Nate thick tar like substance that he painted

Nate Gerry


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Rick Love



Photography and

19th and 20th
century art has sparked a large interest in what photography does to an artist.
How does it affect us as we work in our fields? Why do we compare ourselves to
photography to such detail? These were the questions I set out with on this
adventure and the questions that I plan to answer.

The first photo ever
taken by the French inventory Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1826. This photograph
is a one of a kind, the process did not provide for a transparent negative or
for multiple printings on paper. Since he could produce only a singular
photograph, the view that he creates is unique. The image itself depicts the
view from an upstairs window at his estate, Le Gras, in the burgundy region of
France (Harry Ransom Center,

If you went to go look
at the photograph today, it is not what you would expect, since the photograph
itself has faded quite a bit. This is because of the way he created it. He had
mixed powdered bitumen of Judea with water to create a thick tar like substance
that he painted onto a flat pewter plate. Which he then used heat to dry the
bitumen mixture onto the plate, he then took that plate and placed it into the
camera that was looking outside. The interesting thing is that this wasn’t an
instant process, but the exposure had to last up to eight hours. Afterwards,
the plate was washed with a mixture of oil of lavender and white petroleum,
this dissolved the parts of bitumen that had not been hardened by sunlight. In
result, the lighter shades were represented by the hardened bitumen layers and
the darker shades by bare metal. The plate was then removed from the liquid and
air-dried on a drying rack resulting in a permanent direct positive picture (Harry Ransom Center,
N.D.). This information
about the plate and Joseph comes from the Harry Ransom Center in Texas. For
further information, please head to their site.

View from the Window at
Le Gras, Nicéphore Niépce, France, 1826

The photo itself is 20.3
x 16.5 cm on a pewter plate (Niépce, N. n.d). The photo has seen some tougher
times. It has become nearly invisible and has also been digitally enhanced so
the viewer can see it better. There are a lot of scuff marks along the edges of
the pewter plate, 3 major dents on the top and bottom left, and one dent on the
bottom right. The colorization has faded and has become a somewhat blueish
black tone with an orange look for the brightness of the sky. Without proper
lighting, you can’t see much of the original image. The view that it depicts is
somewhat cryptic at first glance. Also, the texture of the plate has lots of
scratches and almost feels a bit bumpy. Parts of the image itself has faded to
the tone of the pewter plate as well, mainly around the edge of the plate and
around some of the major dents in the paper. There are also deep scratches on the
top right, this doesn’t affect the image too much for it’s around the border.
Some have enhanced the image to show what it originally would have looked like,
shown below.

View from the Window at
Le Gras, Nicéphore Niépce, France, 1826

At first, I had issues
figuring out how I was going to write about photography so I had scheduled a
meeting with my Professor, Rick Love. He talked me through a bit about
photography and research papers in general, but he also gave me some great
resources. Through this I began to learn more about photography and understand
my quest for answers. The book in reference is “Secret Knowledge” by David
Hockney. He was in a similar position as me. He asked himself, how do these
artists draw so well, he himself was a very talented drawer, but he knew he
couldn’t accomplish what they had. So, he set out on a very similar quest to
me. He began by collecting all the great works from people and lined them up
across a wall. He was then able to pinpoint where he noticed the change in drawing.

With this massive wall
of art, he could point the difference in change of art. He could see how the
lines were a bit too precise to be drawn from an eye. He compared the artwork
to itself and others near it. Faces begun to look too confident and contradict
the style of the artist on the rest of the piece. The swiftness of lines he
points out doesn’t not look “groped” for. The form was so precise and accurate
he states. “I think he did the head first by looking at the lady through a
camera Lucida and making a few notations on the paper, fixing the position of
her hair, her eyes, her nostrils and the edges of her mouth.” While then
finishing the piece by eyeballing it (Hockney D,2009).

This whole quest that
David was on, made me realize that I am in the same boat. Why do we compare
ourselves to the camera? Why did this affect the impressionist artist and why
does this still affect us today?

          Considering the man
who made the first photograph and the time around him, I began to understand a
little more about him. Joseph Niépce was born on March 7th, 1765 and
lived until 1833. The interesting thing is that he was the son of a wealthy
family suspected of royalist sympathies. He had fled the French Revolution but
ended up returning and serving under Napoleon Bonaparte. I was curious how this
would influence the rest of his life after being dismissed because of ill
health. He then settled near his native town of Chalon-sur-Saône and proceeded
to be engaged in research for the rest of his life (Biography of Joseph-Nicéphore
Niépce, N.D.).

