Painted art has existed parallel to human civilization for long time, but it has been mainly the domain of the ruling classes, Catholic Church and,-aristocracy. The general purpose of paintings was not so much to mirror reality, but to create narrative illustrations of historic and religious events, of characters or to strengthen the position of those in power. Their composition was based on academic traditions, gaining meaning through their implanted symbolism. Their creators had been praised for their talents of mastering the medium; paint, colors, light and forms, but in fact, with today’s terms, they were the means to promote, to create a mystified brand identity for the elitist system. They represented some sort of manually generated reality. Paintings were composed in a memory state, based on the visual experiences of the real world, usually in the artist’s ateliers. They had been assembled as a composite of sketched up memories, the artist imagination and talent to organize the elements.
Photography as the newborn medium of the late 19th century, had to face up against more than 1800 years of tradition in image culture.
The first daguerreotypes were cheaper and faster to make than paintings, hence they became widely accessible and immensely popular among the general public whom couldn’t afford a painting before this invention came about.
For the first time in history even the members of the working class could keep a visual memory of their ancestors, thus those who passed away could remain in a closer proximity of the living ones. In a way these personal photographs, through their emotional charge, could occupy a higher importance in the average family’s life, than some of the important public figures that had been portrayed in paintings. To us, living in the present, this might seem obvious, but these changes have brutally interrupted the traditions of seeing and depicting the world and of,- reading images. The general importance of the subject matter started to dissolve. The human eye, which has learned through thousands of years, to look in awe at art with embedded meanings, had to come to terms with the image that mirrored the world frozen in time without any particular importance, just as it was.
One of the fundamental characteristics of photography was that it directly dealt with reality. The mindless, soulless mechanical device, as it had been seen at its birth, did record, without any prejudice whatever had been put in front of its lens. As it seemed at the time, unlike what was the case in paintings, there was nothing more to it. Potentially everything and everybody had become an equally interesting target for the camera.
The classical methods of composing a picture have changed directions as well. Instead of working outward from the center toward the edges, with a conscious composition of all the visible and meaningful elements in mind, now the frame of the image guided the photographers. They were isolating a fragment of reality, based on a subjective selection, as they were recording an already existing composition presented by nature. The leftovers, the visual noise of the world falling outside of the selection around the edges, previously only known from Japanese prints, was disapproved by the conservative art world, which opposed against the photographic image as they saw it as a threat to the higher values of classical art.
Around the same time as photography started to fight for acceptance in the art world and as it started to mutate into new forms such as portrait, documentary photography, art and street photography, the world of fine art has also went through a major shift.
With the birth of Impressionism in France, painters left their ateliers to work in the open air as an attempt to accurately and objectively record the visual aspects of reality in terms of evanescent effects of sunlight.
These French artists, Monet, Manet, Pissaro, Degas and Cézanne among others were no longer satisfied with neither the rules, which the academy were trying to impose on art, nor with the topics they were expected to depict. The importance of the traditional subject matter was downgraded and they shifted their attention towards manipulating colors, tones, and textures as ends in themselves. Manet treated the subjects of his paintings as means to create compositions of areas of flat color. The perspective depth was reduced so that the illusory three-dimensional space of the painting wouldn’t distract the viewer from looking at the surface patterns and their relationships of the picture.
In the late 1860s, the impressionists started to paint landscapes with the main interest to record colors as they were in the natural environment at any given moment of the day. They abandoned the traditional landscape palette of darker colors and instead painted in lighter, sunnier, more brilliant tones. They began painting the dynamics of light and the reflected colors upon a variety of surfaces. They tried to reproduce the animated effects of sunlight and shadow as well as of direct and reflected light, which they observed. They abandoned the use of grays and blacks in shadows as they saw it as inaccurate and used complementary colors instead to reproduce the instant visual impressions as registered by the eye’s retina. Artists as Seurat and Signac started to build up their paintings out of discrete points of pure harmonizing or contrasting colors, thus evoking the broken-hued brilliance and the variations of hue produced by sunlight and its reflections. Forms lost their clear outlines and became dematerialized and vibrating in their pictures, just as they saw them in the actual outdoor conditions. Traditional formal compositions were abandoned in favor of a more casual and less contrived disposition of objects within the picture frame. The Impressionists extended these new techniques to depict scenes in a fashion that began to resemble the photographic vision.
Fine art broke completely loose of the burden of narrative story telling in the following decades and in fast progression, paintings had exploded into abstract forms and colors, introducing a vehicle for a greater amount of self-expression than ever before.
Meanwhile, the newborn photography, even though it had all the potentials we came to discover later on through the 20th century, had to suffer decades of identity crisis. The early practitioners, in their attempt to gain recognition for the medium, copied the old standards and techniques known from academic art and graphic prints.
The general belief was that photography could exist only as an extension of painted art, as the true value of the medium was not yet fully discovered.
It wasn’t until the turn of the century that photography really started to find its own identity. It took another 15 years before photographers started to move away from the early artificial aspects of Pictorialism and proceed through Straight photography to a mature state with distinguished forms.
Nearly a hundred years after Nicéphore Niépce has taken the first photograph, photographers finally wanted their work to look like photographs in their own right, instead of mimicking paintings. They started to value the qualities that were unique to photography.
However, the era between the two World Wars produced another turn.The emergence of Constructivism and Bauhaus introduced an entire range of new directions for photography. Photographers as László Moholy Nagy started to manipulate their images and experimented with developing and printing processes, with multiple exposures in such a fashion that these photographs started to resemble abstract paintings.