The Camera: Photography’s Influence on the Arts
Society invariably influences artwork produced by artists. Materials and available technology of the era also play a significant role. Cavemen used cave walls and ground pigments made from ocher. His subject matter was influenced by superstition and his environment. Sculptor and architect Filippo Brunelleschi was the first to use a geometrically based linear perspective. This allowed for the perspective drawing in depth. Artistic vision from that moment forward was forever changed. During the Industrial Revolution, artists in Western Europe benefitted from a huge push forward in technology just as much as they did from a more diverse clientele. Just as significant, if not more so, the development of photography influenced art in the second half of the nineteenth century. The camera’s influence was apparent in the visual characteristics of paintings, the subject matter, and the powerful direction in which artists were able to take their creative visions.
Seventeenth century artists began using something called the camera obscura, which is Latin for "room dark". Basically, it is a box with a small opening on one wall which light enters to form an inverted image on the opposite wall. It is believed some artists used this method to project images onto canvas as far back as Caravaggio during the Baroque period. In a statement released by the BBC, Area Head of Art Conservation Department at Studio Art Centers International, Florence, Roberta Lapucci, is quoted as saying, "Light-sensitive substances applied to the canvas would have fixed the image for around thirty minutes, allowing Caravaggio to paint the image with broad strokes using white lead mixed with chemicals and minerals that were visible in the dark." (BBC New, 2009) Due to its inability to create a truly permanent image, this technology was used only as a tool to aid artists in planning their artwork.
To better comprehend photography’s impact on the painted portrait, let’s look at the time just prior to the development of the fixed image. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Western European nations were exploring foreign lands and expanding their boundaries. With the French Revolution causing devastation in the lives of many people, this period also involved great mayhem and confusion. Goya, who lived during this tumultuous period, was passionate about painting scenes depicting the human condition of his times. He, however, typically made a living as the official portrait painter of the Spanish royal family. Before the camera was developed, established artists like Goya were the only recipients of commissioned work for commemorative architecture, portraits, or recording historical events. However, once photography became the mainstream means to capture clear and accurate likenesses of subjects, many artists were forced to experiment with different media to support themselves. This development in technology did not mean photography immediately replaced painting and drawing, but rather significantly reduced the number of available commissions. These changing circumstances may have been a blessing in disguise. Artists were challenged to take their work to new heights and were free to explore different passions.
In 1837, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre came up with the answer to the problem of the impermanent image of the past by creating a process that could permanently fix the picture; he captured the first permanent photograph of an artist’s studio: L’Atelier de l'artiste. The Daguerreotype, named after its creator, is a metal plate layered with a light-sensitive silver solution. When the plate was immersed and developed in a chemical bath, it produced a unique likeness of the subject with an astonishing degree of clarity and detail. The term photography means "drawing with light". This is because in the beginning, it was simply considered a drawing aid. Since the mid-nineteenth century, photography has truly become a fusion between technology and the creative eye. As with any new electronic gadget of today, the first box cameras captured the curiosity of people who wanted to know what they were capable of producing.
While the concept of photography was understood before the daguerreotype came into existence, the ability to look at an actual photograph that did not disappear after a short time made the concept a reality. Artists reacted to this new device with amazement and curiosity. The most immediate and obvious impact of photography on painting can be seen in the work of artists eager to achieve a visual genuineness unknown until the advent of photography.
The invention was so significant the French government conducted an official inquiry into the process. Painter Paul Delaroche wrote in the official report, "Daguerre’s process completely satisfies all the demands of art, carrying certain essential principles of art to such perfection that it must become a subject of observation and study even to the most accomplished painters". (Daniel, 2000) In 1972, painter, novelist, and historian John Berger wrote in an insightful article titled "Ways of Seeing" that the invention of the camera changed the way people in general and artists in particular saw the world. This new and different perspective was immediately reflected in painting. Berger saw the effect of the camera on painting as similar to the way we perceive the effect of the computer on business over the last thirty years. Once the camera and the computer existed, everyone had to have one, and then nobody could imagine life without either of them.
