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 changing conception of vision as it relates to the making of pictures. The theory of one-point perspective, as published by Leon Battista Alberti in 1435, is that of a window on the outside world, or in more technical terms that of the visual pyramid interrupted by a plane of projection which is the surface of the picture. But, for Italian artists of the Renaissance, perspective was as much a device for constructing images, a method of composition both on the plane and in an imaginary three-dimensional space, as it was a way of catching the appearance of the outside world.
Galassi sees a progressive development from the image-constructing of the Quattrocento to the view-catching of photography and of painters like Degas, which was a way of reducing the three-dimensional world to a two-dimensional pattern. “Gradually,” Peter Galassi writes, “over a period of centuries, Uccello’s procedure of logical construction gave way to Degas’s strategy of selective description.”
There is a weakness in this historical view; it disregards the empirical type of representation developed in Flanders by Jan van Eyck and others early in the fifteenth century, a technique already geared to the catching of appearance. It should be added that the use of perspective to construct pictures never lost its claim on painting during the nineteenth century, as witness Jacques-Louis David and Georges Seurat (to name painters just before and just after the invention of photography). But this reservation does not invalidate Galassi’s main argument, that photography belongs to the history of pictorial representation.
It would have added strength to this argument if Galassi had distinguished, as Leonardo da Vinci did, between natural and pictorial (sometimes called “artificial”) perspective, that is, beween an account of how vision actually works, and the system of one-point perspective used by artists to construct pictures. There are three main differences. Pictorial perspective is based on a single point of view, while vision is binocular. The plane of pictorial projection is flat as opposed to the curvature of the retinal plane. Vertical parallel lines remain equidistant in a picture, while in natural perspective they would converge.
In the remarkable pages he wrote on photography in Painting and Society (1952), the French art historian Pierre Francastel insisted that the camera was an apparatus to produce pictures according to pictorial perspective. Photographs that did not conform were usually discarded, as when vertical parallels—the piers of a cathedral for instance—seem to converge. Today we have lenses that “correct” such “distortions.” Francastel’s point only reinforces the claim that photography belongs firmly to the history of pictorial representation. After all, the two main inventors of photography, Daguerre and Talbot, were both painters.
And yet there is something moving and exciting, something almost magical about the beginnings of photography. Whatever the continuity between photography and the pictorial tradition, however much we may feel that the invention of photography was inevitable and perhaps even overdue, the invention marked a break, a watershed in the history of representation. This is due not so much to anything intrinsic to photography, or to its apparent objectivity (which, however, should not be underestimated, as criminologists and horse-race enthusiasts know), or to its more exact rendition of appearance. On the contrary, early photography was often unclear or ambiguous, and neglected a great deal of visual information such as color that painting conveyed much better. But, although some early critics of photography felt that it lied because it did not fit with their visual habits and their established pictorial codes, in the end photography, “the pencil of nature” as Talbot put it, carried conviction.
That photography not only does not, but cannot, lie is a matter of belief, an article of faith. It is not that a photograph has more resemblance than a handmade picture (many have much less, and what could be more like something else in appearance than a successfully painted trompe-l’oeil?), but that our belief guarantees its authenticity; to put it simply, we tend to adhere unquestioningly to the conviction that the photographic image is of something that was actually in front of the camera, in a necessary and deducible relation to it; we tend to trust the camera more than our own eyes. From this, the photograph has acquired a symbolic value, and its fine grain and evenness of detail have come to imply objectivity; photographic vision has become a primary metaphor for objective truth.
It would be foolish to claim that this phenomenon is unrelated to the way a photograph is made, to the mechanical apparatus and chemical processes that largely replace the decisions and judgments of the picture maker. These characteristics of photography had great importance, both as potential and as limitation. But they could be overcome, as was shown very early by Julia Cameron, the celebrated English photographer: for better or worse, she turned photography into “Art” so successfully that her pictures seem the product of fantasy just as much as any painting of the time. The decisive break between painting and photography, in the end, is a mental and psychological one—not simply the result of a technical invention, but of what was made of it. The world of art, for the most part, with Baudelaire as its most eloquent spokesman, rejected photography and banished it to the world of science. This ensured both its integrity and its power.
Galassi has not done justice to the shock waves that photography produced in the history of representation. However, by stressing the very real line of continuity between painting and photography, he makes it possible for us to understand how photography and the effect of reality it produces came about within a large movement of ideas in the nineteenth century. The objective photographic vision depended paradoxically on means that stressed the subjective elements of perception. The unfamiliar angle of vision, the seemingly random cropping which developed before photography and was carried on by it, can be understood as ways of stressing the necessary presence of the distinctive perceiving subject, the peculiarly individual point of view. That such a development took place throughout the Romantic period, when the subjective perception of the outside world was at the center of thought, is understandable; and insofar as the camera eye—or camera-I—institutionalizes and enforces this authority of the highly personal “point of view,” it is indeed a fulfillment of the Romantic movement. The invention of photography was wonderfully timely.
Peter Galassi’s exhibition also shows that the origins of the modern tradition in painting are more complex than many have thought. One of the most striking pictures in Before Photography is an Italian view by Léon Coginet (1794-1880), a conservative painter best known for his large historical pictures. This is an early and private oil sketch, but it is very smoothly painted, not treated in a sketchy texture. What brings photography to mind here is the change of values that takes place as a result of distance and the attenuation of hue. The picture is also cropped like a snapshot: in the right foreground in sharp focus is a small branch with leaves—hanging, we presume, from a tree—but the rest is cut off by the frame; the background (a river and the opposite bank) is delicately blurred, as if out of focus. This study, poetic in its mood and its finesse, not only calls to mind photographs in which a tree branch or building near the lens sharply intrudes into a picture of a more distant scene: it is a reminder that even cautious and conventional painters like Cogniet were not entirely foreign to the major developments of art and to what was original in the vision of their time.
The little picture is fascinating, but it does not make Cogniet’s later work more significant, or his public grandes machines more interesting. The present fashion for academic nineteenth-century style has not yet reached Léon Cogniet’s serious productions. We hope that Galassi’s valuable and stimulating catalogue will demonstrate that the real discoveries in nineteenth-century painting are to be made in other fields than the revival of faded reputations, above all in the interaction of social and technological change with the major artistic movements of the time.
Detaching the Retina May 13, 1982