The “Pitfalls” of reading about Photography “Pitfalls”

As I was wandering through the landscape of social media this morning, I happened upon an interesting article titled “How to Avoid the Pitfalls of Painting from Photographs”. The use of photography and other imaging technologies in the pursuit of representational painting and drawing has been a topic of great interest to me for some time. Without hesitation, I clicked the link and jumped right in.

The article began by establishing the idea that just because you have seen a photograph of something does not mean you know “exactly” what something may look like. While I understood the basic groundwork that the author was trying to establish here, the opening signaled that what would most likely follow would be a series of general misunderstandings regarding perception and “accuracy”.  I felt that one can just as easily argue that drawings, paintings and even general observations from life can offer just as little in terms of accuracy.  For example, I have seen Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s 1851 painting Washington Crossing the Delaware; however, the fact that I have seen the painting does not mean that I have any idea of what such an event may have actually looked like (“exactly”).

Just as I had suspected, the second paragraph presented several general misconceptions in an effort to compare the mechanics of the eye with that of a camera. Artist Mark Haworth stated: “The camera cannot see like the eye can when it comes to color accuracy, depth of field, and the warms and cools of highlights and shadows. There’s a lot of distortion that comes along with photographs.”

Mr. Haworth is absolutely correct in that there may be many types of distortion that are inherent to the products of the camera. However, optical distortions also occur in human vision (not too mention that such distortions are then subject to a sea of perceptual biases that arise in our visual processing.)

It should be understood by anyone engaging in this conversation that the percepts generated by a biological vision system are not accurate, objective recordings of the environment. This is something that needs to be understood at the onset of any discussion involving visual perception-I cannot stress this enough. The chasm between the physical world and our perceptions is significant and as such we need to acknowledge that what we “see” is a construct of evolved biology—not an accurate measurement of an external reality. The mechanics of the visual system should not be confused with devices that can garner reasonably accurate measurements of the physical world (e.g. calipers, light meter, spectrophotometer, etc.) Rather, the visual system responds to stimuli based on past experiences and stored information in an effort to yield successful behavior. It is not an external reality composes the image we “see”–rather it is the biology of the observer.

It is important to note that Mr. Haworth is not alone. Many people do liken the mechanics of the retina to the workings of the sensors found in modern day cameras (and to a certain degree–in certain contexts–they are not wrong to do so.) However, the processing of incoming stimuli garnered from such differing mechanisms is akin to apples and oranges.

The implication in Mr. Haworth’s statement that the eye holds some superior “color accuracy” is also problematic. If there was anything good that came from the viral sharing of an image of a blue dress in a clothing store, it was that people were informed as to just how subjective color perception actually is. Take a look at these two color cubes that are being influenced by different color filters:

constanc2The top tiles perceived as blue on the left and the top tiles perceived as yellow on the right are both actually grey.

The above illustration is an example of subjective color constancy and a feature of the human color perception system which ensures that the perceived color of objects remains relatively constant under varying illumination conditions. A green apple for instance looks green to us at midday, when the main illumination is white sunlight, and also at sunset, when the main illumination is red. Such color constancy examples demonstrate that we “assign” colors in a manner that we find useful as opposed to a camera’s process of objectively discriminating wavelength.

As I continued with the article, I came across more statements that I would consider troublesome for the topic. Artist and instructor Denise LaRue Mahlke stated: “Following a photo to a ‘T’ is a big mistake, because the camera lies…..Photos can be indispensable as a jumping off point, but even if the photo is an excellent one, you want to reinvent the scene for a painting to work.”  This statement is very problematic for quite a few reasons.

First, to state that following a photographic reference in any way is a mistake means that you must first understand the goal or intentions of the artist that is using the photograph. This is somewhat akin to stating that you should not follow the edge of the ruler to a “T”. If your goal is a straight line than you should definitely follow the edge as closely as possible. If your goal is a line that deviates from a straight path then of course you should not.  In any case I would have to know an artist’s intention before I could recommend which methodology or tool may prove advantageous in their pursuit.

Second, stating that the camera “lies” implies that our biological percepts are somehow a more accurate or “truthful“ (veridical) representation of reality. As I stated earlier—our biology reflexively reacts to certain stimuli in a specific way that has generated successful behavior in the past. Our eyes are not light meters nor spectrophotometers. Rather they operate by hunting down areas of contrast amidst highly conflated stimuli to extract useful information. Again, the eyes are not taking accurate samples of an external reality.

