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The Problem With Photography

Yesterday I endured the acquaintance of an extremely heavy, cumbersome and joyless piece of apparatus commonly known as a ‘camera.’ As some of you know, I have been asked to produce over twenty images of jars of home-made paint for a forthcoming exhibition at Forum Cafe, Sheffield. Whilst I am delighted at this prospect, it has also enabled me to ponder the virtue of photography as a means to communicate.

Paint Jars: Part of an exhibition to be displayed at Forum Cafe, Sheffield, from August 12th

Paint Jars: Part of an exhibition to be displayed at Forum Cafe, Sheffield, from August 12th

I have been using photography as a means to document for years now. The pictures I take are never deemed the actual work. They are used to share and promote my work with an audience, and to exchange ideas and correspond with other artists. They are also useful personally, to compare and analyse your own work in context. I have never, however, used photography solely to portray an idea. Here’s why:

  • As a tool, the camera removes the artist from a subject to such an extent that coherence in communicating an idea is compromised. A camera will bound a concept to its own limitations, and the artist has little hand in emphasising that which they wish to depict.
  • Your inherent perception of the physical world is lost as a compromise must be made between yourself and the viewfinder. The experience of taking pictures feels absent and you can’t immerse yourself in the experience; and if you can’t, how can an audience?
  • Painting is able to capture the essence of life whereas photography conveys nothing other than the face-value of life: A photograph conveys an almost binary sense of reality, whereas painting conveys the complexity of reality.
  • Image manipulation packages such a Photoshop render all imagery unreliable. Truth is lost in favour of achieving a perfect image.
  • The main problem I have with photography is that, often, photographs say more about the camera than the person behind it. Any pleb can take a half-decent picture these days, and I am no exception. Everybody thinks they are a good photographer, but hardly anybody thinks they’re a good painter.

So, that’s the problem I have with photography. Hasn’t stopped me from completing a series of work comprised entirely of photographs though! If artists can’t completely contradict themselves then what can they do?! You can see this work at Forum Cafe, Sheffield, From August 12th until September 23rd. You can find more details here:

15 responses

  1. lee

    A paint-brush is a tool just as a camera is… the type of brush you use binds you to its limitations, the colour of the pigment you load will be what paints to the surface. This isn’t much different than opening a shutter to light and shadow and burning an image on to the surface of film. They’re both used convey a concept and one doesn’t limit anymore than the other. I’m surprised by this post, especially from an artist that is pushing boundaries of what we consider paint to be. “Pleb” or not, fancy camera maybe, let people call themselves photographers if that’s what they want. but just because they do, and they seem to be deemed unfit for the title (by some mysterious high court of Fine Art?) doesn’t mean you have to discount an entire area of artistic study. Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Theatre series, for example, utilises long exposures to capture entire films in one still image, attempting to visually capture time. Michael Wesely does the same, only his exposures go on for literal years (using pinhole photography), capturing changing cityscapes in one beautifully rendered photograph (Google search Wesely MOMA if you’re curious.)

    July 25, 2013 at 11:01 pm

    • Thanks for your comment, Lee.

      I just don’t really like using them. It’s as simple as that really. I feel like I have no control when placed behind a camera. When using a brush I feel involved, and that which I wish to convey becomes intuitive and coherent.

      Also, I just like winding people up. You say you’re surprised by this post, and I’d rather you’d be surprised than bored. I obviously hold some regard towards photography seeing as I have just taken photographs of my paints. But if I can get away with not taking any photographs then I would.

      July 26, 2013 at 8:01 am

      • lee

        Winding people up for the sake of winding them up seems rather silly, no? It’s not up to you whether I’m bored or not, and hashing out tired arguments about photography isn’t exciting or new. (You just push a button!) (anyone can do it!) (if I had a fancy camera I would be good too!). It’s not surprising the way I think you think I mean. It’s dull. What I’m actually surprised about is that someone who has put so much time and energy into studying art and has a very strong conceptual practice would dismiss photography the way that you have. This isn’t the same as you using it to document your work, or you personally disliking it. If it were, you’d have said, “[a]s a tool, the camera removes /me/…”, “/My/ inherent perception of the physical world is lost…”, and etc.

        July 26, 2013 at 1:44 pm

      • I don’t think winding someone up is any more or less silly than feeling the need to defend your own position on a subject with a stranger. Why does it matter to you that I dismiss photography? As a discipline, it isn’t something that I feel strongly about. I don’t understand why you feel the need to engage in this argument to the extent you have. If you think what I’m saying is dull, then why comment? It’s strange to me.

