Recently I came across an article on the website School of Atelier Arts titled “Why Not Just Use a Camera?” The article was written by The School of Atelier Arts, Mandy Theis. When I saw the title, I was immediately interested in seeing what the author had to say on the subject, as my work has often elicited the all-too-common, “Why don’t you just take a photograph?” inquiry. However, what I did find were several problematic arguments that ultimately sabotaged the apparent aim (promoting the merits of representational or realistic painting despite the existence of other imaging technologies) of the article.
I am taking the time to address a few specific arguments/statements in this article as I think it serves as an excellent example of the fact that we need to be careful about the arguments that we put forward to demonstrate the value of a particular art form. If we are not careful, a problematic argument for can quickly be used as a compelling argument against.
The situation here reminds me of a similar issue that was raised in 2007 by Project Zero in the New York Times regarding certain arguments put forward in support of art education: They wrote: "We feel we need to change the conversation about the arts in this country," said Ms. Winner, a professor of psychology at Boston College and a senior research associate at Project Zero. “These instrumental arguments are going to doom the arts to failure because any superintendent is going to say, ‘If the only reason I’m having art is to improve math, let’s just have more math.’ Do we want to therefore say, ‘No singing,’ because singing didn’t lead to spatial improvement?” Ms. Winner added. “You get yourself in a bind there. The arts need to be valued for their own intrinsic reasons.” (2007 NY Times article regarding Project Zero.)
If you would like to read the article in question, please follow the above link. For my purposes here, I will only be addressing a few of the main points that I believe are problematic, so if you feel that my representation of the arguments is missing any vital context or misses the mark in any way, please feel free to let me know in the comments below, and I will be happy to address it.
- Editing Out
ARGUMENT: “When taking a photograph, the default situation is that everything included in the viewfinder when snapping the picture will be in the final photograph. The default in painting is that nothing is included. Anything a painter adds to a scene is done thoughtfully and with purpose. An artist rarely paints everything seen in a scene simply because it is there.”
PROBLEM: While I am sure there is a good deal of colloquial language here, I am not sure what is meant by “everything.” Many factors are at play when someone is snapping a photograph. Factors like shutter speed, aperture size, white balance, iso, etc., will greatly influence what information is collected on the instrument’s sensor or film. Additionally, in a later section titled “Do Cameras Have Feelings?” the author completely contradicts the issue she introduced in this section by stating, “It [the camera] may eliminate what you find most interesting about the scene before you.” I am not sure how the camera can both include “everything” and simultaneously “eliminate what you find most interesting.”
- Photography as the Only Realism
ARGUMENT: "There is a contemporary and deeply ingrained cultural belief that the only accurate way of picture-making is photography… This monopoly on human perceptions of reality is ubiquitous, yet a photograph is no more “real” than flying pigs. After all, photographs are just pigments on paper or light on a screen.
PROBLEM: Here, we find a blatant variant of a “pot calling the kettle black.” argument. Yes, photographs can indeed be aptly defined as “pigments on paper.” However, paintings can also be described in this way. I do not see how introducing this reductionist assessment aids in further promoting the importance of the art form being favored (nor does it effectively diminish the apparent utility of photography.)
- Do Cameras Have Feelings?
ARGUMENT: “A camera lens, as a non-human and inanimate object, does not have human emotions. It does not make value judgments for you about what is beautiful, ugly, or beautifully ugly…The camera will average all that it sees and weigh them as emotional equivalents. Even when tinkering with the settings there are only so many choices a camera can make compared to the human imagination.”
PROBLEM: Here, we find another fallacy that echoes the previous. Yes, I would agree that a camera does not have human emotions. However, this is also true of brushes, paints, canvas, etc. Additionally, there is no evidence that any current camera is capable of weighing emotional content.
- End the Camera’s Monopoly on Realism
ARGUMENT: “The absolutist, evangelical extremism and adherence to photography as the only true realism is absurd. This devotion to just one very narrow way to organize 3D information onto a 2D space is truly astonishing, especially considering how many other perfectly valid, and often more informative, ways there are to visually describe the world around us.”
PROBLEM: Why does painting have to be portrayed as being persecuted here? Does this genuinely do anything to celebrate its many merits? If there truly is an “evangelical extremism” analog in play, it is arising from the author’s arguments. There do not seem to be marches and protests taking place that aim to close the many museums worldwide because cameras exist. It may be my ignorance, but I am not sure where this “devotion” to the photograph as the only “true realism” is diminishing the efforts of today’s realist painters.
Again, there are many unique aggregates of rewards to be found engaging in realist efforts that are not diminished by the existence of imaging technologies. I mean, it does not seem that the advent of the jukebox stopped the millions and millions of aspiring musicians since from engaging in more traditional ways of generating music. And by its very nature (and the nature of humans), I don’t think generating representations in paint by hand will disappear from our society anytime soon.