Painting, Music or Theater? Which type of art is photography related to?

Candace Nirvana On Set - 040311

"Photography has been, and still, tormented by the ghost of Painting...   ... nothing eidetically distinguishes a photograph, however realistic, from a painting.  'Pictorialism' is only a an exaggeration of what the Photograph thinks of itself.

Yet it is not (it seems to me) by Painting that Photography touches art, but by Theater.   Photography is a kind of primitive theater, a kind of Tableau Vivant, a figuration of the motionless and made-up face beneath which we see the dead." Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes, pps30-31.
What is a parallel type of art to photography?  While few still argue that photography is not art, we must look at what are photography's family (parents, siblings or even distant cousins) in the art world.  Paintings?  Sculpture?  Prose?  Music?  Theater?

It is obvious to compare photography to paintings.  The physical properties of a photograph are very similar to  paintings.  They are both two dimensional representations of something.  They both are flat and often in frames.   Photos and paintings are both hung and presented on walls.  Both can also be appropriated for other purposes.

While these similarities are obvious, we must not solely focus on them.   Ansel Adams compared the photographic negative and print to music:
The negative is comparable to the composer's score and the print to its performance. Each performance differs in subtle ways. - Ansel Adams
With this analogy, I appreciate the dual processes needed to create both music and photographs.  In music, I must compose the music and then perform it for others to hear.  Depending on my mood, proficiency, the audience, music hall, and other important ingredients, each performance is a unique reproduction of the score.

In photography, I must work on composing all the key elements of the photo and capture it to film or a memory card.  In the post processing work, I take that composition and make it perform as per my intention, purpose, and vision of the piece of art I am creating.  If you look at Adams' prints he made from the same negatives that he created when he was younger and then again in his later years, you see completely different performances.  He emphasized different parts of the photo, darkened areas, added contrast, and changed the mood of each piece.  I can relate to that change in performance when I go to the darkroom and make prints from my old negatives.  My current life, mood, technique, affect the final print and what I need to get out of it.

Another metaphor regarding changes in performance concerns sexual practices.  I doubt many people have the exact same sexual repertoire, appreciations, desires, pleasures, and annoyances at twenty as they will have at forty, sixty, or any other age.  The general concept of sex (the composition) is the same, but the performance reflects the time/age/mood/partner of the performer.

Candace Nirvana and Dali - 040311
Can we compare photography to sculpture?  It is not as obvious as paintings.  Sculptures are three dimensional.  As I walk around the sculpture, the light shifts and falls differently on the art.  The perspective is different.  How can photography capture this.  Outside of high-tech 3D imaging, the comparisons are hard to find.  First, I could take a 360 degree panorama, print it and tape the beginning and end together into a ring.  When I stand in the center and turn around, I am seeing a 3D view around me.  I could also take photos of an object from multiple views and by presenting them in an ordered series, represent the 3D in 2D.   I've photographed models with 2D photos projected onto them giving curve, texture, and depth to the original image as it becomes the "skin" of the model.  I am not too fond of this comparison of sculpture and photography, but would be interested in learning if others have expanded this concept.

What about the written word as an artistic cousin to photography?  Prose?  Literature?  Journalism? Poetry? Essays?  Each of these written outputs can be art.  How is photography going to capture a type of art that is only visual in the letters printed on the page?  It is our brain that must take the written text and make it "visual".  This can be very difficult.  How many times have we lamented that the movie was not as good as the book?  That is because we were able to visualize the written story in our mind and make it come alive.  When you see a movie adaptation, you are seeing another person's vision of the written words.

What about "a picture is worth a thousand words?"  My counter argument to that is the picture came first and the thousand words are used to describe it.  On top of that, my thousand words may be very different than yours in that description.

In my opinion, text is the clearest communicative form of art.  It is easy to get lost in the meaning of a poem, a line by Shakespeare, but overall, language is used as the most direct and efficient method of communicating something.  
The Assassination of Robert Kennedy - photo by Boris Yaro

Communication is conveyed through photography.  The famous image of a busboy holding the fatally wounded Robert Kennedy photographed by Boris Yaro conveys the weight and tragedy of the moment.   A newspaper could easily report, "Robert Kennedy was assassinated today."  That is as direct as language can be.  The difference in the communication between text and photos though lies in the gaps filled in the minds of each reader or viewer.  The words are direct and inform you of the facts and then your mind spins where ever it goes.  The photo shows the scene of the moment.  You see the shock on the busboys face, the death of an American giant, and you feel you are a witness to the tragedy.  It doesn't necessarily inform you as much as it makes you a witness.  Both methods communicate, but the received messages are so different.  The text is obvious and the photo takes "a thousand words."

