Shortly after being invented, photography was deemed “a bastard of science left on the doorstep of art”. It is a technology of production of mechanically-obtained images. The history of this invention – a recent addition to art history, dating officially from 1839 – has been approached differently. Nevertheless, it is seen as an heir to perspective and camera obscura.
Beaumont Newhall stated at the beginning of his essay, one the early historical overviews of photography: “Images of camera obscura have been made ever since the late Renaissance. The principle of the camera had long been known: light entering a minute hole in the wall of a darkened room forms on the opposite wall an inverted image of whatever lies outside. The use of the camera obscura (literally “dark room”) for the production of pictures, however, was not realized until a century after geometrical linear perspective had been conceived by Filippo Brunelleschi and Donnato Bramante” (Newhall 1982: 9). Due to this relation with mathematical representation systems that simulate the human eye’s perceptive system, with perspective and with technologies that have aided painting since the 16th century, its history, as well as its ontology, is a kind of offshoot of painting. Authors like Peter Galassi (Galassi 1981) actually held that the obtained and the desired realism in photography is a direct heir to the 18th-century naturalistic landscape painting tradition – a claim he stated in the exhibition path of Before Photography (Museum of Modern Art, 1981).
In fact, the photographic image had several beginnings and is the end result of a very diverse and dispersed set of inventions and inventors (Batchen 1997): the day after Louis-Mandé Daguerre publicly announced this discovery at the Academy of Science in Paris, twenty-four people, including Fox Talbot, Samuel Morse, Hercule Florence and his conterraneous Hippolyte Bayard claimed they had already successfully conducted similar experiments. Actually, very different processes, as well as different ways to obtain and fix an image of perceived reality are at its foundation. The daguerreotype, in all its minute detail and concomitant aptitude for portrait is a single, unrepeatable image, whereas photogenic drawing and calotype, invented by Talbot, allow for images to be reproduced. The calotype is an image obtained through the negative-positive process: it marked irreversibly the history of photography and modern culture, enabling image to be reproduced at an industrial or semi-industrial scale.
The origins of photography were narrated by William Henry Fox Talbot in his book “The Pencil of Nature” (1844), a sort of catalogue of the potentialities of photography. For Talbot, the (one might say «psychological») origin of photography would be his natural inability for drawing. In 1833, whilst honeymooning on Lake Como, Talbot was in pain, as he was not able to draw the beautiful landscape that surrounded him, but whose mirrored image he was able to observe in his portable camera obscura: “And this led me to reflect on the inimitable beauty of the pictures of nature’s painting which the glass lens of the Camera throws upon the paper in its focus – fairy pictures, creations of a moment, and destined as rapidly to fade away. It was during these thoughts that the idea occurred to me…how charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably, and remain fixed upon the paper! And why should it not be possible? I asked myself.” (Talbot 1844, n.p.). Photography thus came in the 1830s as a technology that consubstantiates nostalgic feelings, in order to fix the passing moment and transform it into a relic, responding to new ways of social and urban relationship and an industrial revolution centred on progress and speed of communication (telegraph, telephone, train).
The fact that photography is enrooted in mechanical technology associated to natural (light) and chemical phenomena through a series of automatisms has always made people highly suspicious over the medium’s possibilities as a vehicle for art. Due to its association with science and technology, and its procession of heated scientists, the aesthetic and artistic reception of photography was both euphoric and mistrustful. Polemics set in during photography’s early years. It was, however, Baudelaire’s critique of the Salon de 1859 that made history, with his condemnation of photography as “obscene” representation, appropriate to satisfy the human being’s lowest impulses and of use only in science and technique. The opposition between realism and the ideal of art led Baudelaire to reject photography and be on Art’s side against Industry in his essay for the Salon de 1859, in the chapter “Le public moderne et la photographie”: “poetry and progress are like two ambitious men who hate one another with an instinctive hatred, and when they meet upon the same road, one of them has to give place” (Baudelaire 1859: 255).
