Photography Killed Classical Art

The invention of photography may well have killed representational realism in painting, drawing and sculpture. Cameras promised to perfect an ideal of artwork that had served as a motivating ideal to painters and sculptors for hundreds or thousands of years, the ideal of visual realism. In a perfect paradox, the technological achievement of photographic realism altered the history of art and helped give birth to Modern painters like Seurat, Monet, van Gogh, Picasso, Kandinsky. 

Why should perfection destroy? As in my previous example of factory produced, perfectly geometric pottery, technology and economics help to explain the transition and provide some clues to surviving perfection. In the process it threatened to displace an entire industry. Instead it created a wealth of jobs, just as cameras in mobile devices created jobs developing software apps, and a video camera in the Apple TV 3 may create jobs for virtual reality video games in the living room.

The basic scientific principles of the camera mimic the biology of the eyeball itself. Known to the ancient Chinese and Greeks, the camera obscura used a pinhole of light to cast an inverted image on a surface, analogous to the lens and rear wall of the eye. Initially the province of scientists like Roger Bacon and Reiners Gemma Frisius, the concept developed most rapidly during the 1800s, in parallel with the artistic techniques that mark the birth of Modern art.

There are many histories of photography and Modern art that detail the timeline of inventions and masterpieces, pointing out the interest many painters had in the scientific discoveries of their day. In a more focused book, art historian Jonathan Crary wrote about the scientific Techniques of the Observer and drew connections between scientific advances in the physics and biology of vision on the one hand, and the history of Modern art on the other.

On the technology side, Niepce developed the first photographic image on a silver chloride print called a daguerrotype early in the 19th century. Collodion and gelatin dry plates surpassed daguerrotypes in drying time, quality and size by the 1870s, with pocket cameras a popular gadget of the rich.

Inspired by the way human vision can combine discrete points into colors and images, Seurat experimented with pixelated imagery in his famous pointillist works, such as Luncheon on the Grass in 1863.

Although George Eastment invented paper and celluloid film in the 1880s, plate-based cameras remained superior in quality through the end of the century. They also became prevalent enough, and inexpensive enough, that photographic realism could be had in a fraction of the time, and at a fraction of the cost, of a portrait by a skilled painter. Though only black and white, they took off, bringing self portraits and family portraits within the reach of the middle classes.

Fine art, a luxury industry fundamentally driven by aesthetics and the economics of scarcity, could hardly remain unchanged. While cameras perfected the aesthetic ideal of realism and brought it to a wider swath of society, the upscale market could not charge a premium if what it was selling was art true to life, or imagined life, in its visual details. That's what cameras delivered.

Artists sought new challenges. They turned to increasingly unrealistic images, with blurred shapes and colors in the case of the Impressionists, amplified colors and contrasts in Expressionism, distorted lines and perspectives in Cubism.

Others embraced the new technology, using cameras to create new kinds of art. They exercised freedom in composition and lighting, explored the possibilities of the film development process, took aim at live events and constructed staged scenes.

In short, the perfection of the ideal of representational accuracy via the technology of the camera led to its abandonment by the artistic establishment. Cameras unleashed a wave of unprecedented creativity that scandalized the traditional patrons of the arts, challenged the thinking of the critics, and confounded the masses. Visual styles that would previously have seemed evidence of ineptitude -- deviations from realism -- became emblems of a new order.

Many entire books have been written on the subject, which I've hardly done justice to. Instead, I want to close by drawing out the emerging pattern of what I call the Perfection Paradox: People identify an ideal which they proceed to perfect through scientific exploration, technological advance, and manufacturing. Through human ingenuity, they achieve near-perfection, simultaneously driving down the price and making it widely available to people. That's exactly what has happened with geometrically near-perfect pottery and ceramics.

New mass industries appear, taking the perfected ideal for granted. Meanwhile, the old industries -- in this case, artists, art academies and critics trained to appreciate representational accuracy in art -- have to shift in order to survive. To the establishment, perfection means the threat of death. They have to change radically in order to survive.

They key lesson to take away is that playing with perfection is a dangerous game. Like Icarus flying toward the sun, those industries that come too close to perfection may risk death precisely by succeeding in their aim. The rewards are great, and there may yet be ways to survive the tragedy of success.


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