The Birth of Photography
Perceptions of the visible world were greatly altered by the invention of photography in the middle of the nineteenth century. In particular, and quite logically, the art of painting was forever changed, though not always in the ways one might have expected. The realistic and naturalistic painters of the mid- and late-nineteenth century were all intently aware of photography -as a thing to use, to learn from, and react to.
Unlike most major inventions, photography had been long and impatiently awaited. The images produced by the camera obscura, a boxlike device that used a pinhole or lens to throw an image onto a ground-glass screen or a piece of white paper, were already familiar-the device had been much employed by topographical artists like the Italian painter Canaletto in his detailed views of the city of Venice. What was lacking was a way of giving such images permanent form. This was finally achieved by Louis Daguerre (1787-1851), who perfected a way of fixing them on a silvered copper plate. His discovery, the "daguerreotype," was announced in 1839.
A second and very different process was patented by the British inventor William Henry Talbot (1800-1877) in 1841. Talbot's "calotype" was the first negative-to-positive process and the direct ancestor of the modern photograph. The calotype was revolutionary in its use of chemically treated paper in which areas hit by light became dark in tone, producing a negative image. This "negative," as Talbot called it, could then be used to print multiple positive images on another piece of treated paper.
The two processes produced very different results. The daguerreotype was a unique image that reproduced what was in front of the camera lens in minute, unselective detail and could not be duplicated. The calotype could be made in series, and was thus the equivalent of an etching or an engraving. Its general effect was soft edged and tonal.
One of the things that most impressed the original audience for photography was the idea of authenticity. Nature now seemed able to speak for itself, with a minimum of interference. The title Talbot chose for his book, The Pencil of Nature (the first part of which was published in 1844), reflected this feeling.Artists were fascinated by photography b ecause it offered a way of examining the world in much greater detail. They were also afraid of it, because it seemed likely to make their own efforts unnecessary.
Photography did indeed make certain kinds of painting obsolete-the daguerreotype virtually did away with the portrait miniature. It also made the whole business of making and owning images democratic. Portraiture, once a luxury for the privileged few, was suddenly well within the reach of many more people.
In the long term, photography`s impact on the visual arts was far from simple. Because the medium was so prolific, in the sense that it was possible to produce a multitude of images very cheaply, it was soon treated as the poor relation of fine art, rather than its destined successor. Even those artists who were most dependent on photography became reluctant to admit that they made use of it, in case this compromised their professional standing.
The rapid technical development of photography-the introduction of lighter and simpler equipment, andof new emulsions that coated photographic plates, film, and paper and enabled images to be made at much faster speeds-had some unanticipated consequences. Scientific experiments made by photographers such as Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904) and Etienne-Jules Marey (1830-1904) demonstrated that the movements of both humans and animals differed widely from the way they had been traditionally represented in art. Artists, often reluctantly, were forced to accept the evidence provided by the camera. The new candid photography-unposed pictures that were made when the subjects were unaware that their pictures were being taken-confirmed these scientific results, and at the same time, thanks to the radical cropping (trimming) of images that the camera often imposed, suggested new compositional formats. The accidental effects obtained by candid photographers were soon being copied by artists such as the French painter Degas.