Michael Kenna

From painting to photography: the evolution of the perception of nature


A window in the picture

The first landscapes in painting appeared when a window was inserted in the picture. It was still only a brief glimpse, an escape towards an imaginary exterior, bits and pieces arranged in a frame within a frame. In short, the landscape was one element among many. A fragment, or rather a sign of nature, a coded, miniature form of the cosmos; it was not painted for itself, but in order to symbolize the outside world with which the characters interacted. Its independence as a pictorial genre developed slowly as its rhetoric and vocabulary gradually took shape and were used to support aesthetic theories and scholarly arguments. The existence of the landscape in art is clearly related to the evolution of the perception of nature, first miniaturized by gardening and turned into an object of delight and pleasure: an existence organically linked to the influence of everyday life in which the sacred dimension diminished as the sway of materialism grew.

The materials and tools used in nineteenth-century photography were not new: the camera obscura used by painters and draughtsmen from the Renaissance, the invention of perspective and its gradual spread in the West, the fact that silver salts turn black when exposed to light, as all alchemists knew, all predated the invention of photography. What explanation can therefore be given for the relatively tardy appearance of photography and the synchronism of the experiments carried out independently within a short period by Wedgwood, Niépce and Talbot?


Two key concepts

Peter Galassi considers that a long period of evolution of perception was needed before the fundamental principle— the framing of a section of reality — could really be applied. This required the development of the landscape as a pictorial genre in its own right, because, despite the prodigious influence of Claude Lorrain, history painting was still the major genre. A rhetoric peculiar to landscape painting had to emerge and then evolve under the influence of the political and social changes of the eighteenth century. Two key concepts were consolidated at a time when there was a growing interest in nature through gardens and pleasure trips: the concepts of the frame and the point of view. The first crops up regularly in gardening terminology. The second, theorized by the Reverend William Gilpin, underlay the theory of the picturesque. The fundamental optical parameters of photography can easily be recognized in this theory. “The traveler tries to distinguish planes, to organize space in relation to the horizon, and to spot everything that enlivens it...”: he produces landscapes. Galassi musters a host of examples to show the development of pictorial techniques, aesthetic presuppositions, the way of thinking about and looking at the world and consequently of portraying it. The adoption of a single, arbitrary point of view by the painter, the original observer, seems to be the trigger for the development of a discontinuous gaze. The eye no longer sweeps the world and the various spaces it offers in a flowing movement, but stops and focuses on a specific piece. The succession of fragments which follows is the basis of the modern representation of the landscape, but above all, it makes photography possible. This fragmentary vision applies equally to large panoramas sweeping to the horizon, portions of cloudy skies and the close-up studies of tree trunks painted by Constable. Without this evolution from the synthetic position of an arbitrarily reconstructed landscape to the analytical position of a fragmented universe and the acceptance of its discontinuity, photography would never have developed beyond a mere curiosity. Photography, in direct contact with fragments of reality, could not be an instrument of synthesis, assembling the various pieces of a single image. The perspective invented by the Renaissance artists aimed to construct three dimensions in a two-dimensional space; photography does the opposite, reducing everything to a single plane, and implies the viewer’s educated cooperation.

Realism in the “study”

The evolution of the representation of the landscape was triggered by the desire for realism in the “study”, a drawing from life which was certainly not intended for the public. “Ever since Renaissance artists had reclaimed the appearance of nature as the basis of an ideal art, the theoretical distinction between real and ideal had fostered a loose separation between private sketches and public paintings.” Photography is the result of subterranean action and silent change. The works of Thomas Jones, Constable, and Valenciennes give ample proof of this inexorable transformation of perception, although the ground was prepared by Gilpin and Rousseau, both fervent supporters of the sentiment of nature, and by Burke, who applied to it the notion of the Sublime which had previously been confined to rhetoric.

In the mid-nineteenth century, photography’s place was anything but secure. Baudelaire condemned it. He was revolted by its analytical approach. He saw it as an opportunity for fostering “an inane cult of nature,” a tool that would oust imagination and he maintained that imagination, because it worked synthetically, was artistic. He considered that “although the collection of trees, mountains, water and houses that we call a landscape is beautiful, it is not beautiful in itself, but becomes so through me, through my own grace, through the idea or the feeling that I attach to it. Consequently, he denied photography the right to be ranked as an art. To agree with Baudelaire’s criticism would be to deny the extent to which the medium has transformed perception of the world and influenced painting. “Many other critics… complained that if photography could only record, it often did not record well enough. Photography recorded not the physical reality before the lens but its visible aspect determined by a specific point of view, at a particular moment, in a particular light. The description was seamless, but only in two dimensions. The photographer ignored this fact but at his peril, risking obstructions and discontinuities, fortuitous juxtapositions, and unexpected densities and gaps in spatial logic.”
Photography’s specific aesthetic was perceived as a catalogue of errors in perspective, confusion in lines, entropy of space … Nonetheless, it revived landscape painting which was bordering on anemia, before conquering its own territory. If, as Huysmans lamented, “there [was] life in dead painting still,” its days were numbered.

haut de page