Monday, September 24The Voice of London

We Grabbed Pens, And Now We Are Holding Cameras

Have you ever seen a real painting? This question may sound a bit odd, but as a modern man, when we compliment a painting, there is already a precondition as we’ve seen loads of photos and pictures. People in Renaissance may praise paintings by saying ‘just like a living thing.’ But we are more likely to say ‘just like photography.’

Words: Lei Fu, Subeditor: Asma Qureshi

This year is the bicentenary birth of the celebrated photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron. She was widely known for her works at early ages of photography in 19th century. Her unique technique of taking photos is to pose her family members and friends as sitters and to construct her pictures by referencing stories from classic paintings, bible and allegories. She was one of the first movers to reveal the relationship between the old classic paintings and nowadays photography. She insists that the relationship of them is inherited and interactive.

Even though, there are still some people sadly believe that painting is dead; some artists even do not agree with photography as an independent art form. After photography was born, and with the thriving development of digital art, the question of how The relationship between paintings and photography is becoming more blurring.

That is why modern artists say that ‘painting is dead.’ Yet, we are often shocked to hear these words, which proves that we do not understand the ‘death’ of painting in a deeper sense. That Nietzsche yelled out ‘God is dead’ does not mean that God exists before and disappears after. When modern artists say ‘painting is dead’ it doesn’t mean nobody is painting anymore, rather the terminator, photography, stands in front of us, we already lost the qualifications to create paintings for the purpose of painting. Because each of our modern, as a result of seeing and learning paintings since childhood, we can no longer purely watch a pair of painting after the invention of photography.

The origin of painting can date back to rock paintings, but the origin of photography is much closer to us. The invention of photography, in the history of visual culture in a western point of view, is neither isolated nor accidental. Some created photography to capture the ‘false reality’ on their canvas by having the preparation of scenography; some have the desire to record everything in accordance with reallity. Ironically, most actively promoted the development of photography, precisely, those artists who racked their brains to invent optical instruments and photographic equipment to create better paintings .

For example, early in the 15th century in Holland, the famous painter Johannes Vermeer began to use camera obscura as a auxiliary painting tool. Johannes Vermeer’s painting technique was very unique, almost similar to photography. Vermeer watched the object from the lens and used projection from the camera obscura to turn objects on his canvas directly. Actually Vermeer was the first realistic painter to depict people through a photographic method.


Girl with a Pearl Earring, painting by Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. Source:Labeled Google image
The most well known Painting of Johannes Vermeer: Girl with a Pearl Earring  Painter:  Johannes Vermeer Source:


If you’ve seen the film ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring,’ the Hollywood movie based on one of Vermeer’s master works, there’s an important scene: Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth crouched closely in a dark black cloth, and what they were looking at is the advanced painting tool. Camera obscura is generally considered the preliminary design of the camera. Due to this tool, you could often see some inexplicable flashing spots on Vermeer’s paintings.


Painting: A Lady Writing Painter: Johannes Vermeer
Painting: A Lady Writing  Painter: Johannes Vermeer Source:


The invention of photography does not have a fixed time and an exact inventor, but it was generally believed that a Frenchman Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (1787-1851) invented camera in 18th century. Daguerre studied architecture, theater design and panoramic painting. He specialise in stage panoramic painting, which deeply inspired him to discover the design of camera obscura. Panoramic painting may sound very complex, but it is nothing more than a 360-degree surrounded immersive experience, which started before the rock era. It ws then replaced by 3D and large display nowadays. Nothing new. So, Daguerre’s invention of photography was simply a matter of course.

Therefore, to understand photography you must understand that it wasn’t born in a “visual desert,” rathr, it’s history proves it’s dep rooted relationship with painting. Paintings, of course, can not be taken for a category including photography, but photography can never get rid of the once-large-and-strong aesthetic principles established by the painting. In fact even the word “Photography” comes from Greek φωτός (phōtos) and γραφή (graphé), meaning ” light ” and ” line ” respectively. So, when these two words come together, it means painting with light.

And if we regard painting and photography both as a human behavior of image production, it can be understood why photography referenced painting in so many motifs, content and ways of expression.In simple terms, the first person to ever use a camera must have asked “what do I take?” At this moment his mind already had an idea of taking a photo just like a painting. So when photography was invented, people relied on painting schema more to take a photo. Frenchman described this as ‘Tableau Vivant,’ meaning photography is a artistc form for people to play characters in scenes of painting. Models stood motionlessly and imitated a painting, which was what photography was in ealy 19th century.

But another reason for why photography is not recognized as an independent art until now is that the explosion of human technology is rapidly growing. Just a few decades after photography was born, the French man Muybridge had already started to give objects continuous shooting pictures in 1872, which became a more familiar art form to us today – the film.

With the dynamic, the static fell into disfavor immediately. It’s sad that photography didn’t have time to mature and grow into an independent art; it was aborted. During the 20th century, there were a bunch of poets, painters and artists who conducted various artistic experiment on the idea of photography, which soon made it a popular form of art but somehow had never won a dignified and independent position in art galleries at that time.

Soon, intelligent people found that the most appropriate shelter for photography was not art galleries , but mass media. Photography was immediately and widely used as an effective means of communication and propaganda in the 20th century. Consequently, aesthetic principles gave way to efficiency and accuracey in the process of information dissemination. The next photograph is illustrative of this problem.


Photo:Napalm Girl (1972) Photographer: Phan Thi KIm Phuc Source: Flickr
Photo:Napalm Girl (1972) Photographer: Phan Thi KIm Phuc Source: Flickr


In 1972, the famous photo ” Napalm Girl” shocked the world. This photo was also the cause of a new anti-war wave in the United States, which reportedly ended the Vietnam War six months earlier. The value of this photograph was not focusing on art, but the impact of its authenticity .To this extent , photography is no longer an art form deeply related to painting, yet painting sometimes has to borrow reference from photography to do research on realism invertedly. To summarise, aesthetic principles come first for the purpose of art; photography for the purpose of communication, above all information dissemination comes first.

In the context of contemporary art, it is absolutely not just a discussion mainly about painting. It never was. It is more about the emergence of different art forms such as photography, film, digital art, etc. And more about how these various art forms keep re-writing art history to keep it alive.