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26 June, 2013
The Camera and Art
Today we take them for granted, but it could easily be said that their invention changed art forever--three things, the invention of paper, oil paints, and the camera. Paper made art portable. Oil paints made it easy. And the camera taught us how to see. The advantages of paper and oil paints are too obvious to dwell upon, but the effects upon art of the camera, and later photography, are not so often considered. Even before artists and scientists began taking pictures, the camera obscura spurred the development of the rules of perspective. About four centuries later, as photographic chemistry developed, the pace of change affected by the camera picked up. Art historians argue about it, but many think that the first impact of photographic prints was as a theoretical force behind the development of Impressionism. If a camera could capture an instant, fuzzy impression of a scene, why couldn't an artist?

As film speeds improved, first came chronophotography, what we might call time-lapse photography today, the study of movement in man and animals. They influenced Futurist and Cubist painting in the first decades of the twentieth century. Then came photomicrography, which opened up a whole new world smaller than had ever been seen before. Such photos were to influence Paul Klee in his studies of naturalistic abstraction. Not to be confused with photomicrography was microphotography, making small photos of BIG stuff. Presumably, no artist had good enough eyesight to adapt this development to painting, or perhaps they'd thrown away all their old brushes with only one hair left. Whatever the case, artists and photographers instead concentrated on regular size pictures of big stuff...like the moon, shot through a telescope, or the city of Paris, shot by the photographer Nadar from a hot air balloon.

Aerial photos are believed to have influenced Dutch artist Piet Mondrian as he charted wide lines and coloured rectangles not unlike the roads and fields of tulips in his native Holland as seen from the air. Photography found a place in medicine, probably putting out of work hundreds of medical illustrators, though it was to make work considerably easier for the dozen or so who were left. And as exposure times became shorter and shorter (as fast as 1/720 of a second) artists and scientists were able to study the structure of movement in a single image, in real time, much slower, or much faster. The studies of Etienne-Jules Marey around 1900 of movement physiology are said to have been the source of inspiration for Marcel Duchamp as he produced his Nude Descending a Staircase. And did you know, he did TWO versions? Maybe, like another camera artist, George Lucas, he had in mind a trilogy and never got around to the third one. Or, perhaps a prequel, Nude Ascending a Staircase.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
16 June 1999

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