Before Photography: Painting and the Invention of Photography
“Before Photography: Painting and the Invention of Photography” Museum, Omaha; the Frederick S. Wright Art Gallery, University of California, Los Angeles; the Art Institute of Chicago. May 1981-May 1982
The catalogue of a brilliant exhibition called Before Photography at the Museum of Modern Art earlier this year contributes wonderfully to our understanding of the nineteenth century without attempting, as is now fashionable, to upset the traditional evaluation of the artistic development of the period. Whatever is original about this exhibition, organized by Peter Galassi, can be beautifully integrated with conventional wisdom. The exhibition explores one thesis: that the photographic vision, the informality and directness of approach that we admire in photography, had been already prepared in painting from the late eighteenth century on, particularly in painted studies or sketches of landscape. In Galassi’s view, the freedom and directness of photography, in order to be communicated, depended on certain modes of presentation, certain methods of cropping and points of view, that were already developed earlier in a particular kind of painting and taken over by photography.
We sometimes hear that the perspectives and lighting effects we associate with photography were simply the result of the technical invention of the camera in the 1830s and 1840s and made their way only later into painting with Degas and the Impressionists. But few students of the nineteenth century will find Galassi’s point either surprising or difficult to accept. These ideas have been current for many years, but no one has stated them so clearly or demonstrated them so brilliantly. Furthermore the exhibition is a delight. Juxtaposed with thirty-eight early photographs are paintings assembled by Galassi from all over Europe, some by famous masters such as Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, John Constable, Thomas Girtin, and Caspar David Friedrich. There are also many enchanting views by lesser figures. The painted sketches of François-Marius Granet, especially striking for their boldness and sharpness of vision, are much too little known, while the views sketched in and around Rome by Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, of which three examples are exhibited from the 150 preserved at the Louvre, are already widely acknowledged as landmarks in the history of art.
Peter Galassi’s selection is particularly satisfying and by no means tendentious. The works by painters are representative of an important tradition, and many other artists or examples could have been added or substituted. Some of the early landscape studies of William Mul-ready before 1810 would have served as well as those of John Sell Cotman or John Linnell. Nature studies by Théodore Caruelle d’Aligny, seen in a recent exhibition, have what Galassi calls the “abrupt, frozen, refractory quality” of Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller’s wonderful landscapes, which makes them seem photographic. The striking work of Danish artists such as Christen Kx/bke (see illustration) will be a revelation to many in America. The early photographs are also beautifully chosen. Some of the most remarkable of them are the documentary plates taken for scientific expeditions, above all those of Wyoming taken by Timothy O’Sullivan for Clarence King’s geological exploration.
Galassi’s introduction places the continuity between painting and photography within the history of perspective and, more generally, within the …
Detaching the Retina May 13, 1982