Two worlds and a screen between them

Last week I stepped into a big muddy puddle saying you cannot express your emotions through photography (that’s the link, or you can simply click This week I want to compare and contrast photography to traditional art. The major difference is that most kinds of art employs an additive process. You add elements to create what you want. And these elements come from both within and without. When people talk about showing emotion in art, that’s what they are talking about. Think of it this way: you–without going into too many philosophical distinctions–are like a dividing screen. On one side is the outer world, of things and objects of stimuli. On the other side is your inner world, made up of thoughts and emotions. When you make art, you take things from both worlds and you mix these together onto a sheet of paper or a canvas or a tight string, and out comes a unique piece that speaks of your feelings. Say I am on a river bank somewhere, painting on a canvas. I am not hungry, or thirsty or hot. There are no bugs to bother me. I am listening to Mozart and things just look hunky-dory. My painting will reflect that. I will use smooth flowing lines, I will blend the colors in evenly, probably make it look bright and lively. On the other hand, if I were not so comfortable, if I were hungry, or angry, (or both) and if I were generally unhappy then my brush strokes will probably be short and thick as though I stabbed the canvas with the brush. The colors wouldn’t be blended well. There would be a staccato feel to my painting, to borrow a term from music. I am not making this up. Try it. Try painting when you are angry or unhappy. It will show. It will show not only in your style but also in your choice of colors and the content of your painting. Now this is true in other forms of artistic expression too, not just painting. But let’s examine this in a bit of detail.


Slice of time vs. flow of time

Starry Night Over the Rhone. Public domain work by Van Gogh.

Let’s go back to that dividing screen again. The screen is there all the time, art or no art, photography or no photography. What happens in photography is that there is no easy way to mix what’s on the inside with what’s on the outside. There are photographers who experiment with different techniques to bring a more personal feel to their photos but I think those fall on the fringe. They are good experiments that certainly leave a personal signature and are a testament of the photographers’ technical prowess but do not necessarily infuse the photo with their emotions. A photograph is an instant of time. A slice. Our feelings are temporal, they exist and evolve in time. The reason why we find music so full of emotion even without words or images is probably because music also evolves in the same way. You cannot take a snapshot of music. Music has to flow to exist. Our emotions–which are thoughts without words, really–also don’t exist in snapshots. A painting is made over time, bit by bit. Therefore, although the final piece is static, it still embodies that flow. You can project the emotions and thoughts in your mind onto the canvas and it builds up over time. You cannot add to a photo bit by bit. There is no way to do that unless, to some extent, you treat it digitally. Even then it’s not quite the same–you can very easily undo yesterday’s edits that you made while you were upset. Generally, for a photo, not only can you not show such flow, but you are also limited to one side of the dividing screen, the outside world. For an example, look at Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night Over the Rhone, or his other starry night painting called simply The Starry Night.

Starry Night. Public domain work by Vincent van Gogh.

Stars don’t look like that, especially in the second one. Even the Rhone painting has prominent, shining stars. There are lots of photos of the same location (big surprise!) taken by someone or another which shows the quay on the Rhone in Arles, where Van Gogh’s painting is set, and although you can see the lights reflected in the water, you don’t see big stars like that. Well, of course. The stars in the paintings are more like fireworks bursting in the sky. In the second painting, the stars and the moon are big and bright, almost as big and bright as the sun, but it’s still a night scene over a idyllic village. Except everything in the sky is huge and swirly and a bit menacing. Although, in both cases Van Gogh was painting a real scene, his mind supplied an essential ingredient. If you remember that he was manic-depressive and some of these paintings were made on the verge of the depressive state, you can see how the inside of the dividing screen manifests itself and mixes with the outside, the actual landscape, to create these amazing paintings. I can appreciate his swirly sky and stars and moon personally: when I was a child (and even now but very very rarely) I used to have visions of everything around me being spun around in huge menacing swirly motions, the entire world seemed to be caught in a giant whirlpool. I was afraid to close my eyes. Van Gogh may have had a different but not all too dissimilar feeling and through his painting he has touched my mind.


An art form like no other

Needless to say, a photo can make a very accurate representation of a scene, the outside objective world, but because it is not an additive process there is no way to add an element from your mind to that scene. Extensive digital manipulation, as I mentioned before, might bring it a little closer. The other way to do it is to create the scene you want to photograph by using actors, props and other elements. After all, that’s exactly what movies are, on a much more elaborate scale. But such photography projects and their undertakers are few and far between. For the vast majority of photography, you arrive at a scene that you have little or no control over, and you take pictures of it. It could be a landscape, it could be on the street. It could be one upturned chair by a door in Morocco or a perfectly laid tea ceremony in Japan. The important part is you are simply an observer. In some limited cases, say for a person on the street, you can redirect them, a little bit, and they might play along. Photography cannot, by its very essence, portray the photographer’s feelings the way a painting can or musical piece can. Therefore, judging it by the same standards is misguided at best and spiteful at worst. It is an art unto itself and must be practiced (and appreciated) as it is.

If you look back at history, this shortcoming of photography is the same reason it was held in contempt by painters (and perhaps still is). But the same “shortcoming” is also its great strength. A photograph records things as they are. If there was a brilliant sunset last evening, I have no other way of showing it to you. Words, paintings, music are all too personal. By telling you about the sunset using those mediums I am no longer showing you what the sunset was really like, but instead what it was like according to me. This robs you, the viewer, of feeling it for yourself. A photo lets you see it for yourself without having to go through me. Photography shifts the focus from the artist to the audience. The painter tells the audience, This is how I see it. But the photographer asks, What do YOU see? Traditionally, art has always been about the voice or point-of-view of the artist. It was the artist’s burden to show the world how he saw it. The triumphal music of Beethoven’s Eroica symphony was his own jubilation at the thought of Napoleon bringing democracy to Europe. Mozart’s mournful Requiem probably speaks of  his foreboding of his own death. Photography releases the audience from all of that. You don’t have to see what the photographer saw. You don’t have to feel what the photographer felt. The photographer has selected a slice of time, an instant, that caught his eye for whatever reason. He invites you to see that same slice, but with fresh eyes so you may decide for yourself if there is something in it worth seeing.

In the next piece I will examine the various reasons a photographer might take a photograph.


1. I use the male pronoun because it is easier and quicker, I hope my female readers aren’t offended.
2. The feature/header photo is from Disneyland. I have been told it reminded the person of Van Gogh’s Rhone painting. I like that photo not only because of Disneyland but also because it makes me “remember” a memory (that I don’t have) of coming home to shore at nightfall amidst faint, distant chimes and murmurs of soft voices. It makes me feel very warm and secure, as if I’ve come home.


%d bloggers like this: