Back to Magazine


Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV

Through the Magnifying Glass: Painters or Photographers?

by Doifel Videla


- - - - - - - - - - - - -



As we have seen, the natural principle behind the projected image was known since Antiquity. Projection systems, based on a small hole drilled through the wall (pinhole) of a darkened room (camara obscura) and acting as a lens (by diffraction), have existed at least since the 14th century. Projection using concave mirrors was already possible in the 15th century. The replacement of the holes by lenses in the camera took place in the 16th century. Portable optic cameras would be used in the 17th century, and the camera lucida would finally be invented in the 18th century. There is then a whole history of cameras without film, which demonstrates two fundamental ideas: first, cameras were actively being used to the point that they were constantly being improved and second, film was not (nor is) essential. Four centuries of cameras without film versus one and a half of film-based cameras prove this point.

In 1839, during a period filled with inventions, finding mechanical methods that could replace manual activities was a common occurrence. The search for a chemical procedure that could record the images generated in optical cameras was not an exception. As Albertus Magnus had already described the photosensitive properties of silver salts in the 12th century and the German chemist J.H. Schulze had experimented with them in 1727, only one question remained unanswered: How could the image formed on a photosensitive surface be preserved in broad daylight? In other words: How to fix the image? Several painters and photographers would soon answer this question: Herschel (1818) and Talbot (1835) in England, Hercule Florence (1833) in Brazil and Nicephore Niepce (1827), Hippolyte Bayard (1839), and Louis J. Mandé Daguerre (1839) in France. Therefore, when the official date of the birth of photography was resolved, what was actually discovered was the fixer. In relation to the centenary presence of optic images, the daguerreotype was probably not understood as a revolution but as an improvement on painting. Hence Delaroche's famous pronouncement before the invention of Daguerre: "From today, painting is dead!"

Unknow photographer. Jabez Hogg making a portrait in Richard Beard's studio, 1843. Daguerreotype. Bokelberg Collection, Hamburg.

The daguerreotype was invented by the painter Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, who would be known to history not as a painter but as a photographer. In his case, as in the case of many other painters who transformed their ateliers into photography studios, the legacy of painting would be brushed over. In an age filled with inventions such as the telegraph and later on the gramophone, the pictorial inheritance would be silenced by the photographers themselves, who wished to portray their activity as a novelty and also by painters who were still tied to the secret of their optic past. We know that a few years later, faced with the impossibility of continuing to paint in accordance to the canons of optics, painters would chose to return to the tradition of associative mental images, abjuring from any notion of optics and at the same time challenging it through what has been called "Modernism".

Paul Cézanne. Five Bathers, 1885-7. From David Hockne's book. Pág. 194.

Nevertheless, this omission would have important consequences for the newly born discipline. Through the term graphos, its name would continue to be associated to the art of drawing and it would persistently be considered part of the graphic arts. For example, the first photography book, issued by Henri Fox Talbot, would be titled The Pencil of Nature (1844-46). This means that there existed a tradition that chemical procedures could not erase. While presented as a novelty, in the practice—and with good reason—it did not manage to think of itself as such, imagining pencils where they were not present anymore. This dichotomy would split photography in two apparently irreconcilable tendencies. The first one, which called itself pictorialist, continued the ancient tradition of the optical-graphical system, preserving its style, its genres (portrait, landscape, still life, nude, etc.), its painted backgrounds, its poses, and devoting itself with great success to coloring daguerreotypes, retouching negatives, creating compositions with various negatives (a technique derived from the Flemish painters) and other types of painterly effects. The other tendency, which was more up to date and did not carry the weight of painting on its back, will see photography as a neutral means of recording visual reality, in the same way as a microphone, which will be used with greater freedom but probably with a more limited or improvised sense of aesthetics.

Oscar G. Rejlander: The Two Paths of Life, 1857. Photograph composed with the use of more than thirty different negatives.

Having gained only the recognition of the scientific community and having been rejected by painters who had not converted to photography, the question “Is photography an art?” could only cast doubts, leading ultimately to the rupture between both tendencies. The incomprehension of its true nature—a recording system for optically projected images—, the disconnection with its hundred-year-old inheritance, the incongruence of its name and the absence of a true definition will create a sort of schizophrenia in the practice of this discipline, generating important delays in the acknowledgement of its true worth. The sense of abandonment shared by photographers will be without parallel and will endure for all of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Illustration by Nadar. The ingratitude of painting refusing the smallest place in its exhibition to photography to whom it owes so much. Engraving from the Journal Amusant, 1857.

With the arrival of the 21st century, the widespread change from chemical to electronic recording devices and the adoption of the digital system are starting to erase the divisions that will permit this discipline to recover its century-old inheritance and start to take advantage of the best of both worlds: precise neutral recording and infinite (mathematical) manipulation.

Since the invention of film and the chemical process in 1839 were celebrated as the beginning of photography, today, when film and the chemical process have their days counted, we can say with all certainty: Photography is dying!


Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV