Since its invention in 1839, photography has become an essential means of communication and expression. It is an invention which is, or at least was, unique in the way it combined science and art. The photograph has had a complicated history. The photographic apparatus, the camera, has gone through many different changes of shapes, affecting how it has been used and complicating the definition of photography and photographic qualities. The history of photography and the discourse surrounding it has been written and rewritten a number of times since its invention.
In 1840 the author Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) wrote that the invention of photography was “the most important and perhaps the most extraordinary triumph of modern science” while Charles Baudelaire called photography a symptom of “the stupidity of the masses” in 1859.
According to art historian Sabine Kriebel their very different attitudes to photography stemmed from their equally different thoughts on science, which, according to Poe, surpassed man’s wildest imagination, while Baudelaire contrarily felt that man’s poetic inner life suffered when too much attention was paid to the outer reality.
According to Baudelaire, photography showed the world in a realistic and truthful way, which could never be beautiful. Imitating nature had nothing to do with art. Baudelaire felt that the public taste for photography was caused by a love of truth which was contrary to the inner human beauty which art was supposed to depict:
“If photography is allowed to deputize for art in some of art’s activities, it will not be long before it has supplanted or corrupted art altogether, thanks to the stupidity of the masses, its natural ally.”
As predicted by Baudelaire, photography had a substantial effect on art. Art was no longer supposed to be mimetic, rather the question of realism became the dadaist and surrealist question of what the real world was – and whether or not one could even talk of truth:
“People think they can explain what they write rationally, through thought. But this is very relative. Thought is a fine thing for philosophy, but it is relative…There is no ultimate truth.”
Wrote artist Tristan Tzara in the Dadaist manifesto, 1918. In 1860, Baudelaire published The painter of modern life, a much celebrated essay on modernity and art, stating that:
“genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recovered at will – a childhood now equipped for self-expression with manhood’s capacities and a power of analysis”.
In this essay, Baudelaire wrote that the artist should look at his surroundings as if he were a drunk child seeing “everything in a state of newness”. According to Baudelaire, art was not just an imitation of nature, but something more. The painter was to be an observer, philosopher, flâneur, recreating a combination of the fleeting and the eternal:
“And the external world is reborn upon his paper, natural and more than natural, beautiful and more than beautiful, strange and endowed with an impulsive life like the soul of its creator. The phantasmagoria has been distilled from nature.”
In my opinion, there is something scientific about Baudelaire’s idea of the distillation of dream images from nature, which predates Freud, and combined with the rebirth of the world on paper, connotes photography and Surrealism.
“The very narrow conception of imitation which art has been given as its aim is at the bottom of serious misunderstanding that we see continuing right up to the present…The mistake lies in thinking that the model can only be taken from the exterior world”
wrote André Breton in Le Surréalisme et la peinture (1928). In spite of this, photographs were often used in surrealist art. Part of the reason was various photographic experiments conducted by the artist Man Ray (1890-1976), but the surrealist magazines also contained numerous ordinary photographs; photographs of surrealist exhibitions and objects, portraits, street photography, ethnographic photography, scientific photography, film stills, and a mixed selection of popular trash, a kind of photographic ready-mades, objets trouvés. The photographs were seen as marvelous when combined with surrealism.
In a lot of ways the invention of photography had been the culmination of a Western tradition in which the mimicking of nature was the most noble, human endeavor – but as much as photography was influenced by pictorial arts, pictorial arts were affected by photography. The avant-gardes of the 20th century were fragmenting and layering work, playing with motion and space in new ways, clearly affected by film and photography. The question of mimesis and realism in art became intertwined with questions of science vs nature, machine vs human, and finally the question of reality and truth, and how we humans relate to our surroundings. More than anything the invention of photography brought on a new way of seeing and thinking about the world, questioning the difference between inner and outer reality.