Camera Obscura

The reality of photography


in Archive


Is it a painting or a photograph? It is a harbor. Ships sit on the beach at low tide. The clouds are puffy and white in the sky. A city can be seen in the background. Lovely cliffs rise up behind. Édouard Baldus, a Frenchman, created the image in 1855. It is a photograph, but the clouds have painted on to the print. The image comes to us from The Metropolitan Museum of Art in the way of an exhibit titled “Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop,” on view through January 27th, 2013. The exhibit contains photographs that have been doctored and manipulated from the 1840s all the way up through the 1990s. The inspiration for the show is explained to us thusly:

Over the past two decades, digital technology has made us all more keenly aware of the malleability of the photographic image, and many lament a loss of faith in the testimony of the camera. What we have gained, however, is a fresh perspective on the history of the medium and its complex relationship to visual truth. Through today’s eyes, we can see that the old adage “the camera never lies” has always been photography’s supreme fiction.

People like to believe this about photography. They like to believe that photographs are a direct testimonial of visual truth, that the camera never lies. When it can be shown, however, that photographs are always lying, that they are always a manipulation of visual truth, it is supposed to be a great revelation. The revelation of fakery in photography thus gives us a “fresh perspective” and reveals to us that there is no reason to “lament a loss of faith in the testimony of the camera” since there was no reason to have any faith in the testimony of the camera in the first place.


In fact, this reasoning is cockamamie all over the place. That’s because photography did not begin as a way to visually record the truth. Photography began as a new way to make paintings. Therefore, it was the logic of painterly space that photography had to reproduce. People in the mid 19th century were used to looking at painted pictures. Their expectations about what a picture should look like came from all the painted pictures they had seen. Now, they were being shown photographed pictures. And these new photographed pictures were not going to look “real” unless they could live up to the expectations that painted pictures had already created. “Reality” was thus being defined not by what people were seeing directly out in the world but by what they were seeing in paintings and drawings and other forms of visual art.

Let us be clear about another thing: There were no snapshots in early photography. The technology didn’t allow for it. There was no immediacy, no illusion about capturing a quick reflection of the world as it really looks. Early photography was a laborious process. Getting an exposure took a very long time. Taking a picture was a tremendously staged process, especially if the photograph was of a person. Early portraits are a testimonial to patience. The sitter had to sit still, presenting him or herself to the camera while the image developed. It was not unlike sitting down to have your portrait painted.

Photography was simply a way to take a portrait, or capture a landscape, with fewer intermediary steps than were needed in a painting. In this sense, you could say that all photography was born in the attempt to cut out the middleman. The middleman was the painter. A little history is in order here. During the Renaissance, as painters were developing techniques to render three-dimensional scenes into the two-dimensional space of paint and canvas, they rediscovered the camera obscura (known about since ancient times). A camera obscura is little more than a box with a hole in it. Positioned properly, the light from outside comes through the hole and projects an image of whatever is in front of the box. The image shining through the hole can be projected onto a piece of paper or some other surface. Painters would sometimes use a camera obscura to figure out how to paint tricky scenes where the lines of perspective were particularly complicated. They would, literally, trace out the image projected from the camera obscura and then paint in the rest of the details. The camera obscura was a tool for mastering two-dimensional space. Leonardo de Vinci wrote down explanations for how to build and use a camera obscura in the late 15th century. He seems to have understood the usefulness of the camera obscura for projecting an image that could be used as the basis for painting. It is clear that many of the Renaissance masters who came after Da Vinci were aware of the usefulness of the camera obscura as well.

In 2001 the contemporary artist David Hockney published a book (Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters) in which he claims that almost all of the great masters of painting after the 15th century used tricks like the camera obscura in order to paint. According to Hockney, painters from Vermeer to Ingres were essentially great at tracing. He admits that the special artistry of these paintings made the final result greater than the sum of its parts. But he thinks that much of their amazing skill at rendering three-dimensional space into two-dimensions was done by projecting images and then tracing them. Hockney’s thesis has created no small amount of controversy.

