Painting and photography  

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"If photography is allowed to stand in for art in some of its functions it will soon supplant or corrupt it completely thanks to the natural support it will find in the stupidity of the multitude. It must return to its real task, which is to be the servant of the sciences and the arts, but the very humble servant, like printing and shorthand which have neither created nor supplanted literature. " --Charles Baudelaire on photography, 1859, translation featured in Art and Photography (1974) by Aaron Scharf

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Since both painting and photography seek to mimic the real world, it is only natural that from the early beginnings, the relationship between painting and photography have been uneasy. Especially the field of portrait painting felt the threat of portrait photography from its early days, despite the very long exposure times (in the beginning over an hour or so and still 30 to 40 seconds in the era of the daguerreotype) of early photography. Nevertheless, artists were quick to see the advantages of photography, most commonly as a means to replace expensive live models.

The development of photography in the 19th century had a significant effect on painting and espedially on portrait painting, supplanting the earlier camera obscura which had also been previously used as an aid in painting. Many modernists flocked to the photography studios to have their portraits made, including Baudelaire who, though he proclaimed photography an "enemy of art", found himself attracted to photography's frankness and power. By providing a cheap alternative, photography supplanted much of the lowest level of portrait painting. Some realist artists, such as Thomas Eakins and Edgar Degas, were enthusiastic about camera photography and found it to be a useful aid to composition. From the Impressionists forward, portrait painters found a myriad number of ways to reinterpret the portrait to compete effectively with photography. Sargent and Whistler were among those stimulated to expand their technique to create effects that the camera could not capture.

Successful attempts to make self-consciously "art" photography can be traced to Victorian era practitioners such as Julia Margaret Cameron, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, and Oscar Gustave Rejlander among others.




Photography was gaining popularity, and as cameras became more portable, photographs became more candid. Photography inspired Impressionists to capture the moment, not only in the fleeting lights of a landscape, but in the day-to-day lives of people.

The rise of the impressionist movement can be seen in part as a reaction by artists to the newly established medium of photography. The taking of fixed or still images challenged painters by providing a new medium with which to capture reality. Initially photography’s presence seemed to undermine the artist’s depiction of nature and their ability to mirror reality. Both portrait and landscape paintings were deemed somewhat deficient and lacking in truth as photography “produced lifelike images much more efficiently and reliably”.

In spite of this, photography actually inspired artists to pursue other means of artistic expression, and rather than competing with photography to emulate reality, artists focused “on the one thing they could inevitably do better than the photograph – by further developing into an art form its very subjectivity in the conception of the image, the very subjectivity that photography eliminated”. The Impressionists sought to express their perceptions of nature, rather than create exacting reflections or mirror images of the world. This allowed artists to subjectively depict what they saw with their “tacit imperatives of taste and conscience”. Photography encouraged painters to exploit aspects of the painting medium, like colour, which photography then lacked; “the Impressionists were the first to consciously offer a subjective alternative to the photograph”.

Edgar Degas was an avid photographer. His The Dance Class (La classe de danse) of 1874 shows the influence of photography in its asymmetrical composition. The dancers are seemingly caught off guard in various awkward poses, leaving an expanse of empty floor space in the lower right quadrant.

The quotes are taken from Paul Levinson (1997) The Soft Edge; a Natural History and Future of the Information Revolution, Routledge, London and New York.

Photography compared to earlier forms of reproduction

Earlier forms of mechanical reproduction, such as woodcuts and lithography could replicate objects, but photography was different due to its speed of recording: "From today, painting is dead!" claimed artist Paul Delaroche on seeing his first Daguerreotype in 1839. Photography took over traditional roles of painting, immediately depicting landscapes, the still life and making portraits, etc; doubtless making portrait artists such as Delaroche redundant.

Walter Benjamin in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction remarked that "For the first time in the process of pictorial reproduction, photography freed the hand of the most important artistic functions which henceforth devolved only upon the eye looking into a lens".


  • Moholy-Nagy, László, Painting, Photography, Film (1927; repr. 1969).
  • Scharf, A., Art and Photography (1968).
  • Galassi, P., Before Photography: Painting and the Invention of Photography (1981).
  • Vaizey, M., The Artist as Photographer (1982).
  • Crary, Jonathan, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (1992).
  • Franz von Stuck und die Photographie (1996).
  • Wood, P. (ed.), The Challenge of the Avant-Garde (1999).
  • Kosinski, D. (ed.), The Artist and the Camera: Degas to Picasso (2000)

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Painting and photography" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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