Tuesday, August 12, 2008

A Periscope Through Time: Photography

Back to art class and to issues of religion and spirituality in modern art.

The first photograph, taken by Nicephore Niepce in 1826, showing the view out of his window.

The Boulevard du Temple in Paris in 1839, a photograph taken by the artist Louis Daguerre. The small shadowy figure on the sidewalk in the lower left corner is the first human being ever photographed. The street was full of traffic, but this one man having his shoes shined stood still long enough to appear in the exposure.

Robert Cornelius of Philadelphia, 1839, the first photographic portrait. Cornelius was a young Dutch immigrant fascinated with photography. He further refined the technique pioneered by Louis Daguerre. He took this photograph of himself while seated outside his workshop in Philadelphia.

The first human beings ever photographed, why should that be so momentous? The first humans ever painted or sculpted certainly was not so momentous an occasion. The answer lies in the very nature of photography itself. Whole libraries have been written on how photography has fundamentally altered the way we see and experience the world; authors like Roland Barthes, Peter Berger, and Susan Sontag have written famous and influential essays on this very subject.
I remember one of the very first photography teachers I ever had beginning his class by declaring that the camera never tells the truth. Perhaps, but the photograph has a documentary authority that no painting ever will have. Photographs are routinely used as evidence in law courts. Paintings are not, and never will be. I suppose what my teacher meant was that the photographic image can be manipulated by the person holding the camera and clicking the shutter, even without darkroom or Photoshop hocus pocus. And that's true. But the camera is a kind of brainless mechanical eye that views the world with no preconceptions and no sense of selection. It records as basic fact whatever it is aimed at.
That's why these first photographs from the early 19th century are so compelling. They are mechanical glimpses through a kind of time machine, moments from 170 years ago seeming locked in the amber of the photographic process. It is as though we are looking through a periscope aimed back in time. And no painting has that peculiar aura of mortality about it that an old photograph does. Photographs can feel old in a way that makes 30,000 year old cave paintings seem fresh.
Some painters and critics (the bad ones) felt that photography was the end of painting (the first of generations of such to write painting's obituary down to the present day). In fact, the process was largely pioneered by painters. Louis Daguerre was already a successful painter before he invented a lot of modern photographic processes. Many painters had a very keen interest in photography and experimented with it. Among them were Delacroix, Degas, Eakins, and Picasso. Even the arch-conservative Ingres took an interest in photography; his later portraits show its influence.
The photograph, more than anything else, brought to an end the old classical compositional formula that saw the painting as a kind of stage space with the frame as a procenium arch. Now painters consciously emulated the fragmentary point-and-shoot random quality of photographs (aided and abetted by Japanese printmakers like Hiroshige and Hokusai and their aesthetic of the evocative fragmentary glimpse of the world). Photography would eventually emerge as itself an artform with its own independent aesthetic.

It would be the combination of the invention of photography with the collapse of the 1848 revolutionary hopes that would bring the Romantic movements to an end (though not romanticism which never ends). Encouraged by writers such as Baudelaire and Zola, artists began to look directly at modern experience without the intermediaries of myth and literature.
There is a new matter-of-factness in art and literature by 1850, parallel to the new "tough-mindedness," the new "realism" in philosophy and politics. 
And yet, in the midst of all this overwhelming positivism that will dominate the second half of the 19th century, art coming from transcendent and religious experience will survive, and even profit from this contact with the facts.

1 comment:

Davis said...

Hmmm... I agree the invention of photography brought about an extraordinary leap in our thinking and even our spiritual lives, but I'd say the first person to be painted - or more likely drawn - was of equal importance - just that we haven't got the pic for reference.

Thanks for these images!