How Photography Pioneered a New Understanding of Art

The advent of photography significantly changed how art was perceived and gave way to new artistic movements. These movements transformed the way we think about art.

Jun 4, 2022By Eva Silva, BA Languages, Literature and Culture

portrait photography with matisse art painting


The earliest widely available photographic process was made public in 1839 by Louis Daguerre, creator of the Daguerreotype. The popularization of photography caused a great stir in the art world and led to significant changes in how art was perceived. Since photography could depict the world more accurately than painting, the latter had to reinvent itself. For this reason, the focus of painters shifted from representing reality to portraying emotions and impressions. Photography can, for this reason, be seen as a great drive for the reinvention of painting that occurred in the late 19th and throughout the 20th century.


When and How Did Photography First Appear?

camera obscura 19th century
Two children looking at the picture produced inside a camera obscura, taken from E. Atkinson’s Natural Philosophy, via Science & Society Picture Library Prints


The first successful photographic process, the Daguerreotype, was created in 1837 by Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre. Daguerre had previously worked as a professional scene painter at a theater. For this reason, he already knew the camera obscura, a small, darkened room with a tiny hole or lens which allowed an image from the outside through. Daguerre took inspiration from this process in order to create the world’s first photographic camera.


The camera obscura had already been used for centuries and allowed the reflection of images from the outside world on a flat surface. Until Daguerre, the main difficulty had been to engrave the image produced without having to draw over it on a piece of paper. Even after other inventors in the 19th century managed to transfer the image onto a piece of copper, the image quickly disappeared when exposed to light. Before Daguerre, it was impossible for a photograph to leave the darkroom in which it was produced.


However, Daguerre didn’t engrave the images on paper but rather on silver-coated copper plates. This invention was announced to the public by a friend, Dominique François Jean Arago, in 1839. From there on, this new process spread throughout the world. In late 1839, daguerreotypes began being produced in several different industrialized nations. Due to how quickly it spread, this new invention was quickly perfected by several manufacturers.

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It was in the United Kingdom in the early 1840s that the first European photography studios appeared. Revelation times decreased significantly, from Daguerre’s thirty minutes to only twenty seconds in most studios. In the late 1880s, George Eastman created the first film rolls. From there on, photographers didn’t need to carry silver-coated copper plates around, and photography became cheaper and more accessible.


Reception of Photography: The Democratization of Art 

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Still Life, the first photograph ever taken with a reliable Daguerreotype, 1837, via My Modern Met


Photography had a significant impact in 19th-century society and its reception within artistic circles varied. While some welcomed photography and used it as an aid for their artistic production, others criticized this invention and refused to consider it as worthwhile for artists, as did Gustave Courbet.


Regardless of the differing receptions of photography, this invention revolutionized 19th-century European societies. For the first time, art had become affordable not only for the higher classes but also for the lower ones. Middle-class and lower-class families could have their portraits done almost instantly at a photography studio for relatively affordable prices.


It can be said that there was, for the first time, a democratization of art and image. While some reacted positively to this and the accessibility of art throughout society, others saw it as a banalization of artistic creation. Many were critical of photography and saw it only as an industrial imitation of art for commercial purposes.


Art Before the Advent of Photography

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Portrait at a photography studio, 19th century, via ENGIM


Despite their variations, the artistic movements in Europe before the 19th century had always had realism as their focus. Their change and variation manifested primarily in thematic change (what was painted) or technique, but realistic representation had always been valued in all of them.


At the time of the invention and spreading of photography, the leading art movements in Europe were Romanticism and Neoclassicism. The first had already introduced a shift in the artistic world by emphasizing the artist’s expression.


diana and cupid pompeo batoni 1761 neoclassical painting
Diana and Cupid by Pompeo Batoni, 1761 (Neoclassical Painting), via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


In Romanticist painting, there were many elements that did not belong to reality (supernatural elements, for example) but were nevertheless represented realistically.


In Neoclassical painting, there was a revival of the representation of mythological figures and scenes. As beautifully and harmoniously as possible, these were always represented in great detail and accuracy. Even if some artists didn’t fall within these artistic movements, they still painted realistically. Whether it was human subjects, nature, or mythological figures, what European paintings at the time had in common was their aim at representing images as accurately and in as much detail as possible.


Impressionism: An Art Movement Shaped by Photography

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The Boulevard Montmartre on a Winter Morning by Camille Pissaro, 1897, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Painters who witnessed the advent of photography developed a different perception of reality and images than their predecessors. These artists understood that reality was transient and that each moment was fleeting and limited. The nature of reality, these painters realized, was to be in constant movement.


For this reason, the artistic movement of Impressionism was the first to deviate from the realistic norm in European art. The artists of Impressionism accepted that photography was the best for capturing fixed images and that they could not outdo it. For this reason, impressionists explored other dimensions of painting, such as color, light, and movement. This style made it clear that painting was not meant to compete with photography, but rather to complement it, to represent that which photography couldn’t.


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Impression, Sunrise by Claude Monet, 1872, via Art in Context


Impressionist painters, instead of accurately representing reality in detail, focus on the impression of reality and attempt to convey movement in their paintings. Impressionist paintings represent reality as perceived by the human eye: fleeting and transient, sometimes unclear or blurred. At first, these somewhat blurred representations of reality were criticized as low-quality or unfinished paintings, but in time they came to be appreciated.


From this time on, it became widely accepted that painting could not compete with photography in accurately representing reality. This realization, in a way, released painting from the shackles of realism and opened the door for a shift in artistic circles. Instead of valuing realism, artists began focusing on expressing emotions, impressions, and all that which is part of the human experience. In many ways, Impressionism created a bridge between traditional art, which had realism at its core, and modernist art, which distanced itself from an accurate representation of reality.