Doug Nickel (Nickel 1989) stressed that the negative reception of photography occurred at three different levels: those who saw it as a scientists’ “prank”; those who felt it was blasphemy, and, finally, those who saw photography as dangerous, as the work of the painter might become obsolete.
However, painting had not been a “pure” art for a long time: the attempts to produce technical “aids” for painters, so that they were able to overcome some manual difficulties dated, to say the least, from the early Renaissance. Albrecht Dürer, who designed five different aids for painters, mentioned “[s]uch is good for all who wish to make a representation, but who cannot trust their own skill” (in Nickel 1999, 3).
As more amateurs drew and painted, the expansion of “auxiliary techniques” increased as well throughout the 17th, the18th and the 19th centuries: from the boom in drawing and sketch course books to the invention of objects such as the drawing tripod (18th century) and Claude’s mirror, as well as other optical techniques. These included, of course, camera obscura and camera lucida, which were already used by painters in 14th-century Europe, according to David Hockney (Hockney 2001). Although artists sometimes sneered at these techniques for the teaching of art, they meant there was interest for prosthetic automatisms that might make it possible to overcome the lack of “natural gifts”.
The critical reception of photography within the art world in the 19th century focused fundamentally on the issues of mechanical representation and automatism. As Teresa Cruz commented, “the technical reproducibility of the work of art did not merely, not even basically, affect the place of the hand in the constitutive process of the work, but rather more incorporeal instances such as “geniality”, “creativity” and the aesthetical cult devoted to it” (Cruz 1999: 2).
Mainly up to the late 20th century, the invention of photography was the subject of a historiography that was essentially drawn from the point of view of Art History, which values its similitude as to its consecrated genres. However, as more recent Histories have highlighted (Gunthert 2008; Frizot 1995; Marion 2004), what features photographic ontology is its multi-programmatic nature, one that is not easily categorised. Already in 1859, Oliver Wendell Holmes characterised photography’s countless possibilities of use, which derived from the objectifying nature of its device: from science to medicine, travel books, portrait, artistic representation or photojournalism, photography is a medium that is at the core of modern life. The evolution of its technical processes, which allowed for ever-increasing speed both in image processing and in their definition, from wet collodium plates to digital, merely accentuated photography’s versatility and centrality in modern, contemporary culture.
Batchen, G. Burning with desire. The Conception of Photography. London /Massassuchets: The MITPress, 1997.
Baudelaire, Charles (1859) “Le public moderne et la Photographie”, Écrits sur l’Art. Paris, Payot, 1993.
Cruz, M. Teresa , « A arte, o gesto e a máquina », in Catálogo de Pedro Portugal, “Anchio son’ pittore” CAM, F. Gulbenkian, Setembro de 1999.
Gernsheim, Helmut (1955, 1969) The Origins of Photography. NY/London, Thames and Hudson, 1982.
Gunthert, André (dir.), L’Art de la Photographie. Paris: Éditions Citadelles-Mazenod (2007).
Hockney, David, Secret Knowledge. London, Thames and Hudson, 2001.
Holmes, Oliver Wendell (1859) “The Stereoscope and the Stereograph”. The Atlantic Monthly 3 (June 1859), 738-48. Via http://www.humanities.ualberta.ca/VIEW/Resources/Stereoscope.htm
Newhall, Beaumont (1937, 1955, 1982), The History of Photography. NY/Boston/Toronto, The Museum of Modern Art, 1993.
Nickel, Doug “The camera and other drawing machines”, in Mike Weaver, British Photography in XIX century / The fine art tradition, Cambridge/NY, Camb. Univ. Press, 1989, 1-10.
Frizot, Michel (1994) Une Nouvelle Histoire de la Photographie. Paris, Bordas.
Marien, Mary Warner (2002) Photography, A Cultural History. New York: Harry Abrams.