Whether or not Hockney is correct in the extent of his claims doesn’t matter very much. Painters, certainly from the early Renaissance onward, were obsessed with problems of perspective and they were using any means at their disposal — camera obscuras, mirrors, drawing machines, and the like — in order to solve these problems. Technological innovations in the early 19th century allowed for the next step. The daguerreotype, for instance, was a technique by which the image projected by a camera obscura could be captured and preserved — thus, the elimination of the middleman. In the past, the image from a camera obscura still had to be painted. A human being had to take that image and make it permanent, capturing it on canvas and filling it out by means of pigment. With the daguerreotype, the image could be taken and presented as such. Voila, photography was born.

The work that went into “doctoring” early photographs was the same work that had been going on in order to transform the images of the camera obscura into paintings. You could almost say that all paintings, from the mid 15th century until the mid 19th century, were essentially painted photographs. By the late Renaissance, painters had transformed themselves into machines for the accurate rendering of perspective and field of vision onto the flat surface of the canvas. The innovation of early photography was to shift the job that the painter was doing out of the hands of a human being and into the hands of a chemical process.

The “paintings” were now making themselves, by exposing copper plates covered with silver to the light of day. While this process created miraculous images, the images could also be disappointing. The painters of the early 19th century were, after all, tremendously skilled. The images that they could create — of people, landscapes, and historical scenes — were immensely satisfying as visual documentation. They looked real. In many ways, they looked realer than reality. The paintings of the great masters have that intangible dual quality of realism and luminous idealism. It is realism taken to a second order. And these were the visual expectations that early photography had to match.

The comment that “the camera never lies” (probably first uttered in the mid to late 19th century) is thus not to be understood as a positive statement about the inherent truth of photography — it is a complaint. A woman looking at a photographic portrait of herself would say, “This doesn’t look very good. Is that even me?” The photographer would reply, “Well, the camera never lies.” The comment was a photographer’s excuse, an explanation as to why the camera produces an unsatisfying document. Essentially, people were complaining that photographs tended to look worse than paintings. Those early portraits could be so lifeless. It is difficult, after all, to sit down for a photograph and to hold one expression for minutes or even hours without that expression becoming wooden. The painter could fix this by bringing life back into the face with his painterly skill. The chemicals of the photographic process had no such flexibility. And so, in early photography, painters were often called in to fix the results, in order to give photographs the look of the painted scenes.

There’s a photo in the Metropolitan Museum exhibit of a young girl with her hand on her shoulder. It is a daguerreotype from about 1850. The daguerreotype has more or less been turned back into a painting. It has been colored in and many of the lines, especially of the woman’s dress, have been softened up with painterly techniques. There is fakery here, if you want to call it that. But the fakery is not about making the photograph into something truer to life — it is about making the photograph truer to painting. And that is the fascinating thing that can be seen in all the wonderful early photographs at the Metropolitan Museum exhibit.

We see this happening with the landscapes as well as the portraits. The exhibit includes a photograph of Cape Horn, Columbia River, Oregon done by Carleton E. Watkins in 1867. The scene shows a cliff by the side of the lake with a cloudy sky shot through with light above and to the right of the photograph. In fact, as a print of the original picture shows, the photograph displayed by Watkins is a blend of two exposures. Watkins was not able to get an exposure of both the clouds and of the cliff in the same shot. So, he took two different shots and put them together. The interesting thing is that the two unblended photographs are perfectly satisfying on their own. There are plenty of times in real life when we observe a scene in nature and cannot see the sky due to the brightness of the sun. Our eyes can have the same problem of overexposure that affects a camera obscura or a photograph. Watkins’ original photo of the landscape with its overexposed sky is only dissatisfying if you compare it to a landscape painting from the same era, with its perfect rendering of both land and sky. Watkins wasn’t worrying about truth or lies in photography when he took that picture of the Columbia River; he was worrying about Thomas Cole’s 1836 painting View From Mount Holyoke, or something like it. Watkins was trying to make his photograph live up to the compositional standards of the great landscape painters of his time.

The great struggle for photography in those early days was thus to figure out whether photography was simply an extension of painting, a cutting out of the middleman, or whether it was something genuinely new, with its own set of rules and suppositions and formal challenges. The photographs collected in the exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of art are a beautiful and moving testimony to that struggle. Reality, as is so often the case, has nothing to do with it. 14 November 2012