          With Joseph being
engaged in research after serving in the army and have dedicating his time to
research, he was able to invent an internal-combustion engine with his brother,
Claude. This then lead to when lithography became a fashionable hobby in France
in 1813, 20 years before his death. He then moved his research to finding a way
to provide images automatically, which then lead to him seeking photography in
1816 (Biography of
Joseph-Nicéphore Niépce, N.D.). This is where the first photograph comes in, he could use the
experience he had and the time he was able to spend after the illness to work
on research and create the first photograph.

          What caught my eye
was that he was not able to figure out a way to reduce the amount of exposure
needed for the photograph he created. So, in 1829 he gave in to the repeated
overtures of Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, a Parisian painter, for a
partnership to perfect and exploit heliography. But he died before he could see
any further advance. Although, Daguerre could greatly reduce the amount of
exposure time through his discovery of a chemical process for development (Biography of
Joseph-Nicéphore Niépce, N.D.). It is interesting to see how his illness turned him away from
the war and brought him to research. The French revolution was resolved before
the first photograph came about. Without the illness, would he have been able
to still create the photograph and have his work be the foundation to more
photographs? I think that the war shaped him to be the man that he was and that
it pushed him to devote his life to research.

          Having been
discharged from the war he was able to devote his time to research. Without it,
we may not have gotten the type of photography we have today. I think this
shows how it affects us today. It shows how if we fully devote our time to a
single thing, we can strive in that field. As artists, we strive for perfection
and the creativity supports that, but without being able to devote a lot of
time to it, it will be very hard to get anywhere with it. This is where Joseph
was a bit lucky in a sense. He could take the time available to him and devote
himself to photography and produce something huge.

          There have been a
few things that I have found exciting about the topic of photography. It is
intriguing to see how the first photograph was made and how it allowed people
to continue working and figure out a way to get the camera to where we are now
and how instant it is. The camera is in a state where we can take out a cell phone
and snap a photo and consider that art. We take a complex idea of the first
camera and how it changed art in that time to where we have instant photos in
our current time, we notice it has the same effect. The camera changes the
style of art people choose to create. We went from perfection in art to an
impressionist style because the artists in that time wanted to show something
the camera couldn’t. In their time, perfection became something not to desire,
but to avoid. Compared to today, we have been influenced by the camera with
looking for perfection again, but this time, we have the option to make it
perfect or make it so un-perfect that a camera can’t replicate it. For example,
in a 3D world and renders, we strive to show the most realistic display of our
objects so it looks photo-realistic, instead of making it more of an art form
and follow an impressionist style. It is also nice to see how much they had to
use chemicals to make the photographs, when now it’s a fully digital process
and it doesn’t require chemicals to produce.

          It has been
challenging to focus on one certain part of the topic and not go too broad.
It’s challenging to not write a book report either. It’s fascinating to learn
about photography and how it all started, but to focus on the topic is
challenging. How did the impressionist get affected by photography when it’s
became more sought after then realistic paintings? How did that make them feel?
It’s challenging to find information and have experiences on this topic as
well. Searching for explanations on my questions and information on the time
and people is difficult.

          It’s also difficult
to try and find good resources for this. The MIA is a good place to go, but
every day is busy with work and classes all day. Also, the internet is very
little help when it comes to this topic and books are very broad in the topic.
Trying to figure out what are the right questions to ask when researching and
figuring out the right people is difficult. The topic is different from
anything else I have written about, finding the balance on information and
research to present is a hard one to manage.

          I wanted to look at
photography from a different standpoint, to try and understand how it likes to
define us as artists today. I figured the best starting point is to look at how
it affected impressionist of the time, compare the artwork from before the
camera was invented to after it was invented. For example, romantic artists
ranged from the 1800’s-1860’s while impressionist’s movement started around the
1860’s with the invention of the camera in between there. Let’s look at a
romantic piece of art and an impressionist piece of art and see what we can make of it.


Left: The wanderer above
the sea of fog, Caspar David Friedrich, Germany, 1818

Right: Impression
Sunrise Claude Monet, France,1872         

Here are two examples
above. The first piece is by Casper David Friedrich, the second is by Claude
Monet. First thing to note is that Claude Monet was born in 1840, and the
artwork was created in 1871. (Claude Monet, N.D.) This shows how much time has passed since the camera was
created. We can see the major difference right off the bat. On the left, we see
how more realistic the artwork is, we can see the background almost clearer
then the first camera. The strokes are more defined, and the colors and
blended. We get a much more realistic feel to the artwork. We do see how on the
right, the colors are blended, but we get a sense of emotion. The color is more
vibrant seeming showing the impressionists could explore more feels to the art.
We can tell that in the artwork there is water, but it’s not clearly painted
that way. We get the sense of motion in the stroke rather than detail. It seems
that Claude Monet could explore more with color and less detail and get more of
an expression out of the art work.

