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Photography as art is dead ?

by Wolfgang Hock 2010-11



Talking about the beginning of photography, normally everybody thinks of the nineteenth century with its inventions, for us today self-evident and in bigger part antiquated (e.g. train, electric light, phonograph).

But to our surprise photography had been existed still a long time before, only in another form: The phenomenon of the camera obscura with its projected image upside down and mirror-inverted, what is actually no invention but a natural phenomenon. Yet in ancient world in fourth century before Christ it was mentioned by Aristotle, later again by the Arabs (Al Hazan) in 980.

And now something that turns the traditional art history upside down and unhinges our comprehension of art:

From the early fifteenth century many artists in South and North Europe were using technology in form of optical aids, accordingly to the technical standard of that age beside the camera obscura, also lenses und mirrors, what has been always ignored or even consciously displaced by traditional art history, because it attacks the idea of innate artistic genius, specific myths and taboos about art.

Many artists used these lenses and mirrors (convex, concave and flat mirrors) to create living projections and some of them used these projected images even directly to produce drawings and paintings, and before long this new way of depicting the world – a new way of seeing - had become widespread.

Many art historians have mentioned that certain painters used the camera obscura in their work, but no one has suggested that optics were used so widely and early.(*)

That’s the reason why this is for most today – art adept or not - still unknown, thanks to the esoteric attitude of classical art science which radically disapproves for art any use of machines and applied natural sciences procedures (optics, chemistry, mechanics and today electronics). It’s unbelievable that such a prejudicial philosophy could conserve itself till our days.

The German artist Albrecht Dürer gives us in his drawing efforts sheer touchingly examples of his difficulties he faced drawing things in their exact three-dimensionality on the image area only by eyeballing.

Mechanic aids of the Italians, from which Dürer developed his sighting machine - a grid on a glass panel – brought alleviation, but not more, and Dürer wasn’t afraid of traveling through the alps, at that time very dangerous, to look behind the secret knowledge, what the Italians hid from him, as he believed rightly.



And exactly at that time, Leonardo da Vinci ordered under his guidance the construction of the camera obscura to bring into service of art. Since ancient world the camera obscura-effect has been known, but it is not known, that it ever was used for art. Primary at Renaissance, the time of this camera prototype had come, together with the use of other optical aids like mirrors and lenses.

In the second half of the sixteenth century these camera prototypes become so native in the artist studios like the “manikin” for studying body movements.

The projected image of the camera obscura was for those exciting times, in which art decided not to go any more with theology, but with natural science, a first class evidence.

Daniele Barbaro from Venice in 1568 let us know in his book “La pratica della perspettiva”, in which he described the camera obscura, it was seen as the practical evidence of theory: The camera obscura afforded to check the accuracy of the mathematic construction of central perspective in front of nature, the certainty of the truth of natural science conception against mystic-religious from Middle Ages.

Here arose first time the belief in veracity of camera image, which, so easy to disprove, has maintained itself until the end of twentieth century, almost until our days, until the invention and general distribution of computer manipulated images.

That’s the reason we can suppose also that the projected lens and mirror-based image provided the basis for discovering the linear-geometric perspective with one vanishing point by Leon Battista Alberti and Filippo Brunelleschi (who planned and constructed the cupola of the Florentine dome), one more milestone of Renaissance.

Many artists of that age experiment with optics, among them Giorgione and Raphael, especially Caravaggio and his followers. This explains also the sudden appearance and general distribution of this new ‘optical look’ of naturalistic depiction.

Michelangelo e.g. keeps with eyeballing, but in the north Jan van Eyck and Hans Holbein use projected images. Certainly not all artists of that age were working directly with projected images, but they were all trying, to various extents and with different results, to emulate the naturalistic effects – the ‘look’, the ‘looking like’ – of lens-based images.

Although amply explained und used by Leonardo da Vinci, later the use of camera obscura and camera lucida, lenses and mirrors, was kept secret to a large extent.

Mirrors and lenses were at that age very rare und very expensive, a large flat mirror cost almost the quintuple of a painting with same size, so was available only for few and very rich people (normally kings, aristocrats and of course the church).

Venice was one of the important centers of production and polishing. The handicraftsmen with their guild obligations were obliged to stay their whole life on the island of Murano and were not allowed leaving the island on pain of death penalties (!).

Also the church in Rome made any effort not to let escape these secrets. It was afraid to lose power. If the public would know how those pictures were made, so the belief in the absolute would diminish, on this was built its power.

That’s the reason why always the threat of heresy hovered above this all, excellent artists belonged to the insiders and got big privileges and great wealth.

