the expression; there is no need for the artist to look at it, keep it etc.

Accordingly, the choice of medium reveals the artist’s motivation, whether the need to express and reiterate an observation, idea or experience requires making or having something through which to understand or relive it; in other words, whether the artist wants to release or capture a temporal observation, idea or experience. Painting releases, photography captures.

If the viewer’s perspective is taken into account, the choice may be dependent upon whether the inspiration’s connection to time is general or specific. To illustrate the point, consider whether a new parent would prefer a painted portrait or a photograph of their baby. Now consider whether you would prefer a painting or a photograph of a babe in arms or nursing, or of a toddler exploring the garden or playing with a puppy. Probably, the new parent would opt for a photograph of their baby to best capture that particular moment in the time of their child’s life, whereas you might opt for a painting of more timeless and universal relationships that define general times of life. Perhaps the more general or abstract the inspiration is, the more it calls for painting, and the more specific or particular, the more it calls for photography.

Is this because we trust photography to faithfully document the inspiration more than we do painting? Or, is it because we consider a photograph a better artifact of time to refer back to in the future than we do a painting? Photography seems to be the choice for capturing concrete circumstance, whereas painting seems to be the choice for reiterating feelings. Circumstances actually occur at points in time, whereas feelings may derive from particular circumstances but prevail or at least continue beyond the circumstance. Photography attempts to capture a particular point in time or circumstance. Painting is a process that comes after the circumstance, thus is unavoidably a synthesis of time.

If expression is the synthesis of time or the “release” of a particular point in time into the stream of time, then photography shifts that creative process to the viewer more than painting does. Photography captures a circumstance for the viewer to deal with. A painting presents a version of how a circumstance already has been dealt with – the painter has done his or her expression for the viewer to expound upon, accept or reject. A photograph presents a moment in time – the “thing,” a painting presents a concluded processing of a moment – the “thought” about the thing.

All art is an acknowledged observation of time. Painting is an effort to review, understand and release the time observed. Documentary photography is an effort to capture, understand and review. The viewer of a painting decides whether they sympathize with the painter’s conclusion. The viewer of a photograph has to draw their own conclusions.

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EXPRESSION: The Roles of Artist and Viewer in Painting and Documentary Photography