Sunday, April 17, 2011

Photorealism vs. Pictorialism

Photography deals exquisitely with appearances, but nothing is what it appears to be.  ~Duane Michals

I think there is some irony in the fact that painters didn’t create a genre called “photo-realism” until over 100 years after photography was invented. Creating a painting that looks like a modern photograph is a thoroughly modern invention, evolving from Pop Art in the 1960’s. However, before photography many painters attempted, and often achieved, what might be called a “photographic” realism in still-life, landscape and even portrait paintings. Some have even been accused (the venerated Vermeer among them) of using a camera obscura to copy real life scenes to achieve such wondrous results. Before photography they couldn’t call this “photo-realism” but it seems that as realistic a rendering as possible was, by and large, often the intent.

The flip side of this is photographic Pictorialism, popular in the late 19th and early 20th century. Photography wasn’t considered serious art and photographers were looking for ways to be taken seriously as artists so they made images that looked like paintings.  A whole range of techniques, equipment and manipulation were used. They often made softly focused photos, sometimes painting on the emulsion to change the texture or using textured paper to get a painterly effect.  Before too long all this changed when photographers didn’t feel the need to be painterly to be considered artists. “Straight” photography came on strong and photography grew into its own artistic force.

We’re not as dogmatic as our artist ancestors once were. Today, in many respects painting and photography are closer than they have ever been. It’s routine for painters to take reference photos of subjects to capture detail in the interest of realism and for photographers to manipulate images with lighting, software or camera techniques to make them more painterly. Photos look like paintings and paintings look like photos. This doesn’t necessarily make it any easier for artists in either genre. Indeed, it’s a good bit harder to stand out in the crowd when just about anything goes.

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