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Painting & Photography in 2021

Since the mid-1800’s artists, critics, and patrons alike have mused on the coexistence of photography and painting. Can the two survive together, and should they? Painting and photography both take up the same visual and cultural space in our society in their abilities to reproduce an event as if they are memory itself. However, each medium’s capacity to spark an emotional response has been called into question over the many years since photography has become widespread. Why labor hours over a portrait when a selfie only takes seconds? 

Painting and photography are like siblings being pitted against each other by bickering parents. Painting is the older child of its two parents—one parent being the Patrons and the other parent being the Artists. Born many years into Painting’s adolescence, the younger sibling Photography delivers a shock and an identity crisis for Painting, who has grown overly confident over many years of being the favorite child. However when Painting and Photography are not fighting for their parents’ attention, they can coincide peacefully, learning from and teaching one another.

In thinking of art forms as siblings, we must then consider whether Printmaking is another sibling—perhaps the fraternal twin to Photography. Printmaking and Photography have historically served the same commercial purpose, and even in their essential functions share the similarity of reproduction. It is their closeness that begs the question, if Printmaking is a part of the family too, why then would Photography be singled out as the biggest threat to Painting?

Photography, in a way, represents the future: it is quick, precise, accurate, and instant. With a camera in almost every pocket, the barrier to entry is virtually none. Yet, in every age of the future, the past continues to exist. There are always those who choose to take the traditional path. Painting will always be upheld by those individuals, so then, how could it be killed? 

We know that painting has not come to a screeching halt or disappeared out of contemporary existence. Brushes still hit canvases in bedrooms, studios, and classrooms all over the world. So, then, it is a fact that photography and painting do in fact coexist. In our increasingly digital world we have found that not only did painting not fade away, it did what critics of the far past deemed impossible – it transformed. 

No longer chained to the constraints of solely attempting to reproduce a moment in time, painters became free to make work that represents the world as it feels. Atmosphere, energy, time, and movement all became objects at the hands of artists. We see the intensity this idea radiated in the art world of the Impressionists with the feverish brushstrokes of Van Gogh and idyllically colorful scenes from Monet. 

Today we live in a world where our visual space contains two distinct types of painting and photography, each of which are divided by technology. We have traditional and digital modes of painting, and film and digital for photography. Toe to toe we see photography excelling in advertisements, family photos, and racking up many amateur enthusiasts whereas painting, and its dedicated following, still reigns supreme in the art world. In this way painting continues to come up to bat on the same playing field as photography.


a portrait of Selika Lazevski by Nadar ••••••••••••••• Unknown, 18th Century ••••••••••••••• Debra Clem’s Studio, 2021
Nadar’s studio portrait of the
trailblazing black equestrian
rider Selika Lazevski (1891)
Unknown, 18th Century. Debra Clem’s Studio (2021)


“From today, painting is dead.” The famous quote of Paul Delaroche (1797 -1856) captures the doomsday mindset of painters who fear the far reaching effects of photography. Yet, is it painting’s youngest sibling it should fear, or the guardians pitting them against one another? Photography allows for paintings to be seen in infinitum. Relics once hidden away are now accessible every second of every day. This is, of course, to the dismay of those who believe that mechanical reproduction is killing the authenticity of the visual world, such as Walter Benjamin who said, “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be” (The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1935). However, wouldn’t it make equal sense that the very reproduction of the work allows for its authenticity to be experienced fully, not by only a select few, but by all of humanity henceforth?

On the other side of the relationship, some painters now use the 2D compression of the photographic image to inform their work. Much like the camera obscuras used in the past, this tradition has only continued and transformed with the ages. With the two siblings – photography and painting – clearly lending themselves to one another it is us, their parents, demanding one hail triumphantly over the other. We, the artist and patrons, often fear the overlooking of our favorite mediums in the current word of vast and overstimulating visual language. In an effort to champion our preferred mediums, we often end up grabbing our pitchforks and charging whichever medium we feel is being prevailed over ours. It is within the arts community ourselves that we pit painting and photography at odds when, in all reality, they can, have, and will inform and coexist with one another. Perhaps it’s time to lay the argument to rest and accept that there is enough room on the fridge for both painting and photography to display their successes.

by Tierra Deacon, Museum Educator

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