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How the Invention of Photography Changed Art

Photography radically changed painting. It is popularly taken to have been invented in 1839, when Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre burst onto the scene with his ‘daguerreotype’- world’s first commercial camera. De Font- Reaulx noted that although the medium was immediately and enthusiastically embraced by the public at large, “photography gave rise to a new relationship to reality and its representation, which then boomeranged on its elder sister (painting).”  The reproduction of art objects was also a key development in the use of photography. It had a profound effect on changing the visual culture of society and making art accessible to the general public, changing its perception, notion and knowledge of art, and appreciation of beauty.

Photography democratised art by making it more portable, accessible and cheaper. For instance, as photographed portraits were far cheaper and easier to produce than painted portraits, portraits ceased to be the privilege of the well-off and, in a sense, became democratised. This also lead to a mild opposition against photography from upper class sections of the society who felt that it was cheapening art. That was what gave ‘kitsch’ its meaning: an attempt to reproduce massively and cheaply something artistic and unique. Baudelaire described photography as the “refuge of failed painters with too little talent”. In his view, art was derived from imagination, judgment and feeling but photography was mere reproduction which cheapened the products of the beautiful.

Perhaps the greatest contribution which the new technique of photography could make to painting was to liberate Art from its ties to realism, to factuality. Until that point in history, painting relied on fixed subjects and was a process that took a certain amount of time to achieve the desired realistic result. Photography offered a new way of viewing the world in images that could capture fleeting, momentary effects of light and movement that were impossible under traditional studio conditions. There was, ultimately, no need for the artist’s pencil or brush to labour intensively to depict and record people, occasions or things which the photographer could document through his lens with practical ease and speed. Painting flourished through the 19th century within a largely traditional set of conventions and moved on in the first half of the 20th century to the ambitious challenges of abstraction, pure form and colour, leaving to photographers the task of making visual records. Painters began to look for things that painting could do that photography could not and painting started to change.

Chronophotography, or what is now referred to as time-lapse photography, influenced the development of the work of Cubist and Futurist painters in the early 20th century. In the 40s and 50s, Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell and other Abstract Expressionists pushed this trend to the point where painting had left behind representations of the physical world completely. These artists were interested in expressing ideas, experiences, and feelings through completely abstract methods. Painting was no longer concerned with creating an illusion of a real space. Painting eventually came back to using real images, but still tended to treat them in a different way. For instance, Andy Warhol often repeated the same image in a painting. Rauschenberg would use images like objects within a painting. In a way, these painters tried to incorporate images without returning to the rejected practice of creating an illusion of a real space. All of these modern forms of painting involve the depiction of a different way of visualizing reality.

Since the invention of photography, Western painting’s branched into diverse new genres such as impressionism, expressionism, surrealism, cubism and more. In these and other ways, innovations in photography led to new artistic movements and challenged conventional notions about painting as the only form of art, a belief several art & culture hubs such as Pearey Lal Bhawan uphold.

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