In Roland Barthes' book,  Camera Lucida,  he makes the comparison quoted above of photography being closer to art through theater than through painting.  It wasn't until I read the following bit did I understand it:

"Photography is a kind of primitive theater, a kind of Tableau Vivant, a figuration of the motionless and made-up face beneath which we see the dead." (emphasis mine)

Whether I watch a play, the news, a movie, or any other form of cinema, theater, or television, I am watching a performance that someone has written, performed, or captured for me to absorb.  The news is an edited story or performance.  The characters may have no clue they are part of the production, but the director, camera operator, and reporters decided they now are.  The same is true for "reality TV", game shows, and other forms of adhoc performance.  Fictional television programming, movies, and theater  are obviously contrived stories that are being performed, edited, and rehearsed for the viewers consumption.

Candace Nirvana/Death Valley - 040311
How does this relate to photography?  First, a movie is a series of photos strung in chronological order that convey the sense of motion, action and story.  So, my one of my photos is a moment taken from time that had a history and future before and ahead of it.  In that photo, I have a caste of characters, whether they are people, animals, cars, mountains, birds, or even barbed wire.  Every component is a character telling part of the photo's story.  They are part of the ensemble that makes an image art.  This is true irregardless of the genre of the photo (documentary, journalism, conceptual, erotic, narrative, etc.).

Candace Nirvana/Death Valley - 040311
This capturing of a moment, whether fictional and created through props, image manipulation, or "real" recording a moment in history comes from a complex process of capturing all the seen onto a chemical/digital medium.  It is then refined through physical and chemical or computer assisted manipulation to create a finished piece that may be considered art.  When filming a movie, all things are same, except the final performance has a flowing temporal presence filled with sound, movement, music, and spoken words.  A play director, working with a team of specialists, create scenery, stage, and setting and then directs the actors through rehearsals until he feels the story is ready to be shared with the public through performance.  It takes many physical, real elements to make a movie or play a reality, as does a photo.

This is the part of the comparison that relates most with Barthes' statement for me.  A painter creates the whole story out of his mind by making brush strokes, mixing colors, textures, and shaping the whole image upon the canvas.  She may have combined her memory of a person, an object, and many other elements from her mind and rendered them as she sees fit on the surface, while a photographer had to physically gather all the elements, direct them, place them, and finally capture them.  At this point the photographer is more of a theater director for a frozen moment than she is a creator of a two dimensional piece.  Even in the post production work of photo editing, the photographer is accentuating or muting elements of what is already there, much like a film editor.  The photographer  can't just add more content unless she goes and creates it, photographs it, and then edits it in*.  A painter can paint over something and change the piece at her pleasure or intent.

So Karl, what of this new realization of photography being closer in artistic familiarity to theater than painting?

I now have a deeper appreciation for my role as director of the image rather than creator of it.  I can't pull a tree out of thin air and paint it into a photo and still have it remain a photo*.  I have to acquire all the "actors" in the scene, block out the stage placement, determine lighting, color, tonality and then capture the one instant conveying everything that must be communicated.

The role of photographer is even more challenging (for me) when I am photographing a fluid, uncontrolled moment, such as a wedding, street life, or un-staged life moments.  I have to wait for all the random bits to come together into complete photo that tells all I need it to.  Henri Cartier Bresson was a master of capturing this "definitive moment".

Valya 040311
I've found my best work is a mixture of capturing the scripted, directed scene and photographing an organic moment that is evolving from my initial direction.  When I worked independently with Courtney, Mollee, Candace, Valya, Tim, Jacqui and many other models, we discussed the initial start point and key moments I wanted along the way and then each of them created the rest of the story and I captured it.  If I compare the finished results with my original concept of how the images would look, they match up in story and purpose, but the unique surprises of the moment, small deviations from concept and the model's individual interpretation of the part make each photo a unique and creative captured glimpse of the scene. 

