"Has it ever occurred to you that a photograph is the unrealest of things? The camera sees its subject so much faster than the eye can see it - that the result is something that you have never seen." [Paul Jean Martel 1878-1944]
How often have you heard someone praising a painting because it looks just like a photograph? The purpose of painting is not to replicate a photograph. The point here isn't that it's bad to use photo reference - but the secondary work shouldn't look as if you did.
"Untruth is cutting out a piece of nature and copying it." [Pierre Bonnard 1867-1947]
Today, we see most of the world through other people's realities or through our own digital means. We know more about social media than the world immediately in front of us: T.V., billboards, magazines, and ads influence so much of how we see. Because of this, society has come to believe that these images are in fact reality, and objective reality to boot. Nothing could be further from the truth. The images they produce might be more 'rendered,' but they're designed to tell a story. Cameras focus and reduce our visual world.
We can see over 10 million colors in the visual spectrum; digital cameras instantly distill that vast range into a system of RGB (red, green, blue). (Film cameras are a different process altogether, but still a system.) Printed images take this a step further, converting that RGB system into CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, black). These systems make images that represent our world to a certain extent, but they reduce our three-dimensional sensory experience into a two-dimensional format based on one instant of one sense.
"A picture is worth a thousand words" goes the phrase, but those words are going to be merely documentary, which is why an article is usually accompanied by a photo and vice versa. You won't understand a story about someone merely from looking at one photo, but a photo gives us info that we wouldn't glean just from reading.
Here's an example of how misleading photos can be: say I show you a photograph of a guy smiling. Then I ask: What can you tell me about the guy in the photo, does he seem like a happy person? You might reply that sure, he looks happy, based on the evidence. What if I then said this was the only time in his entire life that he smiled, this one time for a photo? We don't have any photos of him frowning, but he was a really unhappy fellow. The photo only documented the immediate moment he smiled, but if you were to make a judgement about something other than what's seen in the photo, you have no way of knowing.
Painting also reduces that 3d experience into a 2d format, but because of the slower speed of making a painting the artist has more opportunities to experience, translate, add and subtract. If you think of great art, or your favorite painter, chances are they're not painted 'like a photograph' - but there is still insight and truth to them that makes them invaluable to us. So painting and photography are similar in some ways, but one is no more objective than the other.
The physical way in which we see, coupled with all of our other senses, is our reality. Our personal realities determine our perceptions, relationships, understandings - everything. An image produced by a lens (and often distorted by that same lens) is very different from our own binocular vision. It also makes photography that much more special as an art form; a subjective viewpoint, created by an artist.
Many people would judge portrait painting to be more difficult than landscape painting because of the need to get the features right. Anyone would notice a nose in the wrong place; it would seem to matter much less if a tree is planted five or fifty feet away. However, to an experienced landscape painter, it is immediately obvious if someone is using photo reference for a landscape. The purpose of painting is not to replicate a photograph. A photo contains certain value and color relationships that most artists will copy because they don't understand how natural light works. This is obvious even if a painting isn't highly rendered.
Painting and photography should enjoy the same separation that church and state do. Not walled off completely, but separate things with unique identities.
We're a society that's inundated by digital images. And it's perfectly fine for painting to reference that. However, we all know that world. For myself, I want to make work that shows something mysterious and new about the world, not something that confirms what everyone already knows about it. I want to make work that piques interest when seen online, but when seen in person has even more impact - I want it to carry qualities that are not reproducable in digital formats.
"Speaking, when you have something to say, is like looking. But who looks? If people could see, and see properly, and see whole, they would all be painters. And it's because people have no idea how to look that they hardly ever understand." [Bonnard]