The Modernist Art Movement: A New Conception of Art

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Woman with a Hat by Henri Matisse, 1905, via San Francisco Museum of Modern Art


By the beginning of the 20th century, it was clear that photography had come to stay. Not only that but there was another brand-new medium for representing reality: film. After an 1895 film projection in Paris by the Lumière brothers, this new medium was quickly improved and gained significant popularity. Representing reality accurately was no longer a necessary task for painters. For this reason, Impressionism was only the first of a series of artistic movements which strayed away from realism.


During the first half of the 20th century, there were multiple movements within Modernism that transformed the art world. The first was Fauvism, which represented real scenes and subjects using bright colors which usually did not correspond with reality. Fauvists used thick brushstrokes, taking inspiration from Post-Impressionist painters such as Vincent van Gogh. The foremost name in Fauvism was Henri Matisse. When asked what the color of the lady’s dress in his famous painting Woman with a Hat was, he allegedly replied: “Black, obviously.”


One of the earliest movements within the Modernist current was Expressionism, which had its origins in Van Gogh and Edvard Munch, but was significantly developed a few decades later through the German group Die Brücke (The Bridge). In Expressionism, the focus is not to represent the outward reality accurately, but the inward reality, feelings and emotions. Expressionist artists used vibrant colors and unusually thick brush strokes, and the resultant paintings were extremely dense and intense, conveying clear emotions and environments.


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Apocalyptic Landscape by Ludwig Meiner, 1912, via Sotheby’s


Particularly during the years following World War I, Expressionist paintings become particularly grotesque and dark. By focusing on emotions in the representation of reality, Expressionists could paint a more accurate and critical picture of society. In many ways, these paintings could show what photography could not, namely the artists’ feelings surrounding the reality represented.


Probably one of the most famous movements within Modernism is Cubism. This movement revolutionized the concept of perspective and rejected the representation of three-dimensional objects. Instead of using typical modeling and perspective techniques, Cubists, such as Picasso or Braque, represented the objects as two-dimensional, often trying to include different perspectives of a single object at a time. By exploring perspective in such a way, Cubism, like other Modernist art movements, goes beyond what photography can do. Sometimes, the objects represented stray so far from reality that it is extremely difficult to understand what they are. Later, Cubism evolved to become more accessible and easier to understand, as seen on Picasso’s most famous paintings, such as Guernica.


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Still Life: Violin and Candlestick by George Braque, 1910, via San Francisco Museum of Modern Art


Around 1920 began one of the most important movements within Modernism: Surrealism. Surrealists pick up where the Dadaists left off. Though fruitful in its first years, the Dadaist movement quickly lost itself in its own absurdism and was abandoned by many artists. Surrealism, despite enigmatic and absurd in its own way, is not at all devoid of meaning. Quite on the contrary, it attempts to demonstrate the overlapping of psychological processes in the human mind that cause dreams and imagination.


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The Sublime Moment by Salvador Dalí, 1938, via Fundació Gala


In Surrealist painting, it is not the physical reality that is represented, but the dream and unconscious reality. As in other Modernist art movements, Surrealism is complementary to photography because it represents something well beyond its reach: the human mind and the dream world. By breaking free of the shackles of reality, Surrealist painters portray our minds and dreams in a revolutionary way.


How Modernist Painting Influenced Photography

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Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany by Hannah Höch, 1919, via Staatliche Museen zu Berlin


Despite not being created with artistic purposes in mind, photography was quickly explored by artists. First, photography was used as an aid for painting or other traditional art forms. Later, some artists began exploring the combination of photography, painting, and other mediums, thus creating new art forms, such as photomontage. One of the foremost artists in this new artistic medium was Hannah Höch, an artist of the Weimar Republic, who created famous examples of photomontage.


It took some time and controversy for photography to be considered a fine art form. Many critics, well into the 20th century, still refused to accept photography as anything more than an industrial mechanism that imitated reality but had little artistic value on its own. However, throughout the 20th century, photography began being recognized as an art form, and photographers created innovative ways to express themselves through it.


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Equivalent by Alfred Stieglitz, 1927 (Abstract photography), via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Modernism also significantly influenced photography and its alternative representations of reality and human emotion. During the 20th century, photographers also explored experimental and abstract photography. Despite still representing reality, these types of photography explore shapes, colors, and perspectives without striving to accurately represent a given scene or object.


How Photography Changed Our Perception of Art: An Overview

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Yellow Islands by Jackson Pollock, 1952, via Tate Museum, London


The 1837 invention of the Daguerreotype impacted society and the artistic world that Daguerre could not have foreseen. By surpassing painting in its ability to represent reality, photography, in a way, released painting from the need to be realistic. Photography also allowed for more widespread access to art and portraits, which were in high demand in 19th-century society.


Impressionism was the first movement to be shaped by photography and stray from the realism that was the norm in European art. This movement acted as a bridge between previous movements and Modernism. In the various artistic movements within Modernism, many artists explored countless new ways to express themselves. Artists began focusing on the human experience and different ways to perceive reality and created revolutionary works. Photography followed the tendency towards subjectivity and abstraction, which contributed to its recognition as an art form of its own.


Nowadays, art is understood not only as a faithful representation of reality but as something which provokes thought and emotion. Many viewers are interested in the meanings and feelings an artwork conveys or represents or the social criticism it contains. Realism, although still valued by some, has lost its place as a priority within artistic circles and by artists themselves. This is especially clear when we think about art movements that have distanced themselves from reality, such as Abstract Expressionism.

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By Eva SilvaBA Languages, Literature and CultureEva Silva has a BA in Languages, Literature and Culture from the University of Lisbon. Her research and work revolve around German history, culture, language, literature, and European culture in general.