Tell It To The Judge: In Defense Of Photographers & Canvas

To be transparent, I must say I’ve developed some theories about the biases of art critics and the judges of art festivals, based mostly on their selections of art to be awarded prizes at these festivals (and maybe my own biases).  I’ve noticed certain patterns that I was hesitant to discuss here until I had taken the time to formally learn something about art.  That hasn’t happened yet, but we did have an opportunity to discuss photography (more specifically, nature and wildlife photography) with the judges at one recent art festival and I feel compelled to address one aspect of that discussion.  My comments on the other aspects may wait until I satisfy my original goals/requirements.  Today’s comments involve canvas.

The Judges’ Remarks

One of the judges said, “I’ve Never Seen A Photograph On Canvas That I Like”. There were three judges at the table when Nancy approached them. Their views were all consistent. Other remarks included “When I see a photograph on canvas I think the photographer is trying to impersonate a painter” and ‘When I see a picture wrapped around the edge of the canvas, it makes me think they are adapting a larger picture to a frame that is too small.’ One judge pointed out that painters don’t paint the side of their canvas.

Our History

Those familiar with our website know there are already two places where I’ve referred to painters as pre-photographers:

You also know I’ve even chided fellow photographers for not keeping up with the times Stop Thinking Like A Film Photographer!.

A Dose of Reality

Painters like Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci (1452-1519) and Georges Seurat (1859-1891) (see the first note in “A Question About Pixels”) are just two examples of artists who led society into the future, not followed. I’m sure if Leonardo had a camera, he would have used it in a flash (forgive the pun, I couldn’t help myself). These two and their peers would be saddened (or worse) to think that painters now feel unable to keep up with society and judges feel a need to artificially reserve materials and techniques specifically for painters in an effort to level the playing field.

My Responses

Now I’d like to address some of their remarks individually.

“When I see a photograph on canvas I think the photographer is trying to impersonate a painter”

A few months before this conversation, a painter at another festival in Florida won Best Of Show and $10,000 for impersonating a photographer. I know another artist who uses pencil to imitate black & white photographs. This is called realism, which apparently artists have tried (with varying degrees of success) throughout history, most notably in the Realist Movement of the mid-nineteenth century.

So here’s a question: if canvas-using photographers are impersonating painters, whom was Leonardo impersonating when he painted the two versions of Virgin of the Rocks in oils on wooden panels? A sculptor, maybe? Maybe a carpenter like the protagonist in his famous mural
“The Last Supper”? Or maybe that particular impersonation has been reserved for the judges.

“When I see a picture wrapped around the edge of the canvas, it makes me think they are adapting a larger picture to a frame that is too small.”

Well maybe that’s why painters do it. After all, contrary to the one judge’s declaration, some painters do paint the sides. But have you ever see a painter warp the image around the edge so that at some angle it creates an illusion and looks like a continuation of the front image (as described in the Canvas section of our Services page)? While we are at it, have you ever seen a painter camouflage their signature to make it less distracting (which solves a problem some critics have complained to photographers about)? Here’s how we do it ( Our New Technique For Signatures & Titles). Come on, painters, try to keep up!

“I’ve Never Seen A Photograph On Canvas That I Like”

I recently heard from another wildlife photographer about a time when a judge took a liking to one of her images, but then left without comment. When the judge came back the second time, he asked if she had another copy of that image that wasn’t printed on canvas. Fortunately, she did, because that second copy won her the second highest award in the festival.

In our booth and online, I’ve discussed the magical properties of canvas. When people see one of Nancy’s images on canvas they are more likely to ask “Is this a painting?’ or are more likely to comment that it looks three-dimensional. For some strange reason, it is also perfectly acceptable to print a particular photograph larger on canvas.

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People have offered a couple of explanations for this. The first argues that the texture of the canvas disguises any lack of resolution. The second, getting psychological, suggests that canvas invokes some painting mentality, making the viewer less critical (nobody ever asked an eighteenth-century master how many pixels were in his/her brush). Both explanations sound plausible to me, but being a pragmatist, I just run with what works.


So it is especially disturbing, and sad, that a judge would make a statement like this. Photographers follow the same rules of composition and the same principles of art, but for a judge to admit that these are not important, to me is an admission that the judges don’t really know what makes a piece of art special and are just grasping at fads or straws.

At least that’s how I see it (I guess now is a good time to remind you that the views expressed in this blog are not necessarily those of management). So what’s your view. If any of you can make better sense of these judges’ remarks, your comments are also welcome.

A Question About Pixels

Christine, whom we met at the Deerfield Beach Festival, asked

I see your (SD card) info indicates pixels. I have a 7-inch digital frame and wonder if that would be appropriate for a beautiful presentation.

I replied

If I understand your question, you are asking if your 7-inch digital picture frame would be compatible with the images that are 600 pixels along one edge and 800 along the other on our SD card, or even if it would do the pictures justice?

The judges at our camera club generally agree that bigger pictures have more impact.  But then there’s an old saying that “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”.  Chances are your picture frame will do just fine.

What are pixels?

Pixels are the little dots of color that make up the images in your frame and on your TV, etc.

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Actually, it may have begun in 1886 when the French painter Georges Seurat completed “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”.  Although he started with small horizontal brushstrokes, the painting is known for being made up of small dots in complementary colors, a technique that would later be called Pointillism.  Mr. Seurat’s painting was about 7 feet by 10 feet (the equivalent of about 440 of your frames), and although he only made about 16 dots per inch (they weren’t placed in nice rows and columns to make them easier to count), there are still 2 to 3 million dots in his picture (which is between 4 and 20 times as many as your frame).

French Painter Georges Seurat's "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte"
French Painter Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”

It took him two years to complete the work. In contrast, you could be enjoying Nancy’s work in about ten seconds (the time it takes to pop the SD card into the frame).

The more dots, the more detail.

Not All Frames Are The Same

We made the pictures on the SD card 600 x 800 because that was the most common size for digital picture frames at the time.  I just did some research and found that 7″ frames can have resolutions from as low as 480 x 234 up to 1024 x 600 (and 15″ frames have about the same number of pixels as the 7″ frames).  The frame we had at our booth was 8″ and had 600 x 800 pixels, and I thought it looked good (except that it wasn’t very good at competing with the sunlight.  We recommend these digital picture frames for indoor use only) .  A 7″ frame with the same number of pixels should also look good.

To see the Note click here.To hide the Note click here.
I was tempted to scoff at the 480 x 234 frame, but in reality, that’s about 76 pixels per inch, which is comparable to some computer monitors (although the newer ones, led by Apple, can be over 200 pixels per inch, which rivals print).

What If The Number Of Pixels In The Frame Is Different Than The Number In The Picture?

If the picture is larger, the frame will just take the pixels it needs to fill the frame.

If the picture is smaller, the frame will usually just put a black border around it. There are algorithms (in computer software) that will add enough pixels to fill the frame, guessing what the missing pixels should look like by studying the other pixels in the neighborhood, but I’m not sure that all digital picture frames use that software.