An article in yesterday's Boston Globe, titled Handcrafted Data, examines why many reference works, such as anatomy books, birding guides, etc., still rely on hand-painted illustrations rather than photographs. The writer, Dushko Petrovich, largely considering the work of John James Audobon, basically concludes that this is because hand-painted illustration is created through a careful editing and selection process. An Audobon painting of bullfinch is an illustration of the archetypal bullfinch. A photograph, on the other hand, is just one particular bird in one particular setting.
Now, of course, with tools like Photoshop, you can combine photos, cull the best features, and come up with an archetypal photo of a bullfinch. But then the photo becomes an illustration! That process of selecting, adjusting and arranging is the difference between recording and creating.
To make matters more confusing, recording is still an art of selection. The photographer makes decisions about when and how to capture the subject before the shutter is snapped. That, in itself, puts the artist's stamp on the photo.
This is central to the topic of art and technology. There's a widespread misconception that artists working in digital media aren't really doing much. The computer does it for them.
Certainly the computer does relieve the artist of some mundane chores, in the same way that animators have assistant animators and in-betweeners to fill in all the drawings it takes to create hand animation. That doesn't make their task any less creative or artistic. The artistry is in the concept and in the judgement ... the choice of what images to use, how to combine them, how to present them, etc. All this, and many other conscious and unconscious decisions, determine what effect the work will ultimately have on the audience.
So the difference between the hand-painted bullfinch and a photo of a bullfinch is one of degree ... of how much and how directly the artist was involved with every detail of the image.
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