Painting Blog > Artist-Art > Can a Painter also be a Photographer?

Can a Painter also be a Photographer?

March 29th, 2010


“Two Ducks in a Pond”, The river Doubs, Leica M8, 35 mm, Summicron, 2010/03/22

This is not intended as a rhetorical question. Today, when asked the seemingly inevitable question “What do you do?” (Yes, even in France) my response is now “I am a painter – also a photographer.” So, I think maybe the question is “Can a person in today’s world be a generalist?” I’ll back up a bit, say 50 years or so. During this time I’ve spent the majority of my creative effort in the process of the understanding and the practice of painting. No doubt much more time spent in the understanding. Much study and reflection. During the times when there was some clarity the painting itself was relatively easy. This, of course after years spent studying the practice and the understanding of how different pigments behaved in different mediums and so on. However, doubt has dogged my every effort. Painting is, today, very very difficult if you approach it sincerely and consciously. As for photography: this has for me been a breath of fresh air. It can be a creative response to a relatively short period of time – a mere blink in the span of history.It directly speaks to contemporary times. In point of fact, it was invented the day before yesterday – a little more than 150 years ago. We have cave paintings dated something like 30,000 years old. We are not in this case, talking about the same ball game.

And yet I have been confronted in an aggressive manner because I was carrying a camera. This has happened in France by people who knew me to be a painter. To say that you need not to be affected by what other people think is, I believe, beside the point. We do not live in a vacuum. You have to at some point wonder what is going on here.

I’ll back up again, just a few years this time. In the mid-nineties I was walking along the lake close to Lausanne and met a couple from the U.S. It turns out he was an old art professor at a major University in New York State. In the course of our conversation he told me that he believed that I could find acceptance in France as a photographer but it would be quite difficult as a painter. I’ve often pondered how he had come to that conclusion. Let me state categorically that I do not think that being an American in France has had anything to do directly with my level of recognition. But I do question whether or not my photographic interest has compromised my painting. There is that nagging element of doubt that has been hounding painters for at least 100 years. We know as a fact that almost immediately after the introduction of photography painters began using it as a tool. Courbet used photographs quite a bit and the impressionists were enormously affected. Not only was photography used as a tool, it shaped their approach and theories about painting. It is not far fetched to say that the world of painting has not been the same since. We could dig deeper into how thinking about art itself had changed after the revolution but this is beyond the scope of what I want to say.

Bringing it back to the personal level and my original question: can a person be both a painter and a photographer? (Rather than attempt as I often do to answer my own questions, I would really like to know what you think.)

In any case, I plan to, in the not to distant future, to begin a blog on my photography. That my interest in photography has influenced my painting I will readily admit. However I have never felt the need or inclination to use it as a tool or make paintings based on a particular photograph. Why? Painting in its own right is much more fun. Painting from photographs is like assembly work.

Actually, during the last 20 years I’ve spent little time with photography. Up untill the 90’s I received much pleasure processing my film and doing black and white prints. I even went so far as to take a portable darkroom with me on my travels. (I was very mobile – what you might call a nomad during many years.) I would set up my darkroom wherever I was. Moving to France marked the end of this habit.

Slowly, I’ve become in recent years involved with digital photography. I bought a Canon 10D in 2003. No chemicals! And comparatively the creative freedom is incredible. I find great pleasure in it. After playing with Photoshop and Lightroom from their beginnings I begin to get “serious” about it.

Aside from this, we are moving house. After 15 years in the same place the time arrived to move on to greener pastures. It is off to Burgundy we go. Both Françoise and I spent our youth in a rural setting so it is a return to our roots of sorts – a village of 200 people. Calm, peace and tranquility.

Published in french as Un peintre peut-il aussi être un photographe ?

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2 Responses to “Can a Painter also be a Photographer?”

  1. Taranis says:

    Do you really think paintings on natural caves walls and paintings on walls and canvas are so different ? I don’t think so. Just my opinion: painting is leaving an indelebil mark on time -> on caverns moving beasts are made statics, and hands are the mark of the people, what we call graffitis since roman times, same for silhouettes encarved in the Alps (Valcamonica) : moving and free people made static, that is the sense of painting -> an indelebil memory of our lifes for future generations.

  2. denis says:

    @Taranis, correct as far as painting goes. In the context of the very rhetorical question I was posing in the article, this question of timelessness becomes convoluted with the element of technology. This is what I concerned about here..
    The technological miracle of photography (how else do you explain the action of light on the silver halides?) is just one instance of the impact of technology on painting. For decades we have seen the prolific replacement of the brush with the airbrush, the copying of projected images on canvas and paper to site just 2 examples. Today painters are sitting directly in front of their computer monitors and painting. This is, I think you will agree, resulted in different ball game. A painter stands in front of his canvas with a consciousness that has been affected by an explosion of technology. Even the warm urban graffiti artist is more often than not using a spray can. During the 60’s many musicians and intellectuals were denouncing technology. Yet many of the musicians were doing so as they plugged in their electric guitars.
    Taranis, I share with you concern and consideration of the timelessness element. We need to think hard and deep on this. It is very important. The planets very survival may depend upon it.
    So, as an artist, it is a moral question if he is conscious of his/her being a global citizen, where does he stand in the use of technology in his art? Engaging technology in the creation of photographic images enables a contemporary spirit and the replacement of the ziegeist mind set. This produce another conflict if artistic independence and a sense of freedom are paramount : not only personally but globally for humanity. It is a question, I believe, of the artist being in the world but not of it. It would be interesting if you were writing an article addressing this issue. I would be interested to get your “take” on it. Clarity is needed.