Photography: Recording or Creating?

I choose three interesting photos from different historical phases for comparison.

  1. Photography vs Painting

Girl with Portrait of George Washington, by Southworth and Hawes Studio in 1850

This photo was taken in 1850 by Southworth and Hawes studio, through the medium of Daguerreotype. As for now, the topic and exact meaning of this enigmatic image is still a mystery for people. But for me, the photo is interesting for presenting a contrast. Southworth and Hawes produced the finest portrait for American bigwigs at that time. In the portrait of a young girl, she is gazing another painted portrait of George Washington.

Distinct versus vague, relatively light versus relatively dark, the contrast between photo and painting is clear and meaningful. Photography is clearly a better way to record what was happening, in the field of portrait, it presents the figure’s look directly. Besides, the research shows that this photo is actually a copy from another daguerreotype. Photograph provides a chance of reproduction, making the image accessible by public. Comparing to the creating a painting, taking a photo seems requiring less initiative for it is closer to the reality.

  1. The Power of Recording

Photographing Nelson Mandela, by Peter Turnley in 1990.

This picture was taken by Peter Turnley in 1990, recording Nelson Mandela in his backyard in Soweto after he was released from prison. By shooting Mandela’s back, the photographer recorded the moment of how his colleagues are working from his angle. The photo plays important role in journalism after the technology was popular, for the picture itself can provide immersive impression. Lens became the new eyes of audience. Through lens, the truth was conveyed. From the Napalm Girl to The vulture and the little girlwe are all familiar with the power of present the reality.

However, the mature of technology also give photographer chance to “creating”, to “tamper” the truth. In 2015, Bronx Documentary Center held an exhibition called Altered images: 150 years of posed and manipulated documentary photography. From changing the scene artificially to editing the picture intentionally, photography became more than just recording since long ago.


  1. When Editing a Photo Is Easy

Karina Irby’s snapshot

Karina Irby, a bikini designer and model, post a snap on Instagram and showing how easy it is to edit pictures and portray an unrealistic version of yourself online. By posting the contrast of the two photos, she revealed she had smoothed her skin to remove dimples, redesigned her jaw line, thinned her waist, volumized her hair, thinned her thighs and applied a filter to make the photo seems glamorous.

The charm of photography is making people assume what it shows is real. That is why photography is more striking than painting. But now, editing a photo is so easy, the line between creating and recording is blur. The ubiquitous photos is creating a new fantasy for us, by pretending themselves as true.


When photography first emerged, it once was seen as the threaten for paintings, for it could record a scene more accurately and vividly. An artist pessimistically said:” From today, painting is dead”. Eighteen decades after the invention of Daguerreotype, we could announce confidently that statement was totally wrong. When photography took the place of “recording”, the painting turned to “creating”. And how is the role of photography itself changed? With the development of technology, everybody could take a snapshot and beautify it easily. First stand out for its reproduction to reality, the requirement of photography developed to aesthetic demand as well.



Alan Buckingham, Photography. New York: DK, 2004. Excerpts.

Martin Irvine, “Introduction to Photography and the Optical Image