Last week I used the word "painterly" in describing a photo I had posted on Facebook. Normally, this would not be the cause of much excitement, but that's not how my life works. I got caught up in a conversation with a couple of my younger colleagues who were unfamiliar with that word, especially in the context of a photograph. Was it derogatory? complimentary? To help clarify, I assured them that it was, um... both. I'm helpful that way.
Coming of age in photography in the 1970's put me squarely in the Ansel Adams - Group f64 era. You've seen these photos, beautiful and powerful every one of them, largely black & white, and largely large. As in, big negatives, big prints. It was modernist at its core: crisp tonal values and a brilliant sharpness-to-infinity with an unstructured approach to natural composition and arrangement. There are some who thought that this was the ultimate expression of reality, but no. It wasn't. But what it did do was distinguish modern photography from it's soft-focus, pictorial origins. Those old photographs were painterly; the modern photograph is not.
But does this hold hard and true in the digital era? I have my doubts. I no longer have my medium and large-format cameras, nor Tri-X film, nor my darkroom. I'm forced to look at the world with a different set of eyes, so to speak, and to adjust my vision accordingly, and digital technologies allow for a practically unlimited adjustment. This is photography's third big wave, one with an enormous potential for experimentation. And no, I'm not necessarily talking about being able to turn your photo into an oil painting at the push of a button (although that is sometimes so cool), but hopefully something that reaches far down inside of you. You know what I'm talking about.
So, No. I don't want my photographs to look like paintings; I didn't back was I was studying art, and I don't now. But things are different, and I want the freedom to express photography on my terms now. I find myself adding layer upon layer of my own vision, messing with color, with texture, with tonal values, with the voices in my head. Is it still a photograph? Yes. Is it...painterly? Sometimes, but so what. I'm an art-anarchist: follow those voices in your own head, and no one else's. They won't lead you astray.
Well, most of the time, anyway.