1. Project 1: Thinking about landscape

1.1. Early Photography and Painting

“Perhaps even more than the portrait, landscape photography remains encoded within the language of academic painting and the traditions of landscape art which developed during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.”

Clark, G., (1997) The Photograph, Oxford University Press: Oxford New York. p.55.

In some respects, you are at a similar point to the early pioneers of photography. As they experimented with the technical aspects of the medium in the mid nineteenth century, they explored the possibilities of applying these to a variety of subject matter. At this point in your studies, you too should be developing your understanding of different processes and techniques, and also challenging yourself to work with different subjects as often as possible.

To expand your knowledge, as when studying any subject, you need to look at what has been done before.

William Henry Fox Talbot, Lacock Abbey in Reflection (c. 1840) Bridgeman Images.

This is also an opportune moment to consider the genesis of the photographic process, and how closely early photography related to painting. It was largely due to William Henry Fox Talbot’s (1800–77) frustration at being unable to draw or paint with any degree of accuracy that the positive-negative analogue process underpinning modern photography was conceived.

At Lake Como in Italy whilst on his Grand Tour of Europe in 1833, Fox Talbot decided he would find a way to fix the image within the camera lucida, which was an aid to drawing employed by painters, including Vermeer, and a popular gadget for the upper-class Victorian traveller. It would be overly simplistic to describe Fox Talbot as a frustrated, aspiring painter – he was a gregarious naturalist who made contributions to a range of disciplines. However, it is clear that many of his photographic experiments took as inspiration subjects and views that were typical of painting and other related media.

On the other side of the Channel the earlier experiments of Niépce (1765–1833) and Daguerre (1787–1851), announced just before Talbot’s calotype process, were greeted with mixed feelings by the art establishment. Ironically these were closer to the singular artefact that Talbot originally intended to make than his process, which allowed for the mass production of photographic images. Paul Delaroche (1797–1856) famously responded to Dageurre’s process with “From today painting is dead”. However, Delaroche did not mean this quite as literally as it might seem, and believed that photography would in fact be an invaluable asset to the painter, for example by doing away with the necessity for many preliminary sketches.

“In short, the admirable discovery of Monsieur Daguerre is an enormous service rendered to the artists.”

Paul Delaroche, quoted in Moholy (1939) Pg 39.

‘Service’ seems an important choice of word here; implying, perhaps, that the usefulness of photography was limited to simply aiding the painter, rather than a creative medium for artists in its own right.

Some well-known painters who fulfilled Delaroche’s prophecy and made use of photography in one way or another include Claude Monet, Edgar Dégas, Henri de Toulouse- Lautrec, Paul Gauguin and Georges Seurat – as well as many contemporary practitioners, such as Francis Bacon, and David Hockney.

Gerhard Richter, Sea Piece (Wave) (1969) Bridgeman Images.

The contribution of Eugène Atget (1857–1927) seems to prove Delaroche’s point. Atget amassed an archive encompassing many thousands of glass plate negatives, consisting of views of the street life and architecture of Paris. Atget is an elusive figure within the canon of great photographers. He supported himself by selling prints to painters, architects and stage designers as reference images, and later in his life to museums and collections. These were sold as records, however, rather than artefacts. Uncelebrated during his lifetime, his work came to the attention of the surrealists in particular. John Szarkowski (1925–2007) played a major part in championing Atget’s photography by acquiring, exhibiting and publishing a major part of Atget’s archive whilst director of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Others, notably Rosalind Krauss in her essay ‘Photography’s Discursive Spaces: Landscape/View’ (1982), have been critical about the retrospective placing of Atget’s work (and that of other nineteenth-century photographers) within the context of the contemporary art gallery; one reason for this is that Atget didn’t demonstrate artistic judgement by discerning the strongest works from his vast collection.

Further Reading

For a thorough rebuff of Krauss’s argument, see Tod Papageorge’s lecture published in Core Curriculum: Writings on Photography (2011) New York: Aperture.

Eugène Atget, Pont Marie (1926) Bridgeman Images.

Similar debates continue today around the validity of photojournalism and reportage work and the ‘appropriation’ of photographs from archives and other, often personal, family collections, within the art gallery context. But in the late nineteenth century, the mechanical aspect of photography was the main setback in terms of its acceptance as a fine art medium. Ironically, a more ‘photographic’ way of seeing was actually already in place within painting, thanks to the use of the camera lucida and camera obscura, which allowed Cartesian perspective and photographic realism to become the dominant visual aesthetic of western visual culture.

Photography – or rather the apparatus of photography and its particular way of visualising the world – had been in place, steering the fine arts, long before Fox Talbot, Niépce and Daguerre.

Although today we generally think of photographic images in terms of art and design, early photography was only accessible to those with quite specialist knowledge of optics and chemistry (with the associated economic implications) and so was considered part of the realm of science and its related institutions. As you’ll see, photography came to fruition within the industrial and colonial age and cannot be separated from the social contexts of the period, including scientific exploration, the advent of mass media, migration and industrialisation.

Certainly photography fulfilled many useful functions of the time: primarily to illustrate things, but also to communicate information (journalism), produce mementos of loved ones, both living and dead, serve judicial institutions (e.g. criminal mugshots), and as a method of scientific inquiry (e.g. eugenics), to name but a few applications. Even nowadays, some major art institutions have been slow to acknowledge photography as a valid practice, either within the fine arts or in its own sphere, because of its mechanical and scientific origins as well as its functional omnipresence within society.

Exercise 2: Photography in the museum or in the gallery?

Read Rosalind Krauss’s essay Photography’s Discursive Spaces: Landscape/View’ in Art Journal Vol. 42 (1982) Pg 311-319.

Summarise Krauss’s key points in your learning log (in note form) and add any comments or reflections.