"It looks like a Photograph"

“It looks like a photograph."

Many contemporary representationalists have probably encountered this feedback at one point or another in their career. The comment can be interpreted in many ways, but I believe that most intend this comment to be taken at face value: “Your painting resembles a product that I have cognitively associated with photography.” However, this does not stop some from proclaiming that there is a true meaning (that is negative by default.) For example, I came across this statement last night in a thread about contemporary representationalism:

You often hear the public saying “Wow that painting looks just like a photograph!” as if it were high praise when actually it’s kind of a horrible admission that the artist’s work appears mechanical. Do any humans really want to compete with cameras? I may as well compete with a jet plane in the speed category. No contest.”

First, I would agree that this is one possible meaning that can be assigned to the statement. But is this really the general default intention?

Well, as I might not often have access to an issuer’s intentions or aesthetic preferences, I would default to what I would consider reasonable assumptions implied within the basic framework of the comment: that cognitive heuristics or biases like availability (use or adapt readily available, specific information to form beliefs about distant or more general concepts that we deem comparable) and representativeness (a process in which we apply the perceived properties of a group, class or category prototype to each assigned member) have led to a cognitive association or cognitive categorization task based on one or more perceptual features of the artwork.

In other words—the issuer of the comment has engaged in a cognitive association task to better process or more effectively investigate, something that deviated from expectation (something they would see as more novel or potentially less fluent.)

Does this mean that if a painting is fully ushered into a new cognitive category (painting to photography), that all of the category’s features are helplessly, inextricably imposed onto the experience of the painting by default? While some features can indeed be interpreted through the lens of the parent category’s archetypal features, it does not mean that those features make us blind to each and every noticeable disparity between the object and the category. In fact, I would argue that it is those perceptible disparities that can contribute to a positive aesthetic response in terms of the demonstrable virtuosity that prompted the cognitive association task in the first place.

For example, let’s say you were presented with a brand new device that could instantly turn any lesser-valued form of carbon into a perfect diamond (or insert any other seemingly-magical golden goose scenario here.) During your initial awe, you were surprised to see that the device’s shape held a striking similarity to your average coffee maker. Now while you might be quick to make the cognitive association and thus characterize the device as such due to its shape, (thus potentially informing further investigation of the device)—do you think that you are forced to impose all features of objects of that cognitive category onto the device in question?

Are you locked out of considering any perceptible disparities to further comprehend or value the device? Must you assume that the device IS, in fact, a coffee pot? Would you, by default, be expecting coffee covered diamonds?

Furthermore, would you automatically assume this seemingly miraculous device is somehow “lesser,” or more pedestrian because it shares traits with an ordinary coffee maker? Honestly, for some, it may as such heuristics are essentially non-optimal, sometimes irrational shortcuts. But I would hardly suggest that these arguably absurd conclusions are the default response for everyone that experiences the categorical shape connection.

Therefore, I contend that the “It looks like a photograph” is NOT, by default, a negative response—but simply a product of the viewer’s expectations being challenged and thus triggering a new cognitive association task. There is no “mechanical” property inherent to a high-definition, representational painting—so any “mechanical appearance” is just another result of a cognitive categorization task in this context.

Continuing with my addressing of the original comment: So does a pursuit of high-definition realism reflect, by default, a desire to “compete with cameras?” I wouldn’t presume to know what everyone’s goals are, but I am not aware of anyone that holds this as a goal (this is not an appeal to ignorance, just a testament that at least some such artists (including myself) do not keep this goal.) However, I would go further and argue this is indeed a highly-unlikely goal as “competition” implies that vying elements have a comparable functionality/performance (which is absolutely not the case here) and a product (which while both may contribute to a form of percept surrogacy, the nature of production leaves them almost absurdly disparate.)

In other words, saying that high-definition realist endeavors are merely an attempt to compete with a camera is like saying that a musician’s virtuoso performance of Tchaikovsky is merely an attempt to compete with a jukebox.

Just sayin.


Because there are an increasing number of painters who incorporate common photographic effects into paintings, motion blur, double exposure, lens flare, etc this then confuses these two forms of picture making (painting/photography) further in the public sphere, art imitating art… and interestingly I’ve definitely seen online more than a few comments where that corollary holds true, e.g. - “that photo looks like a painting” and that is certainly a complement as the context is generally equating paintings with beauty.

Going back to your virtuoso performance of Tchaikovsky analogy, if you went to see your favourite band and they were just as good live as on record - you’d be very happy. But then, should it be better than that, should you get something more from it, what if it was Milli Vanilli, and it was ‘exactly’ as good as the CD live :slight_smile: is that what people are saying?

If it is a de facto complement then the debate can then skip ahead to the point of the painting rather than any limitations of application - so “it looks like a photo” is the antithesis of ‘what the hell is that meant to be?’

Then of course this is also a matter of taste, some might not like Tchaikovsky, or your favourite band, even performing at the highest level. But a more worrying reason to not enjoy the ‘it looks like a photo’ comment is due to the ubiquity and throwaway nature of modern photography. As though somehow a real exemplary accomplishment in the paint realm is synonymous with an incidental iPhone snap which everyone takes thousands of without thinking. If this is the case, it really places all the more importance on composition and subject matter, and whatever else we can do differently to a camera.