The studios of the artist of that age are comparable with the Hollywood-film-studios from today with their big staff (from specialists to simple assistants) and standard production. Only a very limited amount of insiders knew about the knowledge of optic aids – a very small world indeed -, and who broke out of this circles, had to look forward to that, what happened to Galileo Galilei later.

The large population was left to darkness willfully, the majority were analphabets anyway (normal at this age). Who belonged to the few who could read, was permitted to use a lens, otherwise this all was ‘work of the devil’.

Already in the seventeenth century were constructed machines, in which through intern mirrors, the projection image usually upside down, appeared already turned over on the focusing screen, where it could be traced comfortably.

More and more excellent artists used by the time these secret aids, among them Frans Hals, Velasquez, Jan Vermeer and Rembrandt.



It is necessary in this regard to make perfectly clear that with all this, the art of former times (and of today) is not altered or diminished, only seen under different aspect:

Unlike the old conception, better to keep secret such catchy things, the use of optical aids has nothing to do with ‘cheating’ or 'fake'.

Let me say here that optics do not make marks, only the artist’s hand can do that, and it requires great skill. Projected images don’t create drawings, they produce only an image, a look, a means of measurement.

The artist is still responsible for the conception, and it requires great skill to overcome the technical problems and to be able to render that image in paint.

And optics don’t make drawing and painting any easier either, they only help the artist in fact with the non-artistic imitation of reality (mimesis).

Who wants to understand art only in this way, will never understand it. And who uses optical aids only for copying, who wants only to perplex with feats, has to hide their use for art furthermore, sneaking and with bad conscience, as the countless academic painters in the nineteenth century until today.

Now, the invention of photography in the nineteenth century appears all at once in a very different light, here was not invented namely the projected lens-based image, but in fact ‘only’ the chemical fixing of this lens image.

1839 the invention of photography was officially patented by the painter (!) Daguerre in Paris. With this publication, the hitherto existing secrecy came to an end, finally the large masses could know and participate by and by.

For the first time it became possible to produce and to fix an image of nature, practically without any manual work only by physical and chemical processes. The hand of an artist wasn’t necessary any more. This was a shock !

And immediately the question of the relation of the new image technique to traditional fine art was on the platform of endless, partially very heavy discussions.

The trouble broke out about the question, if the photographic machine was only a technical instrument representing visual forms of appearance, or if it was also an adequate mean to express individual artistic perceptions and views.

The quarrel about this was fought out in personal discussions, in newspaper articles, in the studios and even in the courts of justice (!). Also the church gave its opinion. In 1839 was written in the “Leipziger Anzeiger”, the newspaper of Leipzig at that time, the following:

“The wishful thinking of fixing quick mirror images, this is not only an impossibility, as pointed out by profound German investigation, just the desire to want to do this, is heresy.

The human being was created from the image of god, and the image of god cannot be fixed by a human machine anyway. God suddenly is becoming disloyal to his eternal laws and allows a Frenchman in Paris to put onto world such a highly diabolic invention?”

The historical painter Delaroche went so far exclaiming:

“La peinture est morte!” (Painting is dead)

However manifested Delacroix: “How I regret that such a marvelous invention appeared so late only now … The photographs are concrete demonstrations for drawing after nature, of what we have only incomplete imaginations.”(*)



By the way Daguerre was not the broken artist as often described later from the adversaries of photography. He abandoned his profession, like many other painters after him, to dedicate himself to photography.

He was, before this important step, a successful and famous painter. He went to photography because he saw in it the better perfect way for objective naturalism.

For him photography was the perfection of naturalistic painting.(*) Seen from today, his painting is insignificant, but his photography (Daguerreotype) entered in history.

For us today absolutely unimaginable, for the majority of that time, the “phenomenon of photography” still was a great and mysterious experience only because of standing before a machine which could create in such a short time an image of visible environment so vivid and true as nature itself.

The German poet Max Dauthendey writes about the daguerreotype: “People were ashamed looking at the first images for a long time. They were ashamed because of the clearness of the portraits and believed that the little-bitty faces of the portraits could see them, so amazing was the unaccustomed explicitness and realism of the first daguerreotype images for the people.”(*)

The newspapers were still objects of luxury and rarely bought, more consulted in cafés, the photographic process still wasn’t their tool, only very few people saw their name printed (!).

None other than the French poet Charles Baudelaire was it, who prognosticated in 1859 horrible things for established art because of photography and its characteristics: "Will it be allowed to photography complete art in some of its functions, art will be deteriorated and eliminated soon. Because of this, photography must go back to its origins being servant for science and arts.”(*)


Today, about 150 years later, photography is valued both as art and its capacity to serve, and painting was not displaced at all.

