A Christmas Message (and why I didn’t just use a photo)

15th December 2011
small illustration of holly leaves and berries
Listen, I'm going to tell you a story. When I was a lad I used to do lots of strange things, like go out in all weathers painting trees. Usually, these were done in oils or gouache on canvas board. I remember one afternoon sitting on my little camp stool with my portable easel painting a scene in a forest near a lake. The lake was a place where all kinds of unpleasant boys would sometimes gather. (Not including me you understand because I was in fact a little angel.) But one day a whole bunch of them happened to gather around me.

'Oh dear,' I thought, 'I’m done for now. At the very least they’re bound to break my brushes in two and crush my tubes of paint underfoot.'

But no, they didn’t. One of them merely shrugged his shoulders, snarled and said, ‘Can't understand why you don't just take a photograph, mate!’ And then they all went away.

Good point ... or is it?

It is, of course, an age-old question – or at least since the mid-1800’s when cameras became widely available. Why do painters of landscapes and portraits go to all the bother of painting, when they can just take a photograph? Recently, there have been quite a few efforts to recreate Pre-Raphaelite paintings in photo-form, using models and lavish outdoor settings. The models are often very beautiful, the photographers very clever. But the photos themselves never quite match the excellence, the mystery, the character and the sheer class of the original paintings. It’s when we compare great works of art with photographs that we understand this. We see how very special, how all-encompassing and wide-ranging a painting can be. Or should be, if it’s any good.
snow scene painting of forest clearing, bushes
'Epping Forest in Snow' RSP, 1971.

Ideas and imagination

A painting depicts an idea. Sometimes a whole lot of ideas all at once. It is a window onto a fabled world reached through the imagination of the artist. He or she is someone who has the skill to open up that window and to translate what is there into something we can all gaze and marvel at. Photography cannot achieve this, or rarely, because it is always going to be a mirror held up to one moment of cold, dull reality. A moment with all its boundaries and limitations. The camera cannot reach very far into the world of ideas, therefore. Not at all adequately. No more than a picture of a person eating a hamburger can satisfy the hunger of one who is starving.

That is why people will never tire of the wonderful images that we celebrate in our art galleries – or even of the more humble versions we place upon the walls of our homes or our Christmas cards. And that's why, looking back now on that afternoon in the forest as a lad, I suppose I did know full-well, even then, why I didn’t just want to take a photograph.

'Only an idiot would think that a photograph could compare,' I thought, when asked. But I kept that answer to myself, until now - and thus have lived to tell the tale.

Wishing you all a very Happy Christmas.
And wherever you may be, a Peaceful and Happy New Year!
"Yes, it does exist. And when we are tired of shadows and tired of illusions we seek a different kind of reality in the world that shines through that window. We discover it there in the glorious realm of the spirit."

Daphne in Chapter 20 of 'The Arrow Chest' (Window onto a Fabled World)
Authored by Robert Stephen Parry

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