        July 26, 2013 at 2:59 pm

      • lee

        I didn’t realise we were engaged in an argument to begin with. You tossed out a fairly strong opinion on a subject and I responded in kind, that’s all. Why do you have the option for strangers to comment and then feel it strange when one does? (I don’t expect an answer.) Good luck with your exhibition.

        July 26, 2013 at 4:01 pm

      • Don’t get me wrong, I like to read what people have to say. Finding something strange is not the same as disapproving of something. It intrigues me how people seem to feel the need to defend their own stance on artistic practice when confronted with an opposing opinion.

        I have even considered responding visually to each correspondence, in some kind of effort to create art which constantly provides answers to any questions posed. Like an ultimate, universal construct that cannot be criticised. I love the idea of creating something which safeguards itself against critique. This is all just an initial idea at the moment though.

        July 26, 2013 at 4:45 pm

  2. Ben

    Well I think your photographs are beautiful Michael and you have raised a fascinating debate. If artists can’t debate then who the hell can. Just clean up afterwards.

    July 28, 2013 at 8:14 pm

    • Thanks Ben 🙂

      July 29, 2013 at 8:52 am

      • Anonymous

        On a serious note. I.e. all joking aside (yeah right!)… I think the concepts behind your paint making is really strong. So strong, in fact, that the actual paints themselves seem more important as artworks than the paintings you make with them. The photographs you produce seem like a novel way of playing with arrangement, hierarchy and narrative. I chose the word ‘playing’ carefully because the jars of paint are very playful objects in themselves full of the eloquent things you say about them – memory, history and egg. I struggle to see where the actual paintings fit in to your practice now you have refined your skills as a conceptualist, other than as a somewhat unnecessary means of justifying yourself. Do correct me if I am wrong though, my friend.


        July 30, 2013 at 11:05 pm

      • No, I agree with everything you’ve said there, actually! haha!

        One thing I will say with regard to the paintings I create, is that I seek some sort of way of objectifying my paints. One way of doing this is applying paints to a surface in equal squares. This allows the paints to be regarded at face value, and allows the viewer to regard painting as objective, relative to the subjective nature of the paints themselves. I feel as though my practice becomes balanced and more informed this way.

        July 31, 2013 at 10:51 am

  3. Anonymous

    I see your point, but aren’t the paints ‘objectified’ the moment you create objects out of them? In this instance, by putting them into a glass jar.

    Do you not think that the more you ‘do’ with your paints, the intimacy of your practice risks becoming somewhat reduced? I am very interested in the minimalist approach which seems to follow a very complex construction process (the production of the actual paint) and the jars of paint become blocks of three-dimensional colour much like the ‘equal squares’ you allude to in your response.

    To me, pouring the paint inside of a glass jar is very similar (if not completely identical) to brushing the paints onto a canvas. The advantage you have is that by screwing the lid onto the top of the jar, the painting is already framed.

    These paintings are tiny, yet a viewer can become more immersed in them than say, a 6ft tall canvas on a wall, simply because they can walk around and interact with them.


    August 1, 2013 at 12:05 pm

    • I have a lot of respect for your point of view. And indeed I am myself struggling with the idea that placing paint in a jar equates to applying paint to a canvas.

      However, I think there are some fundamental differences that separate the two. For one, the paints can readily be removed from the jar, meaning that they are able to exist in a state between being regarded as a final piece of work and regarded as a medium.

      Suitable development of this idea suggest a collaboration between myself and another painter. If I create paint out of, say, an apple, and the other artist uses it to depict a pear, then what has happened is At the end of my involvement I have achieved one thing and it has been manipulated in a way which depicts something completely different.

      August 1, 2013 at 12:34 pm

  4. Also, people who are unaware of advanced photographic processes still consider photography to be hard or factual evidence. The fact that photography is still considered as evidence in court if authenticated is disturbing given the types of manipulation that exist and the minimal standards that exist for authentication. That same process is something that makes it important to question the realism of fine art photography or photojournalism. Photojournalism almost always accompanies our news, but we have no idea to what extent these photos may have been manipulated, and thus to what extent the news may have been manipulated.

    August 21, 2013 at 2:32 am

    • Yes I’d agree with you on this. The medium of photography is pretty unreliable

      August 24, 2013 at 8:13 pm

  5. Anonymous

    Photography and painting have a fundamental difference that must be taken into consideration, and that is ‘painting’ is a duplication (a replication of something physical or something in the imagination of the painter) and photography is an investigation; the camera isnt a brush, images are composed by life coming together and it is the photographer’s job to find and INVESTIGATE those moments and capture them.

    June 14, 2014 at 6:23 am

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