'Soft Framing': A Comparative Aesthetics of Painting and Photography

Article excerpt

E. R. DAVEY [*]


Over the years, a lot of work has been done on the relation of photography to painting. [1] For the most part, this work has concentrated on influences between the two media: painting on photography; photography on painting. In this field, perhaps none is as magisterial in its breadth of learning, its intelligence or in its sensitivity, as Aaron Scharf's Art & Photography, published in 1968. It has served ever since as a standard for subsequent work on the mutual influence of the two media. However, Scharf's book does not, strictly speaking, address the relationship between painting and photography from a philosophical point of view. He is not concerned, that is to say, with differences between the act of painting and the act of taking a photograph. Work in this area is much rarer. Of those I have read, the most thorough is a study by Roger Scruton, 'Photography and representation', which appeared in Critical Inquiry, 1981. [2]

Scruton argues that the 'ideal photograph', unlike an 'ideal painting', [3] cannot properly be called a 'representation': [4]

With an ideal photograph it is neither necessary nor even possible that the photographer's intention should enter as a serious factor in determining how the picture is seen. It is recognized at once for what it is -- not as an interpretation of reality but as a presentation of how something looked. In some sense looking at a photograph is a substitute for looking at the thing itself. (:588) [5]

The reason for this, says Scruton, is that the image in a photograph stands in a causal relation to its subject, and therefore cannot be said to be about that subject in the same way as a painting can. For in a painting, it is clear that the subject matter is mediated through a sensibility. We see how something was perceived, not what was perceived independent of the perception even though we can, very often, ascertain what sort of object it was that the painter saw or had in mind at the time. We cannot, says Scruton, 'separate the "pure appearance" of the painting from the sense of intention with which it is endowed'. And we cannot do this because 'in the case of a painting we are dealing with an object that is manifestly the expression of thought' (:580). It follows that our interest in a painting 'is not in representation for the sake of its subject but in representation for its own sake'. And this, Scruton claims, 'forms the core of the aesthetic experience of pictorial art' (:586). By contrast, someone 'studying an ideal photograph is given a very good idea of how something looked' (:587). Like Roland Barthes, [6] Scruton thus stresses the fact that the photograph -- primitively, at any rate -- points to something (Barthes called this its 'denotative' function as distinct from any connotative function); it does not speak about that object, at least not in the way a painting does.

Of course, there is still a great deal to be said on this topic, but Scruton is clearly right to claim that integral to the act of composition in painting there is an expressive element which co-defines the choices the artist has constantly to make -- I mean in addition to technical ones. It is unavoidable. In each case, the decisions may well be spontaneous and unconscious, and the resulting work complex enough to resist any final elucidation. Nevertheless, the work embodies the mental processes (and to an extent also the physical processes) entailed in its making; nothing is there which was not, in an important sense, wanted, and nothing is there which has not been transformed by the artist's sensibility and hand, as well as the instruments he uses -- the fineness of his brush, say. This is its 'sense of intention'.

From this we learn that painting does not 'run the risk' of contingency, of excess, of the uninterpreted and maybe the uninterpretable (because absolutely extraneous), in quite the same way as the photograph does. …