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10 Unique Photographic Visual Phenomena

Great minds have debated the ‘photography as art’ issue. I’m not going to touch on that. And various theorists have no doubt pondered the differences if cognitive function when taking an instantaneous and reproducible photograph compared to spending weeks on creating a single oil painting. I’m not going to go there either. All I’m going to do is list the photographic visual phenomena that are notably absent from paintings, as I’ve noticed them.

These visual properties, artefacts, and phenomena are either exclusively, or near exclusively, owned by the medium of photography.  A painter would exclude them if they were ever present in the field of view.  Or if he or she did include them, they would be so unusual to draw disproportionate attention to these elements.

I suppose these can be broken down into a few themes. In the order I’ve listed them, you could define them as: the photographer, optical artefacts and side effects, composition and picture elements, and the properties of film and exposure.

  1. Feinstein Reflection

    2 - Beauty Parlor Window, 1964 © Harold Feinstein

    The photographer’s shadow – With a low sun at the photographer’s back, it is inevitable that a shadow will be present on the ground, or any vertical surface in its way. Interesting to see in the recent story about Bob Dylan’s paintings plagiarising photographs there was an example where he had gone to the trouble of removing the photographer’s shadow.

  2. The photographer’s reflection– Shoot into a mirror or shoot through glass into a darker interior and you’re going to get reflections of the photographer and/or camera.  Sometimes these are well-defined and fully formed, sometimes they are blurred and half lost within the tones of the image.
  3. The photographer’s body – This includes the finger over the lens, the hand swinging in front of the camera during a hop shot, or the more deliberate inclusion of limbs and extremities. In paintings the presence of the photographer is virtually the exclusive domain of self portraits.
  4. Lee Friedlander, Albuquerque

    7 - Albuquerque, New Mexico, 1975 © Lee Friedlander

    The out of focus blur – Yes, there are paintings that do exhibit this quality, but they are either painted from photographs, made using the benefit of a camera obscura, or otherwise contain areas of ‘flat’ blur rather than progressive, circle-of-confusion based blur.

  5. The flare, the sunstars, the light streaks – These are all artefacts created by unwanted reflections, refractions and diffractions within an optical arrangement. Only at the image plane are they present in the form we see in photographs.
  6. The accidental composition – There are certain arrangements that despite defying conventional compositional wisdom, undeniably produce a pleasing picture. This is very different from poor composition, or lazy composition.  Usually these arrangements come by chance, when multiple elements are moving and the photographer is unable to control them.
  7. The foreground object bisecting the frame – Often this takes the form of a lamppost or telegraph pole. Walker Evans was good at this, also Friedlander and many other street photographers. This imposing vertical that by itself is unworthy as a subject can add a break between left and right, almost a full stop, or just create an interesting pause or separation, as per a comma.
  8. Jacques-Henri Lartigue, Car Trip, 1913

    8 - Car Trip, Papa at 80 kilometers an hour 1913 © Jacques-Henri Lartigue, Ministère de la Culture - France / AAJHL

    The motion blur – There are, I suppose a few paintings that exhibit this, but they are likely the result of an impressionistic urge, rather than a limit that the medium places upon them.  When shooting on the street at night with slowish film, street photographers of the mid-twentieth century had to deal with this phenomena in nearly every frame.

  9. The handshake blur – Related to the above in some ways, but the nature of the blur is very different. With motion blur, the blur is relative and depends on the object or objects direction and speed. With handshake blur, the lack of sharpness is more uniform across the frame, and creates unnatural paths of motion, often most evident with in-frame light sources, like bulbs or neon lights.
  10. The clipped highlights – Human perception of luminosity is very localised, so we as humans (and artists) have our own version of HDR built it. This means that when painting a scene with areas of wildly different brightness, we able to perceive (and later tend to recreate) details in both. So a dark interior scene may be combined with a brightly lit cloudscape through a window. The dynamic range in photography (especially digital) is often left wanting, and details are simply not recorded in the highlights.

Nearly on the list, but not quite:

  • Blocked shadows – One walk around the National Gallery should be enough to convince you that artists haven’t been afraid of utilising pure black in shadow areas where details would otherwise be present
  •  Film grain – One word rebuttal: pointillism.

Have I missed any? Or are any of these bogus (you’ll have to forgive my charlatanism when it comes to the multi-millenial beast of the non-photgraphic art universe).

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