Essay: The Impact Of Photography On Art


The urge to make graphic images can be traced back to prehistoric times. The cave paintings which are among the very earliest surviving traces of the pictorial instincts of mankind define the beginnings of an evolution which characterizes the human race. Man may once have existed in a state of grace and unity within the world. But he soon marked himself as different from other forms of animal life through this need to depict, to be at once protagonist and observer within the spectacle of his own existence. At first by daubing or incising, eventually through his mastery of optics and photochemistry, man has created a proliferation of images.

For centuries, painters served important practical purposes in giving visual definition to the structures of society. Art also provided a cathartic focus for powerful emotions and, in so doing, made evident man's existential dilemmas. Photographs, by virtue of their inherent realism, have, particularly in the 20th century, further greatly emphasized the dichotomy at the heart of our relationship with the world, blurring the distinction between the real and the illusory.

Today we live in a world swamped with images, the majority photographic, reaching us through print media or screen. Photographs have insidiously usurped many of the functions of painting and have become crucial to the progress of consumer societies, just as graphic iconographies played an important role in the social fabric of previous centuries. Photographs have now largely marginalized painting, their ubiquitous presence as the visual currency of our world driving painting into a relatively narrow, closed arena. There is a real danger, however, that photographs have also created a treacherous and persuasive parallel reality, something which painting never sought to achieve.

There are those who argue convincingly that our sense of existence is very much shaped by our constant exposure to photographic images and that mankind is locked into a vast pattern of spiritual dysfunction, sleepwalking through a world of second-hand, mediated experience. The very facility of photography and the ease of its dissemination have made painting less relevant in our rapid turnover society. Yet the need is as strong as ever for artists as shamans or guides through the hall of mirrors that is our image-saturated world. Their territory today has become the world of ideas in the very broadest sense.


When photography was invented and became public in 1839, painting was the domain of artists and artisans serving a variety of needs. Many of the artist's functions were practical and served a range of social duties, celebrating and building the prestige of eminent sitters, spreading information on the physical appearance of the world, its landscape, its wonders, its cities and architecture, commemorating events of local interest or of great historical importance, and providing images which implemented the psychological grip of religions and the hierarchies and structure of society.

Painting also became the domain for the free expression of the imagination. The Romantic tradition re-enforced the concept of painting as Art, freed from illustrative duties, serving the highest purposes of the human spirit. Nonetheless, whatever its purpose, practical or expressive, and however personalized or formalized the end product, artistic depiction was always founded on the convention of illustrating elements recognizable from the visible world. Even wildly imaginative visions or ideas were expressed through identifiable symbols. Piranesi's fantasies were constructed in stone, Blake's angels had wings of feathers. Sketching from life was the only and inevitable induction of the artist, painting from nature the only code. Ideas were developed visually through the assemblage of facts.

Perhaps the greatest contribution which the new technique of photography could make to painting was to liberate Art from its ties to realism, to factuality. There was, ultimately, no need for the artist's pencil or brush to labour intensively to depict and record people, occasions or things which the photographer could document through his lens with practical ease and speed. Art was freed on its path to abstraction. The journey was not so swift, however, nor the goal so immediately evident. The French painter Paul Delaroche is credited with having claimed, on learning of the invention of photography, that "from today painting is dead". His immediate anxieties were greatly exaggerated. Painting flourished through the 19th century within a largely traditional set of conventions and moved on in the first half of the 20th century to the ambitious challenges of abstraction, pure form and colour, leaving to photographers the task of making visual records.


Photography may have threatened the livelihood of certain artisan painters, the minor portraitists whose role was eclipsed by the new photographic portrait studios, the topographers or architectural artists whose painstaking work could now be done within a brief exposure of a photographic plate. Many artists, however, recognized photography as an invaluable aid, using the camera directly as a speedy sketching device or using published or commissioned images as visual reference and inspiration. There developed a steady trade in photographs made as artist's studies, études pour artistes. Studies of the human figure, such as those made by Oscar Gustav Rejlander in London, Auguste Belloc, Bruno Braquehais, or Felix Jacques-Antoine Moulin in Paris, served the needs of artists and voyeurs. The detailed analysis of which the camera was capable, recording, for example, the structure of trees, the minute configurations of leaves or stems, served the mid-century artist's obsession with realism. British philosopher John Ruskin encouraged the minute observation of nature by artists. The camera facilitated this function.

