The Photograph in Art


What do artists see in photographs? How do they translate a photographic image into an artistic image, and can the process of translation reveal something about human perception? These questions are quite difficult to answer because there are relatively few examples of artworks which can be paired directly with closely corresponding photographic images.
In a recent research paper I examined 31 such pairs created by well-known artists, using a mathematical technique called Fourier analysis to study the range of details present in the photographs and artworks, from the coarsest detail to the finest. Results revealed that there are consistent differences between the photographic and artistic versions of each scene. Although the artists transferred much of the detail in the photographs to their work, my analysis showed that the range of detail present in each artwork is narrower than that present in the corresponding photograph.
The paper explored possible explanations for the differences between photographs and artworks. Research in computer vision shows that edge-finding is a crucial first step in making sense of visual images. Perceptual experiments also indicate that the human visual system searches for the edges and contours which define the boundaries of surfaces and objects in images . So it may be the case that artists augment the natural edge-finding process by omitting fine-scale details which are considered less important, but preserving details which define the edges of surfaces and objects. ‘Artistic filters’ available in applications such as Photoshop apply just this kind of manipulation to photographic images.
As a test, two such filters were applied to the photographs studied in the research, and Fourier analysis was applied to the filtered images. Results showed that the filters changed image content in a way which is similar to the changes measured in the artworks. The images on the right show a photograph of an outdoor scene, with two versions of it created by artistic filters, which demonstrates the effect of the filtering.
The filters produce aesthetically pleasing ‘artistic’ effects, perhaps because they smooth out details while preserving the important edge structure of the image in the same general way as artists.
Of course, image filters take no account of composition, meaning, tonal and chromatic balance and so on, all of which contribute to aesthetic effects and depend on the skill and judgement of the artist. So it cannot seriously be claimed that artistic filters can replace artists. But some the filters may capture at least a small part of the artistic process.