The History of Photography: Part 1

According to world famous photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, “A good photo is one you look at for more than a second.” But what turns a photograph into an era-defining image, a landmark in the history of art? And can photography even be art?

The Beginning: Opposition from the Traditional Arts

The question of photography’s artistic legitimacy has been the subject of much debate in the relatively short history of the medium. Immediately after photography was invented in the 19th century, portrait painters felt threatened and feared for their livelihood. Who would want to have their portrait painted when a mechanical device could produce a more precise, more accurate depiction? Painters from other genres were also worried and turned their backs on the new technology.

Painting survived the photographic revolution, of course. In fact, it has benefitted from the success of photography, using the innovative opportunities it presents to continuously reinvent itself. The works of Gerhard Richter, arguably the most famous painter of our times, are based almost exclusively on photographs. Photos serve as starting points or integral components in his pieces.

The Photograph Becomes Its Own Art Form

The debate surrounding the value of photography has long been settled. In fact, it is now well established alongside the traditional artistic disciplines of painting, sculpture, and architecture. Artists have always sought to answer the questions of their time using the aesthetic tools available to them. 37,000 years ago, cavemen made immortal etchings and paintings on the walls of Chauvet’s Cave. In 1826, Joseph Nicéphore Niépice ushered in a new chapter in art history with the world’s very first photograph.

It was not until the 20th century that photography – and by extension, film – developed into one of the most important contemporary art forms. To many, the classical medium of painting had been overtaken and was no longer able to deliver persuasive aesthetic responses to the challenges of modern society.

But how did photography, a practical medium suited to documenting reality, become its own art form? How did photography overtake painting and sculpture, especially among younger generations?

Berenice Abbott: Columbus Circle, New York
Berenice Abbott: Columbus Circle, New York

Images from masters such as Man Ray, Walker Evans, Erwin Blumenfeld, Edward Steichen, and Horst P. Horst have long been considered classics in the history of photography. To understand the importance of these works, the LUMAS Art Magazine takes a look back at prominent examples. In this issue, we focus on an iconic series of photos by Eadweard Muybridge.

Man Ray: Noire et Blanche, 1924
Man Ray: Noire et Blanche, 1924

From a Study of Movement to the First Film

The technological advancements that occurred at the beginning of the 20th century opened up a number of opportunities for photography, such as: multiple exposures, long exposures, and the ability to capture sequences of movement. One of the most important proponents of the medium’s “dynamism” was British artist Eadweard Muybridge. His studies of horses in motion helped to address a common misunderstanding of movement that was widely held among the artistic community; since certain animals’ limbs moved too fast for the human eye, their gaits could only be guessed.

In his famous painting “The Derby at Epsom” from 1821, painter Théodore Géricault depicted a horse that had left the ground completely during a gallop, as many of his contemporaries would have done. The new technology developed by Muybridge showed that the human eye was simply unable to follow such a complex series of movements. Setting up 12 cameras behind one another allowed him to take a series of images, with astonishing results. The world’s very first film had appeared, and a rapid process of transformation had begun.

Muybridge produced his series to increase the knowledge and understanding of the artistic and scientific communities. Suddenly, photography had a purpose that could not be overlooked. The medium was subsequently developed by artists, in tune with the prevailing movements of their times, into a unique instrument whose meaning and influence continued to grow.

To be continued…

Classics from Photo History:


About the author:

Autor: Dr. Jan Seewald

Dr. Jan Seewald studied Art History at renowned institutions including the Courtauld Institute of Art in London and is an expert in the field of photography.

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