It has nothing to do with what comes first. Paintings have been around too long before we even theorized the concept of photography.
So, really, which one is better? Have you ever considered that maybe there are two types of people, those who would prefer a painting over a photo, and those who would prefer the photo over the painting? Are we that different then? Aren’t we both looking and appreciating a reproduction of reality?
I think it goes deeper than this.
A photo captures a moment. It captures a millisecond, the time it takes for the shutter to operate. And during that less-than-a-blink duration, the camera captures the instant. A runner on a track, the fall of an object, someone blinking in a family photo! There is staging and there is also not quite staging. The photo is a second of what we have lived. Memories are in photos. This is what they are mostly used for, in fact. Photographic records of times spent.
But photography in art is beyond that simple premise. Photography in art is not just about capturing a split second of life, of reality. It is about capturing the right split second. What us mere mortals marvel at when we look at our collections of photos and see that specific photo we have showing the plate cracking when it hit the floor, professional photographers live for these specific moments. They will not stop at taking the picture of that athlete running on the track, they will look to find that precise moment he crosses the finishing line. They will not stop at taking a picture of a sunset, they will wait until the last ray of sunlight goes behind the horizon. They will not stop at photographing the lion, they will wait until they can show us the mother lion feeding her cubs. Professional photography in the art field is more than spontaneity – it is a calculated design. Photos in art contain messages beyond the simple meaning of a shot.
This appeal to many of us.
A painting has a wholly different approach. Before the camera, people would get their portraits drawn. Families would have themselves painted by the local artist. The purpose was similar – to capture a moment in time.
That moment in time – often translated into hours of posing! - became a rather unique depiction. The artist, the human element here, puts his skills on the canvas and each of their brushstrokes create a unique feature. There is no reproducing what they are doing, what they are painting, their method, their application, where they start, where they finish, the length of their brushstrokes, the pressure they apply on the canvas. Each detail that makes up the painting is a unique element.
Stepping back at looking at a painting and remembering or imagining how it was made, is the subtext to the story the painting is showing. It could be a scenery, and looking at it would remind us of a time and place we went to or long to be, but taking a step closer to the painting, and we would start noticing details in the painting that may transport us to an altogether different time and place. Is that why we stand in front of great art pieces and lose ourselves staring at them? Is that why we go back and research the story behind this and that painting?
The subtext to a painting, that second narrative element, is even more pronounced when the artists introduced more of their personal touches in making the painting. The more we frown and need to decipher what we are looking at, the more successful the painting is at telling that second story. This is where the abstract shines as well as the surrealism.
In fact, there is a common denominator to all paintings. Whatever their style, era, artists, creation history, they all contain that second narrative that is unique to each one of them. A painting is almost a storybook.
And so is a photo. Yours or a professional photographer’s.
Although comparable, a photo and a painting should not be compared when it comes to art. Because each one of us wants a different story. Some find that in a photo and some in a painting. None is better than the other, because they both are talking to us, by evoking memories and by telling us stories.