What I think about when I think about Photography

THIS IS AN OLD ESSAY I WROTE AND POSTED ON MY OLD WEBSITE. IT'S FREAKING LONG IS ALL I CAN SAY. 

Anyone can be a photographer these days thanks to their 8-MP cellphone cameras and Instagram, and the digital images we are bombarded with today are so numerous that many of us never even get around to printing out our jpegs and making the electronic files physical.  Nevertheless, people are still awed by the painted portrait.  

I work in the visual language of realism.  My portraits are “realistic” insofar as they resemble the people who are sitting for them.  If I paint Nancy, I would hope that most people who knew Nancy would be able to point to the portrait and say, “that’s a portrait of Nancy,” which would mean I captured some universal truths about Nancy that others see in her as well.  But I would hope that they would also realize the addition of some other truths as well, truths they might not known before about Nancy but that I observed and distilled. 

Sometimes well-wishers tell me that my paintings look “just like photos,” and sometimes I’m even given the shorthand of “photorealist,” whatever that means.  I am not sure that true photorealists would actually stand to be grouped with the likes of me, and while the comparison of my paintings to photographs is meant as a compliment, I take gentle issue with it.   

I hope that my paintings, which I see as interpretations of moments or events, diverge a great deal from what a photograph of the same historical moment – or even a painting made from such a photograph—might convey.  As a realist painter, my overarching goal isn’t to record and to record accurately.  If that were the case, I’d think my work is irrelevant, and I would happily cede ground to photography, which is a beautiful and informative medium, which has, just as any other medium, its advantages and disadvantages.  As a human, I bring my own personality, experiences, and technical skill to a subject: by accident or will, I make certain decisions that are different from those a camera would make about the same subject, especially if that subject is a living, breathing and changing person.  I will trust my faulty eye over the mechanical precision of the camera’s, for even technically there is an argument to be made that lenses suffer from distortion and do not rise to the sensitivity levels of human scotopic vision.  A camera is made to record whatever is in front of it, and most of the time, rather quickly: an infinitesimal point in time is captured and magnified.  But a portrait captures more than a moment, more than 1/2000th of a second, say, and is a historical record of the interaction of two people, which, when successful elicits a truth about the subject as distilled through and shaped by an artist’s worldview, and not a machine’s.  To that end, perhaps I was wrong to say that the goal of my work is not to record accurately: perhaps it’s better to say that the goal is to record accurately according to my own lights, and not to another person’s and certainly not to a machine’s.