Early photography was a great equalizer. It allowed ordinary people to create a visual history that was important to them. No longer did they have to rely on artists to create that small portrait, or paint images of historical places visited on the Grand Tour. By the 1850's photography was well on the way to being commercialized with most people being self-taught to use the new technology.
With this rise in the use of photography by ordinary people, artists were also exploring the new medium. Storytellers emerged, stepping away from the accurate recording and investigating visual concepts that would convey an emotional experience. Eventually technical advances and the curiosity of photographers led to innovations in the nineteenth century, including arrested action, spark exposures and images considered avant guard. These photographer artists were transforming the aesthetics of the medium and several distinct "styles" of pictorial expression have remained in the public sphere.
What I find interesting is that once photographers could record the natural world, they began pushing away from it and into poetic expression. But how many of today's artists, using photo references to create paintings, are actually thinking along these terms?
How many are still thinking like those early photographers? This is what I see, this is what I record?
Edward Steichen was a master at creating the evocative landscape, as you can see here in this image of "Moonlight: the Pond." And one by Clarence White, titled "The Orchard." These artists heightened the visual experience of form, edges, narration, taking the familiar and creating compositions that were interpretive of both emotion and experience.
If you are working from photo references and are looking for ways to push yourself away from mere replication and toward artistic expression, here are two exercises that have worked for me.
Paint from Memory. This was a standard exercise for advanced students according to Robert Henri. The model would be placed in one room and the studio was often on another floor. The young artist was required to study the form, memorize aspects that were important, and then return to the studio to paint from memory. Study your reference material, create your drawing of the important elements to get compositional placement if you need to, then put the reference away. You will be surprised by your ability to draw upon knowledge of your subject matter without getting caught up in the details.
Turn your photo reference into a B & W copy. This is an excellent way to break away from the trap of local color. Using a black and white photo gives you accurate value relationships and you can confidently work with expressive color.
There isn't a stigma with using photo references - the trick is creating an expressive painting that convinces the viewer that this space you are describing is more than an arrangement of objects. This requires the serious artist to push away from replication and into something else.
*"Seizing The Light- A History of Photography" by Robert Hirsch, McGraw-Hill, 2000