“The word photography is based on the Greek φῶς(photos) “light” and γραφή (graphé) “representation by means of lines” or “drawing”, together meaning “drawing with light” (ya gotta love Wikipedia).
“Photography means painting/drawing with light”.
It’s time photographers (and photography) mature, and walk away from this virtually meaningless phrase. The phrase is a fabrication, deception at best, and has never been valid. Let it rot. We’re not painters, we’re photographers. We no more “draw with light” than does any person with their finger in the sand. Pixels and film aren’t light, they don’t even “capture” light, they merely represent it – to propose otherwise suggests only a childlike understanding of what light might actually be.
If interpreted in this callow manner, all painting would similarly be “painting with light”. Indeed, all visual art could be a form of painting with light; drawing with pencils and crayons, digital graphic arts, sculpture, pottery, dance, et al. Van Gogh painted with light. Michaelangelo painted with light. Early aboriginal cave paintings were painted with light; with no light, there’d be no painting. Most certainly, there would be no viewing these paintings. The idea that we paint with light is no more valid than saying carpenters sculpt houses with stardust.
The point here is that photography is not painting at all, any more than sculpture, pottery or dance might be painting. Photography is photography, regardless of the ancient Greek root; Ancient Greeks didn’t own cameras Photographers make photos, they don’t paint.
So why do so many folks love to recite this silly phrase?
One reason; it’s a futile grasp for artistic credibility. Futile not because photography isn’t artful, but because art (and artistic credibility) comes through, and only through, one’s own creating. Art is not a function of merely claiming alignment with other artforms. We can call our work whatever we want, but that plays no bearing on what it actually might be.
Photographers have long felt disenfranchised from the prestigious ‘art world’. But it’s time to mature and understand that the moniker of ‘artist‘ does not come via grasping at straws and clever exegesis, but via devoted and passionate creative pursuit. If photographers seek to be embraced as artists, they should aspire to achieve that on their own artistic merit; in short, be artful. Photography is not, and need not, be some kind of paintings little brother, art-by-proxy. It’s past time to cease perpetuating the concept; ironically, that very concept is quite probably one of the reasons so many in the art world have balked at including photography as art.
A second reason is a little more disheartening; photographers often explore the “art versus journalism” idea, and the Greek roots of the word are tossed around as we if actually converse in alpha beta kappa. In making an argument for the creative artistic freedom to infinitely manipulate images on a computer monitor, or present their captive animal images as wildlife photography, photographers love to align themselves with the creative spirit of a painter; “We’re artists, we need/deserve our freedom”. The idea that photographers might compare themselves with painters regarding the degree of reality in their creations is simply fantastical. Further, it speaks to photographers’ own discomfort and poor sense of artistic worth that they might wish to do so.
It’s a little distressing to see how many photographers fall back on this phrase to discuss what they do. Photographers, for whatever reason, seem unable to find their footing; when they feel their own artistic legitimacy is threatened, they stand on messy filament like “painting with light” to gain some kind of street cred in the art world. The flawed logic is simple; painting is unarguably a valid artform. Ergo, if we ‘paint with light’, we too are artistés.
Finally; just to be clear; there’s an immeasurable difference in kind between taking a photo and placing pixels on a computer then using mathematical algorithms to instruct those pixels how to appear. The latter, though understandably part of the photographic process, is most definitely not “painting with light”. It may very well be artful, even incredibly artful – but that’s another issue for another conversation.
“A photograph is not only an image (as a painting is an image), an interpretation of the real; it is also a trace, something directly stencilled off the real, like a footprint or a mask.” – Susan Sontag, US novelist and essayist. ‘On Photography’.
Photographers don’t paint or draw or sculpt or throw pots or dance or sing or act; we photograph. And we photograph with cameras, and lenses and tripods and fancy vests, all which most of us pay far more money for than we need to. What we do not do is ‘paint with light’.