What is the difference between a painting and a photograph?
The artist’s role as the creator of a painting is usually obvious. Even the most casual viewer recognizes the artist’s signature or the choices that must be made when putting paint on canvas. In contrast, many assume that photographs have an unshakeable veracity, that they capture the world exactly as it is. Yet, just as anyone who recognizes themselves in a family photograph can attest, photographs obscure or leave out just as much reality as they contain. As Alan Trachtenberg notes, “They are, we learn, vulnerable to exactly the same obscurities of other forms of evidence.”
The Medium Has a Message
Visual works, no matter what form they take, are subject to both the limitations and possibilities of their medium. Medium refers to what material a visual work is made of: the vehicle for an idea. This could refer to a general form, like sculpture or drawing, or a specific material, like marble or charcoal on paper.
By understanding how a visual medium shapes interpretations of a work’s subject matter, unique perspectives on the same subject begin to emerge, highlighted by the capabilities of different media or the expectations viewers bring to a medium.
Of Time and Space
Consider a photograph of a basketball player, mid-shot. Photography as a medium has the capability to freeze movement in time, to capture actions and interactions in a split second. Given this technical possibility, photography reflects a moment in a way that no other medium can. Yet this photograph is not a complete representation of basketball as a sport, this particular game, or even this specific moment on the court.
The photograph below, for example, seems to give a complete picture of the game: the viewer sees the ball, the players, the crowd, and the referee. Yet much is left out of the image, and hints of this can be found lurking everywhere. In the image itself, there are glimpses of what’s missing, like the shoes peaking up from the bottom of the frame that allude to someone just out of view. Most viewers see a player mid-layup and can infer what came before and after this moment in time, but a single photograph cannot truly capture this; it remains in the viewer’s imagination only.
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