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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Invention of Photography

In an era when we take technical development almost for granted, when the useful lifespan of modern appliances such as the computer can be measured in months rather than years, it is hard to fathom a more epic technical development in the area of art than that which occurred during the middle of the nineteenth century with the invention of modern photography.  Although the camera itself dates back to the Renaissance and was in fact developed largely by and for artists, it was chemistry that made photography a real force to be reckoned with in the art world.  In a competition reminiscent of the twentieth century's space race, the effort to develop a practical mechanical method of exactly depicting real life on a two-dimensional surface was a competition between France and England that often had more the hallmarks of a war than a race.

A Manet painting from 1872 having a
photographic quality.
On the French side were inventors such as Joseph Niepce and Louis Daguerre while in England, William Talbot manned the trenches.  By and large, the French won the race (war) and the first losers were painters, particularly miniaturists, who were often reduced to "coloring" the crude early photographic images with their oils.  Eventually however, the effects of photography upon painters became more widespread, if somewhat more subtle as well.  The French artist Eduard Manet was known to have used photographic images in place of drawings to compose some of his paintings, and Edgar Degas was often fond of cropping his paintings in a photographic manner, in effect, giving them a sort of "snapshot" quality.
At the Races, 1877, Edgar Degas

By the early years of the Twentieth Century, as picture quality improved, and Alfred Stieglitz declared photography to be on a par with painting as an art form, painters could not compete either economically or aesthetically in the open market where "realism" was the standard of excellence.  Art historians still argue this point, but the long-term result of this new "art invention" was to free painting from the harsh yoke of realism, to allow it to soar to new heights of expression and creativity it might never have achieved had Daguerre, Stieglitz, and Kodak not shown it the light.

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