With the almost simultaneous invention of two different forms of photography in 1839 (the daguerreotype by Daguerre, in France, and the negative by Fox Talbot in England) many painters at the time were variously amazed and enchanted with the new medium. Painter, Paul Delaroche is famously said to have enthusiastically declared that “From this day forth, painting is dead!”, and this has been echoed through the 20th century. Interestingly, Fox Talbot was motivated to try to fix the image he saw through his optical devices because he was so dissatisfied with his attempts to draw and paint.
Throughout the 19th century, photography took hold of the public’s imagination and many photographers looked to the history of painting for inspiration. For the first time ever, one didn’t have to be fabulously wealthy to have a portrait of oneself or that of a loved one. This did obviously impact on many artists who had made their living from painting commissioned portraits, but photography did also yield some major benefits for the development of painting. Some artists, like Degas made use of photography as a way of instantaneously and conveniently recording images which would later become paintings – as a kind of sketch or study. Some of the artists in Photo-Paint still use photographs in much the same way.
There is a lot of evidence around, to suggest that painters since the Renaissance used optical devices, sometimes with lenses, to improve the accuracy and “truthfulness” of their paintings. It was vital at the time to keep these techniques secret, not only because it might have been seen as “cheating” but because the projections from these devices might have been misunderstood by an illiterate superstitious public (not to mention the religious establishment) as the result of sorcery, which would have put artists in grave danger.
The most dramatic effect that photography has had on painting though, was that it freed painters from having to keep making ever more realistic images. Painters could play around with the effects of light, or scientific principles of colour (Impressionism), or break up form (Cubism) or explore the emotional effects of colour or brushstrokes (Expressionism) or do away with representation altogether (Abstraction in all its forms). By the 1960’s and 70’s there were those who felt that the medium had “painted itself into a corner” and could say nothing new about a world that had film and video, photography, installation and the beginnings of computer art. Yet here we are in 2014, and people still persist in putting sticky coloured stuff onto a flat surface!
With the exponential rise in the use of digital photography, and the infinite possibilities with digital software, to use wet-process darkroom techniques, now seems rather nostalgic and almost quaintly magical. When one has to physically mix the tray chemicals, make endless test strips to try and get the right exposure time, and use dodging and burning techniques to manipulate the tonal qualities, it seems on reflection, to be a much more labour intensive, analytical and hand-made process than it was ever considered before. In contrast to being able to make huge changes to an image with a few clicks on a keyboard, (which can easily be reversed), with wet process photography, there is so much potential for things to go seriously and time-consumingly “wrong”, no matter how sophisticated and expensive your camera. It is at this right/wrong or truth/fiction boundary where some of the artists in Photo-Paint are rediscovering and exploring how “hands-on” and malleable and “painterly” photography can be. Now of course, anyone with a mobile phone has a camera, and the means to proliferate their images through social media.
So as a painter who uses and is interested in all forms of photography, I think it’s timely to think about the 21st century relationship between painting and photography, and how they fit into the infinity of images that now surrounds us every day.