Painting and Photography

Daguerréotype – Remplacera la peinture
Flaubert, Dictionnaire des idées reçues [1870s]

There is no question that photography has had a profound impact on painting. It almost eliminated an entire industry of painters, namely painters of portraits, and in general precipitated a radical reinvention of the art. Photography is probably the main reason a lot of painting moved away from naturalistic representation in the decades after its invention. Much has been made of how photography will make painting obsolete (see Flaubert, above), but I think that’s a bit overstated.

Although it may be unacceptable to adherents of progress (or novelty) in the arts, I believe the reinvention of painting in the face of photography had already succeeded by the latter half of the 19th century.

The simplest justification for this is the obvious absurdity of the question: why didn’t Van Gogh just take a photograph of the sunflowers? The answer, if you need one, is: a photograph would not have said the same thing. It would have been a different work. The continuing reinvention of painting that happened after Van Gogh had its roots in many things: fashion, the joy of exploration, a desire for publicity, unsettled times – but from the limited point of view of staking out turf that painting could legitimately call its own, all that happened after Van Gogh was unnecessary.

In an essay in October [The End of Painting, v16, n2, p69, 1981] Douglas Crimp asserted that painting had been in retreat from photography for over a hundred years. It is interesting to note that in terms of the technological transformations that have occurred over the past century, this one is apparently taking a very long time: much longer than it took for the automobile to replace the horse as a means of urban transportation, for example. It raises the question: if photography can completely replace painting, why has it not already done so?

The fact is that new media seldom completely replace older media, although they may take over some of their territory. For example, movies did not replace theatre, although they did do away with vaudeville. TV and video did not replace the movies, although the movies did become more spectacular in their effort to compete. TV didn’t replace radio either, although it’s probably responsible for the demise of the radio drama. And neither microfiche nor computers have replaced printed books and magazines, although many thought they would. What tends to happen instead is that new media and old media jockey for position. The old media usually loses some ground, but not all of it, and redefines itself accordingly. Typically, the old media lose ground in areas where they somewhat inadequate to begin with. Computer media did not replace paperback novels (yet) or coffee-table art books, but they did replace bound periodical indexes.

Picasso said, “Painting is only possible now [in the age of photography], because now we know at least everything painting isn’t.”

There is no question that painting is no longer the dominant form of visual representation. In the present day, photo-based media obviously dominate visual discourse. This is sometimes brought forward as evidence that painting is no longer relevant. But interestingly, this fact may also help to establish the ongoing relevance of painting. If painting is no longer dominant, then it provides an alternative to that which is dominant. Alternative modes of communication are almost by definition a good thing, in that they highlight the limitations of the dominant mode, and enable us to represent familiar objects in different ways. Far from being an argument against the continuance of painting, this may in fact be the central argument in favour of the persistence of painting in the 21st century.

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