          Looking at both
artworks together, we can see the difference right away. I get the sense of the
camera having to do with it. Artists could explore more because the camera
created this sense of freedom. People wanted realistic artwork, but with the
camera, how could artists compare with a paint brush? This is where I believe
they felt they needed to be different. They made more abstract artwork, you can
understand the art, but why is it different? How am I understanding what it is?

          Taking this
understanding on how we can view impressionist artwork, we can then relate this
idea to today. We can see that artists that were impressionists were able to
create work that was different from what was expected of them. They seemed to
reach for a broader understanding in what they were creating. Today, we choose
to create art that is different, unique, whether the camera is something we
choose to compare ourselves to or not, it does still affect us. For example, in
a 3D modeling class, we aim to make things as realistic as possible, this stems
from the camera and how realistic that image is. If we don’t reach that image,
why is it worth creating the art that isn’t realistic? This then ties back to
impressionists, why do they make the art that is not realistic?

          I wanted to take
another look at the first photograph and look at it with semiotics because I
feel this has a large sum to do with photography. Therefore, the impressionists
went the route they did. We look at photography and we can ask ourselves, why
do we know this is a photograph and not a piece of art that is oil on canvas?
This is because when we look at an art piece, we can see the strokes that the
artists create and the color they felt most represented the ideas of their art
and what the art should possess.

The Boulevard Montmartre
on an Winter Morning
          Camille Pissarro, France, 1897

Looking at this art piece, we can see the visual strokes and brush
marks that Camille Pissarro used. We can understand what the art is about and
more of the emotion behind the artwork because it’s not perfect, it’s not an
exact moment in time that was captured. It shows movement from the strokes,
something a photograph cannot. The color is more diverse than the standard
photograph was originally. Showing something in color gives the viewer a sense
of calm, or at least more emotion than a simple black and white image. Aside
from the color, the detail is another part of the piece that sticks out. We can
see how this piece takes place on a winter morning due to the detail of the
trees and the sky in the back of the background. The details seem smudgy, but
are precise to the artists desire. Even the imperfections are complemented with
the surrounding details, unlike a photograph that is perfect in its
representation of a moment that is captured.

          We can also look at
photography from a Marxist point of view. The people we wanted to have moments
captured from their life originated for the idea of a painter spending time and
capturing the moment. This requires money, people and time, something the
photograph could reduce the cost of. We can see how people would want to go in
a cheaper route rather than pay more money for an artist that has expensive
paints that they mixed on their own to create something near perfect. The
camera on the other hand, would have allowed them to take a snapshot of the
moment quickly and have a turnaround time quick enough to outweigh the cost of
a painter. This is where I think money becomes a huge factor in the decision to
swap what the people wanted. Unless, you were upper-class and could afford a
painter for something you specifically wanted. This is how the impressionists
could come in handy. You can strive for perfection, or for the feeling of the
art. The economy could play an important role on the decision to swap to a
photograph or a painter. I know that in today’s modern world, a photograph is a
much simpler and cost-effective way to go instead of trying to paint a moment
in time. This could easily translate to how they felt when the camera became
more popular and easier to use.

          There still could
have been drawbacks to choosing to go with photography over paintings. Not only
a size difference but a durability difference. A painting as seen in the modern
world, has lasted decades, while we look at the first photograph, it is nearly
unreadable and can be half the size of a painting. This is another thing,
people would have to consider when choosing to go with an art piece rather than
a photograph, outside of its meaning.

          This is what I
think impressionists wanted to do when the camera was involved in art. They
could use a camera to help themselves get the idea of what details they needed
to capture, but having this style of artwork helps show what the power of
artists has on people. Someone can pay for a near perfect piece of artwork on a
canvas, but can also get a near perfect image from a more easily accessible
camera. I can imagine people wanted something different, something that stroke
a different sense of emotion, this is what the impressionist did a good job at.
Which is why I think the camera is what made them want to switch their focus to
a more abstract art form, and that’s why today, we aim to be better than the
camera or even replicate it.

          Looking back at the
impressionists, I think we follow in their footsteps, we strive to be better
than the camera and what it produces, even if it is quick and easy. I feel that
in today’s modern world, we want to show our talents in a creative way,
sometimes it’s being better than the camera, or being abstract with the ideas
we have. But I also feel we can learn from the impressionists for it is not all
about creating something perfect, but creating something that has emotion and
feeling to it. Can you physically see that what we have created is not a
photograph and we can see the time and effort that has been put into it? These
are some of the goals I think artists today strive to fit towards. Although, the
camera is not a bad thing. It has brought us a new technology and new art form
that can be appreciated and used to help us create art in a unique way. It all
boils down to how you use it and how you compare yourself to the camera, just
as the Impressionists once did.





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