Photography could also serve artists by revealing details too fleeting to record with the eye. An oft-quoted example is the recording by Eadweard Muybridge, through instantaneous sequential photographs, of the precise stages of human and animal locomotion. He confirmed that at one stage in the pace of a horse's gallop all four hooves are off the ground. Ironically, it was the greatest fantasists who pursued the most exacting verisimilitude. Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema's cinematic dream vistas of ancient Rome, for instance, depended for their effect on a photographic exactness in the detail of marble, flower, or fabric. They are an early repudiation of the notion that the camera cannot lie. Their photographic level of veracity is a cunning deceit.

The group of 19th-century artists whose relationship with photography is perhaps most ambiguous is the Impressionists. Their approach to painting was diametrically opposed to the high "photographic" realism of the Academy. They rejected the pursuit of fine detail such as could be recorded unselectively on light-sensitive plates. Their way of looking was concerned rather with the way in which the eye and intellect perceive things rather than the dispassionate way in which the camera records. Yet at the very basis of their approach was the analysis of the effects of light on their subject matter. The Impressionist intuition was an echo of the structured investigations of photo-scientists, both groups sharing an interest in chromatic analysis and in the qualities of light as it defines form.


The greatest single intellectual challenge to the tradition of painting was the Dada movement. Emerging first in Zurich in 1916 with a group led by Tristan Tzara, Dada presented an anarchic challenge to the conventions of art, decrying all rules, abhorring bourgeois materialism, negating preciousness and the worship of the artefact. Photography, democratic, mechanical, impersonal, stepped into this breach as a tool to convey ideas. Dada's impact was considerable in Europe and America during and immediately following World War I. In New York, Marcel Duchamp emerged as the spiritual guide of the movement, inventing the idea of the "ready-made" and investing his faith in Man Ray as a missionary whose photographs could convey the Dada spirit of challenge and subversion. The 1920s saw the triumph of film and photography over painting as vital media of the avant-garde, nowhere more so than in Germany where, in Stuttgart in 1929, the extensive exhibition Film und Foto marked the high point of this revolution.

Painting had by no means reached a dead end. It had certainly now broken free of the shackles of illustration. Picasso, Braque, and Matisse had been foremost in reinventing its language in the early years of the century. The following decades were to involve exciting adventures in paint. The groundbreakers, from Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Piet Mondrian, and their contemporaries to the great figures of Abstract Expressionism, foremost among them Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, pursued the emotive potential of pure form and colour. Art revised its imperatives, becoming largely inaccessible to that same general public who enjoyed the parallel proliferation of photography in the picture press. Abstract formalism triumphed in painting as the documentary mode dominated in photography and the media.

In the late 1950s and 1960s photographs became the subject matter of paintings as Pop Art drew attention to their power and pervasiveness in the mass media. Andy Warhol in the United States and Richard Hamilton in Great Britain were foremost among a generation for whom the photographic image, often mediated as a pattern of half-tone screen dots, became the subject matter of their art. The evident ambiguities inherent in photography provoked a creative dialogue on the nature of art and of the photographic image in an age of mass culture and instant communications. In the late 1960s and 1970s painting and photography came together in the work of the Photorealists, a group of principally American artists whose meticulous pictures were derived from photographs and achieved a curious heightened realism.

Conceptual artists, meanwhile, the inheritors of Duchamp's mantle, renewed the attack on conventional picture-making. The later decades of the 20th century have witnessed a continuing shift from painting as the core medium of artistic expression. The spiritual renewal suggested by German artist and guru Joseph Beuys proposed art as a state of mind and a state of grace, with every man given the capacity to be an artist and to make his mark. In the closing years of the century we are witnessing a refusal for art to be limited by rules or definitions. Painting survives but can no longer command priority. To a generation for whom the life class and the craft of drawing are no longer of central relevance, the camera can be as valid and useful a tool as brush or welding torch in the process of expression through creation. The artist can choose the form and nature of his gesture. If it is transient, as in the work of land artists such as Andy Goldsworthy and Richard Long, the camera is used to document their intervention. In their case the photographic image survives as the only trace of the artist's activity, as illustration of the dialogue into which he enters in confronting his relationship with the universe.

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