The Connection Between Painting and Photography

Photo by: Philip Strong on Unsplash

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Painting and photography have had a close relationship since thousands of years before even photography came to existence. Yes, long before Nicéphore Niépce managed to permanently fix an image with the aid of chemistry and optics (which together gave birth to photography) in 1826, painting and photography were already having something going on. Although, it wasn’t called photography back in those remote days.

Photography, Before Photography

According to some historical hypotheses, that relationship started a long-time ago in the paleolithic era of our kind; but not precisely as an intentional occurrence. Thanks to some archeo-optical experiments made by Matt Gatton, it is accepted that some optical effects can take place during specific moments of the day thanks to light passing through random tiny holes in tents and caves, producing something we now know as “camera obscura”. And it was through these light-borne images, that humanity was first introduced to the possibility of representations, the same which later inspired paleolithic visual depictions in caves.

The Early Relationship Between Painting and Photography

The earliest known written record of the camera obscura is found in the Chinese text Mozi which is dated around 500 BCE, and traditionally ascribed to Chinese philosopher Mo Di. The rocky road from those rudimentary pinhole optic devices to what we now know as photographic lenses has witnessed some serious evolutions. Same which wouldn’t have been possible without the aid of Arab physicists Ibn al-Haytham (965–1039), also known as “the father of modern optics”.

He, better known nowadays as Alhazen, made significant and particular contributions to the principles of optics and visual perception we all take for granted whenever we take a photograph with our cameras. But before Niépce, Daguerre and Fox Talbot (the principle inventors accredited for photography up to this day) made their serious contributions to photography, those optic devices were just tools used for drawing and painting.

In simple and unfairly reduced terms, the camera obscura was used mainly for accurately representing nature and other elements via painting and drawing. And of course, for some nice field entertainment; and even for safe solar eclipse watching as Alhazen did before writing his essay “On the Form of the Eclipse”, in which he describes that he observed the sickle-like shape of the sun at the time of an eclipse by using a camera obscura. Actually, this is considered to be the very first experimental study of this amazing device.

So in very broad and general terms, before photography came to existence, painting had a clear angle towards representing things in a realistic way. And despite creativity and conceptual endeavours, the optical foundling which later became photography, was more or less present in the overall process behind nowadays painting masterpieces.


After such a close relationship, it is no surprise that the young photographic medium of the nineteenth century tried to follow the already mature steps of painting. Especially its more popular subjects and topics, which are still-life, portraiture architecture and landscape. All which are different but share something in common, they call can be done with slow shutter speeds.

Now, you might think that portraiture isn’t that well suited for slow shutter speeds; but unless you are doing silly poses, duck-faces and other rather contemporary stuff, it is actually doable. Of course, this means that the easiest way to pull it out is by looking quite dull and grim, and now you know why a lot of the photographic portraits from the nineteenth and early twentieth century depict rather serious looks in them.

Beyond being an international style and aesthetic movement that dominated photography during the aforementioned periods of time, there is no standard definition of what pictorialism really is. Although, it is easier to spot photos that fit within the overall understanding of pictorialism by following one single assumption. Pretty much all the photos produced during that time look the way they do because photographers were trying to mimic painting to some point, hence the term “pictorial”.

Lenses from that time weren’t as sharp as our contemporary days lenses, but they weren’t the main cause of the recurrent dreamy or ethereal aesthetics, soft focusing and subtle tones in those photographs. So, a lot of those highly desired sfumato-like effects happened in the darkroom rather than the field. Screening tricks made possible by highly sophisticated pieces of flimsy cloths attached to stick-based framing devices were the precursors of what visual artists and others now know as “gaussian-blur” or other similar results. Typically used to reduce an image’s noise, but also detail, ergo unsharpening the image.

All this sounds a bit like nonsense nowadays when blade-cutting sharp results are demanded by the broad audiences, but now you know better, it wasn’t always like that. And all the craving for objective imagery and purely realistic results started with some folks in Germany, and some others in the United States; but we’ll talk about the objectivist movements some other day.

The Big Differences Between Painting & Photography

True as it might be, painting and photography had a very close relationship; until photography as we know it was actually born. In the strict, and even ontological sense, everything that was done with the camera obscura was “painting” or “writing” with light as the etymological meaning of photography suggests of itself. But prior to the accomplishments of Niépce et. al., photography was an ephemeral resource at the service of painting, drawing, and so on. Alright, but why is this relevant or why are we going so far away back in time? Simple, to pin-point the moment in which these two became two different things and crafts.

