Recently I began reading Visual Cultures of Science (edited by Luc Pauwels and published by Dartmouth College Press http://www.upne.com/1-58465-511-9.html). A discussion of image production prompted me to think about the distinction between photographs and paintings. Both present the eye with color, luminance, edge data, etc. and both present their data (ordinarily) in a two-dimensional format. So, we might ask: "How are we to speak of the differences between the two image media in a useful manner?"
One starting point for such discussion might be a comparison of snapshots with photo realist paintings derived from the subject matter of snapshots - the daily, lived life. Painter Robert Bechtle, whose work was recently featured at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), provides a strong example of photo realist work. The SFMOMA show noted: For the past 40 years, painter Robert Bechtle has focused our attention on the everyday. Working in a sun-bleached color palette and photorealist style, Bechtle gives us a quiet Americana: street-scapes, family scenes, portraits of cars. Bechtle works from photographs of familiar subjects (his family and home, for example), creating a record of a precise moment while withholding just enough detail to remain painterly. The result is an uncanny reflection of middle-class American culture.
As the set piece, here is a photograph of two young men and a car in the East Bay (basically same region of the country as the Bechtle subject), with the car and people occuying approximately the same percentage of the image area.
In a general description of the photographic process we would say that light reflected off the surfaces in front of the camera lens enters the camera and impacts the recording medium in such a way as to preserve a two-dimensional projection of the bundle of light data. We might similarly speak of the light reflecting of surfaces in front of a painter, entering the painter's eyes, and causing the painter to move a brush in a set of ways that act to reproduce the two-dimensional projection of the three-dimensional bundle of light data entering the eyes. The discussion becomes interesting when we ask what distinguishes the two representations. For any individual pair of images - one photograph and one photo realist painting - we might be able to say that one captured details more faithfully (closer to a one to one corespondence between data points in the original scene and the recording of the scene. However, it might well be the case that a well-trained painter could capture more data than a photograph made with a disposable film camera with an inexpensive, low-resolution lens. So, we cannot simply speak of correspondence of data points as a means of comparison. The SFMOMA blurb speaks of Bechtle leaving out just enough detail to remain "painterly." However, there is no specification of just what sort of detail is actually left out.
Perhaps it is here that we begin to have a means of speaking about differences. With a photograph, we have a record of the light data reflected from the original objects (subject) whose characteristics are knowable; with the painting, we do not. To be continued...