There are definitely problems to contend with when utilizing photography in the pursuit of representational painting or drawing. However, the points that are often put forward to argue against the use of photography in representational painting communicate more of a general misunderstanding of visual perception than anything else. Now I agree that there are some truly GREAT reasons not to use photography in specific painting and drawing scenarios. However you must be aware of the goal or intention of the artist before you can effectively determine the advantage of a reference source. Yes, some photographic processes may have specific limitations of value and color—but limitations will also exist elsewhere in your process (like on your palette.) Such limitations aside, one of the most significant arguments that can be made for the advantage of “life work” is the contributions from time and motion in the hunt for useful visual information.

What do I mean by that? Well, the spatial aspects of visual perception do not truly vary all that much when comparing the photograph and a live subject. The image on your retina is just as flat as the photograph. Monocular cues that are successfully represented on canvas and paper such as linear perspective, aerial (atmospheric perspective), and occlusion can be similarly garnered from a photograph as successfully they can be garnered from live-scene observation. However, some cues that involve time or motion provide additional information or reinforcement as experienced via motion parallax (when an observer moves, the apparent relative motion of several stationary objects against a background gives hints about their relative distance), depth from motion (when an object moves toward the observer, the retinal projection of an object expands over a period of time, which leads to the perception of movement in a line toward the observer), or accommodation (when we try to focus on far away objects, the ciliary muscles stretch the eye lens, making it thinner, and hence changing the focal length. The kinesthetic sensations of the contracting and relaxing ciliary muscles is sent to the visual cortex where it is used for interpreting distance/depth).

Aside from depth cues, time and motion also play a part in expanding the array of considerations for the artist.

For example, if a landscape painter spends a significant amount of time observing an outdoor scene he or she will most likely find much of the scene (including the lighting) subject to considerable change. While this may seem problematic for some—a painter that can quickly adapt to a changing scene can perhaps garner far more applicable information for consideration than the static information inherent to a photograph of the same scene.

I would also argue that a portrait artist can more efficiently and/or effectively collect applicable information from a live model as opposed to a static photograph of that same model due to contributions of motion and time within a visual information gathering process.

(Before I explain this allow me to set the stage with a little background in peak-shift deployment from celebrated neuroscientist VS Ramachandran.)

One of Ramachandran’s eight laws of the art experience is known as the Peak Shift Principle. He states “In the peak shift effect, animals sometimes respond more strongly to exaggerated versions of a training stimuli. For instance, a rat is trained to discriminate a square from a rectangle by being rewarded for recognizing the rectangle. The rat will respond more frequently to the object for which it is being rewarded to the point that a rat will respond to a rectangle that is longer and narrower with a higher frequency than the original with which it was trained. This is called a Supernormal stimulus.

This effect can be applied to human pattern recognition and aesthetic preference. Some artists attempt to capture the very essence of something in order to evoke a direct emotional response. In other words, they try to make a ‘super’ rectangle to get the viewer to have an enhanced response. To capture the essence of something, an artist amplifies the differences of that object, or what makes it unique, to highlight the essential features and reduce redundant information. This process mimics what the visual areas of the brain have evolved to do and more powerfully activates the same neural mechanisms that were originally activated by the original object.

So what does peak-shift have to do with time and motion in this regard? It means that over time and with motion we may better decide those things that are prime for peak shift.

Any live portrait or figure session will involve a level of interaction between the artist and model where, over time and with motion, the artist may elicit invaluable information that may not be available in a static photograph. For example, let’s say that a particular model has a characteristic bend to their mouth that is seen by most as an essential part of his or her character. However, the bend is only noticeable when he or she is talking, laughing, or just very relaxed. A photograph of this model may not have captured the characteristic bend, and as such, the artist may be robbed of this information. Such physical features may reveal themselves far more significantly when the artist is talking with the model or when the model’s body begins to relax over time into a more comfortable posture for a sitting as opposed to the choreographed rigidity that some reflexively invoke for a photograph.

Overall I would have to agree that there is definitely a difference in working from a photograph and working from physical models. There are scenarios in which the photograph will be more advantageous and scenarios when the live model will yield information that far outweighs what can be garnered via the camera. However, it is important to remember that neither source can escape the effects of biological vision. And from that biology comes art…

Happy Painting!