The most obvious change in the visual characteristics of art brought on by photography was in this new way of seeing that the camera introduced to the artist. For example, the option of cropping a photograph by choosing only part of a subject included in the image plane allows for a more intimate connection so that the viewer is placed inside the scene. In the painting Ballerina and Lady with a Fan, Edgar Degas seats the viewer with the vantage point pushed up beside a section of a woman in the audience in the foreground. Furthermore, in the early stages of camera development, long exposures with a camera were required to capture the image. One of the effects of this procedure is shutter-drag, which allows for beautiful fluid movement and gracefully blurred selections. Artists such as Whistler tried to capture this effect on the canvas. His oil painting Nocturne in Black and Gold, the Falling Rocket shows the fluidity of a fireworks show, capturing multiple bursts cascading in a blazing shower to the ground. Stopping action with a photograph was one of the most fascinating discoveries for many. Before stop-action, it was difficult to capture a muscle tensed, an odd expression, or the gait of a horse in mid-step. After examining photographs, Degas did a series of jockey paintings (http://www.philamuseum.org) in which he studied the gait of the horse, capturing the rider pulling back on the reins to control the horse’s pace. The legs of the horse are up in the air and stretched out in a long stride.
Throughout history the subjects most favored by artists were scenes depicting religious themes, portraits of royalty, and beautiful landscapes. Many of the paintings had a theatrical quality to them because the models were ever-so-carefully posed. In the second half of the nineteenth century, photography began to influence artist’s choice of subject matter because of the medium’s ability to take a snapshot of ordinary people doing everyday things. The decisive moment that the photographer chose to click the shutter gives the viewer a window into the subject’s world at that second. This freezing of the moment caused painters to take notice of everyday scenes, and then they tried to capture those moments as majestically as they had in a carefully posed royal portrait. An example of this approach is clear in Bal du Moulin de la Galette by Auguste Renoir, where the artist captured a moment in time during a typical Sunday afternoon gathering in Paris. The subjects are not posed like models; instead, they are stopped in mid-step, gesture, and gaze. The brushstrokes have also been painted with gestures that appear to stop in mid-stroke.
The approach to painting taken by many artists up to this point in history showed an attempt to reproduce their subjects with great accuracy in every detail. When this approach is taken to its limits, artists refer to it as trompe-l’oeil or “to fool the eye.” Photography takes trompe-l’oeil to an even higher level of reproducing a realistic image. In reference to the impact photography had on artists, Arnason and Kalb (2003) write “it took the scrupulous fidelity of the photographic image as a good reason to work imaginatively or conceptually and thus liberated their art from the requirement of pictorial verisimilitude". Perhaps the greatest contribution the development of the camera gave to artists was the freedom to experiment and expand their creative vision. This ultimately led them towards abstraction of form.
The theory of the Form dates back to Plato. Using a bed as an example, Plato explains that although there may be many different types of beds, there is only one idea of the bed; this idea is the Form, and everything else is an imitation. The artist who paints the bed is imitating the carpenter who built the bed; the carpenter is in turn imitating the creator of all of nature, God. (Plato, 360 B.C.E.) Abstraction in art reduces the subject matter to its simplest shape, flattening it until it gives just enough to leave the viewer with the idea of the subject or the Form. In this way, viewers are able to interpret the subjects themselves. During the period of Impressionism, which began in the late 1800s, artists were trying to capture the first impression of the subject to leave the viewer with the slightest hint of the Form. In Claude Monet’s oil painting Impression Soleil Levant aux Nymphéas the boats and the figures are all reduced to silhouettes and the background allows for just a of a shipyard and smokestacks, giving the viewer an impression of the forms of the waterfront.
Many are the events and inventions which have changed the direction of art. The power of photography was just one of those influences. The photographer’s way of seeing is reflected in his choice of subject. The painter’s way of seeing is recreated by the marks he makes on the canvas. The ironic part is, although every image symbolizes a way of seeing, our perception and/or appreciation of an image depends also upon our own personal way of seeing.
In the end, it is the viewer whose perception is influenced by the artwork or the photograph. In fact, my belief is man has become so comfortable and accosted to the still image, the photograph, I believe we would have a difficulty imagining art and living life without it.
Arnason, H. H. H., and Kalb, Peter. (2003). History of Modern Art. 5th ed. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall. BBC News. (11 Mar 2009). "Caravaggio was early ‘photographer’". British Broadcast Corporation.
Retrieved from: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/arts_and_culture/7936946.stm. Berger, John. (1972). Ways of Seeing. New York: Penguin.
Daniel, Malcolm. (2000) "Daguerre (1787–1851) and the Invention of Photography". Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Retrieved from: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/dagu/hd_dagu.htm Plato. (360 BCE). The Republic of Plato. Trans. B. Jowett.
Retrieved from: http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/republic.11.x.html