Until photography arrived in the scene, painting was mostly driven by the desire of painters to represent the material world. And some achieved unbelievably high degrees of realism with them (like Leonardo i.e.), while some others were quite out of this world; like those by the hand of Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516), Rubens (1577-1640) and Blake (1757-1827) to mention a very few of them. But even they were guiding themselves by the principles of light and proportions when doing their thing. And this “thing”, has a name, which has brought too much debate into the table, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

Some of the main productions of painting, artistic or not, were architecture, still-life, portraiture and landscapes; as you might remember from a couple of sentences above. But in utilitarian terms, photography was capable of capturing those subjects in a more efficient and realistic way than painting. And that’s when the love-story starts getting quite bumpy.

Before the democratic appearance of photography came into our human history, visual representations were mighty expensive, especially fine-painted portraits. But when cameras started sprouting out, a lot more people could access images of themselves. Family portraits (even with some deceased fellows) became popular in the nineteenth century, and it was just the very beginning of a huge visual culture revolution.

On the meantime, painting was getting grumpy; and didn’t like that this mechanical abomination calved by modernity was daring to represent reality while skipping all the effort that painting demanded from the vision, mind and hands of the master painters of the time (as Baudelaire might have seen it in 1856).

Photography took a huge part of the existential reason of painting to be. Despite some very specific examples, painting had a huge history of pursuing reality by its own means, and photography made that goal absolutely pointless in a couple of years. But of course, painting was not going to surrender, and that’s when many of the now known “isms” (abstractionism, cubism, futurism, constructivism, dadaism, and TOO MANY others) became alive. And that’s one of the great beauties of this tragicomedy, photography took a lot from painting, but by doing that, painting was capable of truly reinventing itself from scratch. And one of the key elements of this revolution is the following. Painting is capable of speaking about itself through its own means by using colors, composition and proportions in a way that results impossible for photography to achieve.

Sure, artists can create abstractions and minimal images; but at the end, they are simply getting registered by the camera, and not created with photographic elements. Although, some folks like Man-Ray (1890-1976) and László Mogoly-Nagy (1895-1946) got really close to it by making photographic images without using cameras at all. But, photography won the battle of registering reality. And it all started in the 1900 with the appearance of this little dude, the Kodak Brownie Camera; with which a price of just $1.00, was the visual culture equivalent of the Ford Model T from 1908. And as photography became more accessible to the general public, it also got more powerful in terms of speed and optical performance as the years went by.

Thanks to increasingly faster shutter speeds and more light-sensitive emulsions (better known nowadays as what happens when cranking up the ISO levels of our cameras), photography was capable of registering things in fractions of a second, making time a bit distorted when thinking about it. Why? Because it made us realize how long a second really is when shooting hand-held. And this capability prepared the field to one of the most important paradigms in the history of photography, the humanist one. Which gave birth to some of our most beloved photographic genres, social-documentary, street photography and photojournalism. Now photographers were capable of registering life as it develops, and not just the aftermath of it.
But the wonders of photography are not all high-speed related, slow shutter speeds also showed us something painting wasn’t capable of doing (at least not in such a clear way). Watching big portions of time condensed into one single piece of photographic imagery. Or what else would you call that nice results from long exposure photography? Seriously, no matter if it depicts people or nature, long-exposure images are too much for our minds and eyes to perceive while happening. And photography is capable of doing that task with just adjusting the settings, perhaps a nicely dark ND filter, and pressing the shutter button.

Debunking Ye Olde Debate Forever

As said before, there are some unresolved drama between painting and photography, or more specifically, between photography being art or not. Right to the chase, photography is NOT art.

It isn’t art just like learning how to use a pen or a keyboard doesn’t transform oneself into a writer; nor having a nice brush would transform one into a great painter. Ergo, having a camera doesn’t mean that the results would trigger deep aesthetic experiences in the viewing audiences like art is intended to do.

Photography is a medium, and the camera is the tool used by that medium to create visual content for an extremely broad array of purposes. Seriously, there are more than 95 recognized photographic genres out there, and most of them have nothing to do with art.

And personally speaking, I’m truly convinced that this whole debate started out because for some reason, painting is widely considered an art form. Is house painting art? Is painting yellow stripes on a road art? Do they become art after placing them inside a white cube or museum wall?

The answer here my fellow culties, is simple. Photography is a medium that has the power of creating art when the proper tools are in the hands of an artist. And that title should not be self-given but earned from society.

Closing Note

Like Magneto and Xavier, painting and photography had a close friendship that took separate ways after a couple of crucial circumstances in their lives. Worrying about whether photography is an art form or not is as “effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubblegum” (Luhrmann, 1999). What really matters is that your photographs are capable of triggering aesthetic experiences in the mind of the viewing audiences so powerful, that they are capable of long lasting in their memories and eventually become meaningful to them. So whatever your genre or creative worries are, it all comes down to the concept or the purpose behind the images that we make with our cameras.

So leave the art label to society, and enjoy your thing.