For me, photography is capturing the (as I understand it) world, grand, majestic and huge, or small, subtle and understated, and all areas between in a frozen moment.  It captures this theater, whether it is fictional or not.  It captures the time-frozen artifact so we can truly live in the moment and figure out what it means to us. 

* I am not going to go into photo manipulation that is so involved that it becomes photo illustration through adding whole new elements, replacing them, or deleting them completely from the photo.  At that point, the analogy of photography being closer to a painting may make more sense.

NOTE: Thanks to my photography book club for the great discussion on Barthes' Camera Lucida.

Carla continued on with this topic over at What We Saw Today with her views on this post.  Enjoy! 


  1. Karl, I would agree that photography is closer akin to theater than to painting. I've always viewed a photograph as a best effort to condense the whole movie into just one frame... when the photographer/model come close to that goal it is my delight to try and discern the script they were working from.

  2. Karl, this is a long and complex discourse on photography as an art form. I have been arguing for some time that modeling is a performing art, but that does not speak to photography itself as a performing art. The photograph is only the record of such a performance having taken place. The same is true of dance photography; the dance is the performing art. So scratch performing art, and that would include theatre, sorry Barthes, and music despite Adams' analogies to musical composition. He began as a musician so apparently wanted to link his two passions.

    I have always been a writer. Nothing else has trumped verbal expression in the scope of my natural abilities and inclinations. But the written word merely alludes to visual images in our heads that identify the word as something pictorial. Composing a poem or short story or novel is not the same as composing music or choreographing a ballet. Writing at its best creates word pictures for the reader to visualize. That is writing as an art, as artistic expression on the same plane as other artistic forms of expression, and does not regard informational communication.

    Photography can also be informational, but that does not give it any direct connection to the written word. Everything in life connects in some way to everything else, so I think much of what you say here pushes the connections too far.

    Painting and sculpture strike me as the closest cousins to photography. Despite the 3-D nature of a sculpture, artists such as A. J. Khan and Carrie Leigh meet the challenge to create dimension in photography through the light sculpting of the human form. The tangibility is what is missing. You can't run your hand over the curves of a photographed thigh, but you can do that with a statue.

    Painting, then, has the most similarity to photography. Those who use photoshop or other programs to paint digital images are less than six degrees of separation from the painter with the actual brush.

    And movies? Film IS photography. There was no initial difference. Prior to digital moviemaking, the motion picture on film was a series of stills sequenced on a strip. I have seen film edited, and it is very apparent that we are talking about one and the same thing: a still image on a negative. The difference is the motion picture cast the stills in sequence so they suggested actual movement. To this, Eisenstein added montage. If given multi-media presentation, multiple photographs can similarly be edited with sound and motion.

    The one commonality is all these forms of artistic expression are artifice. Not one of them exactly duplicates reality, and that has been photography's biggest problem in taking a place as a legitimate art. People have the misconception it is reality. When we stop trying to slot photography into one of the "legitimate" arts, then photography may finally be able to stand on its own. It is distinctly what it is and nothing else.

  3. Thank you Cyranos and Carla for your comments. I really appreciate reading your opinions on this subject. I knew that what I wrote was a partially formed thesis, more of an exploration than a declaration.

    Cyranos - "I've always viewed a photograph as a best effort to condense the whole movie into just one frame... when the photographer/model come close to that goal it is my delight to try and discern the script they were working from. "
    Thank you for summing up what took me too many paragraphs to try to state.

    Carla - "...and music despite Adams' analogies to musical composition. He began as a musician so apparently wanted to link his two passions."

    I think Adams was trying to do more than link them. The way he knew and lived music must have influenced how he saw and created photographs. His brain was trained to think certain ways to create beautiful music and I see many of those musical patterns and influences in his work. For him, the one art, music, greatly influenced and shaped the other. I would be curious if he ever wrote how photography affected his music.

    Thanks to both for the great comments. Your words are always appreciated.

  4. Who really cares what others think or how they define fine art or whether they think photography is art? Do you feel the need for self-expression? Then express yourself through whatever medium you choose. For me personally, I shoot because I like to shoot and that's all that matters. I think photography is a unique medium. It's not painting. It's not theatre. It's not music. It's photography.

  5. Joe, I agree that photography is its own art form. It may have similarities to other arts, but it stands alone.

    I feel my evolving sense and style is influenced by theater and movies because of the narratives I like to push. In the end though, they are photographs and stand alone as such.


So,what are you thinking about?