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Reflections on Photography, Painting and Film:
A conversation with Chicago-based multimedia artist Tom Palazzolo

Article by Marianne A. KINZER

Phographs by Tom PALAZZOLO

Tom Palazzolo has thought about the relations among photography, filmmaking and painting.  He is a well-known artist and filmmaker who has taught many photography courses at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago.  His photography is in the documentary tradition as pioneered by Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Ever since photography was invented, painters have had to react to it.  The invention of photography led to liberation from realism in painting.  Painters started to ask themselves what is special about painting that cannot be replaced by photography. Painters of the twentieth century gave a variety of answers.

Modernist movements in 20th-century painting can be seen as reaction to the increasing possibilities of photography. Impressionism, for example, started out as a realist movement, then flooded objects and landscapes with light, and ultimately dissolved form entirely.  Expressionism, which emerged soon afterward, stressed emotional response to reality and celebrated a subjective vision.

With the development of abstract art, painters found they could do much that no photographer could achieve.  Kandinsky is said to have painted the first abstract painting 1911, nearly a century after the invention of photography.


Surrealist artists drew on the vast realm of the subconscious mind.  The leading surrealists believed they were doing something that only painters could do.  Today's digital editing techniques have changed that.  Nowadays most visual ideas can be executed with computer programs like Photoshop.

Some twentieth-century art movements openly embrace photography.  Photo-realism relies completely on photography.  Pop Art often uses images from the media and advertising in painted or printed works of art. The successful German artist Gerhard Richter uses snapshots as basis for his work.

Photography has influenced and challenged painting in many ways. What remains unique to painting? Is there anything that can only be expressed with pencil or paint?

Abstract expressionists in America and their counterparts in Europe, who call themselves "informal artists," have embraced unique aspects of painting: the materiality of the surface and the expressive mark.  The Spanish artist Antonio Tapies believes that material itself is the sacred aspect that will carry painting forward.  The quality of the painted surface differs from the smooth surface of photography.  Human movement and energy cannot be replaced by anything technical. 

Photography has challenged painting in many ways, but painting, which had a very long history before photography was invented, has informed photography from its very beginning.

Tom Palazzolo has thought about the relations among photography, filmmaking and painting.  He is a well-known artist and filmmaker who has taught many photography courses at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago.  His photography is in the documentary tradition as pioneered by Henri Cartier-Bresson.

"The Dutch genre painters were the first documentary artists, especially Jan Steen," Tom told me one afternoon at his home near Chicago. "Subject matter plays a major role in photography, and then of course good composition.  For painting, composition is the crucial thing.   Whether it is a photo or a painting, it should have a rhythmic structure.  Visually, something should happen."

"In a photograph, subject and color can be enough. One tends to be more forgiving with photography.  After all, luck is an element in photography.  In painting no luck is involved.  You have an obligation to make a composition.  Every picture needs a light element, a design of the light.  That's true for painting and photography."

Tom believes that in painting you have to make magic happen, but in photography you have to find it. I asked Tom what he thinks about the new possibilities of editing photographs with Photoshop. "I still like to find magic, not to make it," he replied.

"It is so much harder to make a good painting," he continued.  "It takes so much time to paint.  Photography can be instant gratification. Time is a big difference between painting and photography."

Tom likes to work in different media to enjoy variety and avoid frustration.  He considers video to be the most literary media: "It's more linear.  I can tell a story. You don't want to do this in painting."

Tom has made many movies, ranging from documentaries to surrealist films.  He became interested in painting while working on a surrealist movie and trying to recall emotional experiences in his childhood.

"A painting works best when it has a personal emotional vision," he said.  "I don't feel comfortable with realism in painting.  I appreciate painting that goes out of control, kind of beyond or visionary."  That's why Tom Palazzolo, the painter, likes the Expressionists. He also likes visionary artists like Odd Nerdum, who has pushed his painting into an area that is personal.

When the painter Paul Delaroche saw the first daguerreotype in 1839, he famously exclaimed, "From today, painting is dead!"  That proved not to be true, but since the invention of photography, painting has never been the same.

- . -

A Profile of Tom PALAZZOLO
Hates the commercial filmmaking culture of Hollywood
by Rebecca SANDERS

E-mail to: Marianne A. Kinzer: makinzer@lycos.com
E-mail to
Tom Palazzolo: olozzalap@sbcglobal.net

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