When I began studying fine arts at the end of 70’s in West Germany, the use of photography for painting was still very refused, the tracing of slides even more, although pictures of Pop Art and Photorealism were known in art spheres generally.

In 1966, oil paintings by Gerhard Richter, who was still unknown at that time, were rejected with the justification: “We are not interested in colorized photos.” It was not realized that these were no photos but hand-made oil paintings.(*)

But today it looks like that pictures painted after or with photos, even the “abstract” art is generally accepted, not only in art spheres. But it needs to be painted with real paint on real canvas.

But the use of computers for art not (yet).

As at that time of invention of chemical photography, the genies are divided once more again. But this time one could exclaim opposite way:

“Photography is dead”

because this time the painters don’t feel so much attacked, but the photographers.

Some reject any and every computer art because this kind of picture creation seems little made by hand.

Others don’t reject it though, but undervalue it, supposing that these pictures are created by fully automatic computer processes what everybody can do fast, easily and cheaply.

Again it’s said the old complaint, here it’s painted on photos.

But with this all it’s not seen that precisely the picture creation und the picture editing by the computer is subjected to infinite possibilities of manipulation (manipulate – “to use the hand”), in contrast to photography supposed handicraft with negative film and positive copy (only because of the darkroom and the stink of chemicals ?).

This development beginning already in the 70’s relatively unperceived, changes all kind of pictures:

A revolution has been starting,

affecting photography harder.



Computer manipulation means that it’s no longer possible to believe that a photograph represents a specific object in a specific place at a specific time – to believe that it is objective and ‘true’.

The special peculiarity, the persuasion power of authenticity without fail with apparently absolute reliability that photography once had has gone definitively.

Why so ? You could leave raw a digital photo, so it reproduces simply what was in front of the camera, with all errors, without any manipulation, like before ...

But this isn’t correct any more, thought too simply:

Before we had a negative from what were produced the positives (photos), with almost no possibility of manipulation because the negative (original) wasn’t alterable and the positives were only alterable very few in the darkroom.

From there could be formed the idea of the veracity of the camera image without any subjective human influence.

Unlike to the new digital photography: Here we don’t have any more a fixed negative, but ‘only’ virtual image archives (now the originals) possible to modify at any time by any one.

For that you don’t need a highly complex Photoshop software, even with very simple software you can remove objects on the photo, change colors of selected objects and so on, at any time at any place.

What is known as veracity of photography has gone completely.

This believe in veracity, in objectivity of camera image, what came into being at the time of Renaissance in the sixteenth century by the distribution of the camera obscura and other optical aids– not from the nineteenth century as many guess – and at that time helped overcoming the medieval seeing and thinking, is today first time fundamentally shaken by the incidence of computer manipulated image.

Unintentionally the new technology has put something into question, what was valid during almost 500 years, something everybody wanted to believe in, although never existed in fact.

And as always at such incise changes this provokes deep uncertainties and because of this contradictory behaviors, similar to the time of the invention of chemical photography in the nineteenth century.

In contrast to the critics who point out lack of hand-work, the camera has returned to the hand-work by the computer, where it was before the invention of chemical photography. The computer has brought the photograph closer to drawing and painting once again.

Its software uses terms like ‘palette’, ‘brush’, ‘pencil’, and ‘paintbox’. The hand-made picture shows a human vision, and paradoxically the computer brings us back the possibility to produce with that machine human pictures, what was not possible with chemical photography.


How it will keep moving on ?

A new vision is now possible, with the computer helping to destroy the tyranny of the lens.

Painting in the age of chemical photography was in large parts affected by the dispute of two mediums, which sought and avoided each other, in which photography had the edge over.

Painting had the choice to hold out or to get away. Since Impressionism (1870) it rejected the optical projection as not true enough, and took its sources from art from outside Europe.

The influence of Japan is well known, as is that of African sculpture and the arabesque to escape linear perspective. Painting withdrew back to positions, to where photography couldn’t follow; abstraction was such a place of refuge.

This has changed now radically: Chemical photography is over definitely, it is the real loser all along the line, for it has changed everything.

Who had thought that some decades before ? After ‘only’ 160 years, this invention has lost all its importance completely. We have returned again to the point of departure, the hand-work is here again. Now it’s photography what needs to react, not any more painting.

The projected lens-based image keeps on staying.

Exciting times are ahead. But a look back to the time of invention of chemical photography shows: As at that time painting didn’t disappear, so today photography as art will not, but will find new ways.  



by Wolfgang Hock





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