Painting vs. photography

Daguerreotype of Louis Daguerre in 1844 by Jean-Baptiste Sabatier-Blot

Let’s look back to the time when the first daguerreotypes became known. This is an early photographic process named after its inventor, the painter L.J. M. Daguerre (1751-1851). People’s reaction was determined by the difference from the familiar painted image. People were enthusiastic about the truthful detail of the photograph. In painting, after all, such details involved extra work. Despite all the “shortcomings” of photography, it is the naturalistic richness of detail that still inspires people today. In terms of the beauty of images, painting was able to achieve even more and different.

The detailed photo has positives as well as negatives. But it always spans a coherent overall space, depth gradations and foreshortenings are always “right”. It will be discussed that in areas of perception in which the smallest differences, the smallest changes in size are important, such as in facial perception, photography has made it possible to achieve a completely new closeness to nature in the image. The portrait painters soon lost their jobs with the invention of photography. The painter’s image is always influenced by the painting scheme: he has learned how to paint a tree or an animal. The painting scheme is quite different in the various cultures. The Chinese painter paints a tree differently than the European painter: it is not just the visual reality that they depict. The photograph can convey much more than the painted image the atypical, the specific of the scene. It is therefore much more “true to reality” and soon replaced the “only” painted picture in contemporary illustrated magazines. Although the reproduction techniques did not yet immediately permit mass distribution of photos, the lithographs were nevertheless designed after photos. Sometimes, however, e.g. in the documentation of archaeological objects, the drawing can filter the image in such a way that the true structures become more recognizable and thus leads to a more realistic reproduction of the object.

Does taking pictures interfere with current perception?

Again and again one hears the complaint that the tourist should not take so many pictures, but rather turn to the moment and look at the sight intimately. I have often marveled at this. After all, the photographer thinks about his picture, chooses the detail, tries to estimate shadows and light incidence. So there are good reasons to assume that the conscious analysis of the perceptual image is particularly intense when taking a photo.

Concentrating on the right detail is, in the sense of memory psychology, also a “deeper processing”, which results in a better memory performance. In a research study, one might once take a group with and without a camera to a significant landmark and later query their recollection of visible details of the landmark. It is likely that the photographers would remember more. Perhaps the above complaint refers to historical conditions, and thus it must be understood historically, as indeed many thoughts and arguments can only be understood from their historical development. For one thing, the traveler used to like to paint the sights. For this, an intensive examination of the seen attraction was necessary. The photo was therefore comparatively too simple. On the other hand, the photographer of that time needed many preparations. He had to put the apparatus on a tripod, he had to prepare the glass plate with the wet chemicals, then he had to disappear for a while under a black cloth behind the camera until the focusing was successful, and then, if necessary, he had to be immediately distracted from the process of developing and fixing the image.

Under such stresses, the view of what is to be photographed can at least be interrupted. In any case, the experience is determined by the difficulties of photographing, but not by the sublimity of the moment. Many contemporary caricatures make fun of these troubles of photographing. Some of such difficulties remained for a long time. There was the need to determine the correct exposure, flip open the camera, set the distance, and crank the film forward. Even for our fathers’ generation, this was still an elaborate affair that probably absorbed some of their attention. For them, too, part of their emotional state in the face of significant monuments may have been shaped more by the requirements of taking a photograph.

Today, however, with modern automatic cameras, the technical problems have largely receded into the background. Problems of image composition, such as looking at shadows and distracting foregrounds, may sometimes hold you back, but they are outweighed by the search for the most beautiful view, the right perspective. Thus, the experience is hardly affected by the photographing anymore, indeed the photographing highlights the moment. So although there is no question of a strong distraction by photography, there is a strong aversion, even resentment, against the vacation snapper, “who looks in his mind only with the rectangle of the camera viewfinder.” I have heard of elite tour operators who offer trips without any photography at all. After all, the fellow travelers might not ultimately care how much the devotion of the photo enthusiasts themselves is disturbed by taking pictures. The photographing might create a certain busyness, which could disturb the photo abstainer. But I can’t imagine it being too bad, at least not bad enough to cause a photography aversion. But perhaps we can find other, less explicit motives for this aversion? One could also imagine an envy problem. The photographer “has it in the can” and can now, for example, calmly eat ice cream, while the non-photographer is under the burdensome task of completely savoring the unique moment and memorizing it once and for all. The photographer may remain rather “cool,” while the abstainer freezes in devotion: but this seems a bit ridiculous, especially in contrast to people who are allowed to remain cool. This, in turn, may very well generate anger.

Now, this thesis is difficult to prove: A questionnaire item: “Are they sometimes a little envious/somewhat angry at the photographer on vacation?” would certainly always be answered in a dismissive manner. Even if a person would even notice some anger, it would hardly be analyzed in such a way that one could get information about its true cause. The respondents would perhaps only state that the eternal snapping/flashing disturbs them. Here the psychologist has to proceed somewhat detective-like, which would do the naive-questionnaire-believing scientific community good anyway. One could coin the facts into the positive so that admission is easier.

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