What we can learn from the history of tech in photography [Episode 1]

02 Mar 2020 Por Joy Habib

Digital photos, smartphones, photo manipulation, AI… These are just some of the tech breakthroughs that have turned the world of photography on its head. Meero stands at the intersection between technology and photography. We often reflect on the history of these tech revolutions and how they were first perceived. As tech enthusiasts, we see these innovations as great opportunities. But we also know that big changes often come with their share of fears. Our teams wonder about the impact that these changes can have on professionals and the general public alike and strive to understand them from a historical perspective. 
In this series of four episodes, we’re revisiting the big revolutions that changed the history of photography… and the many controversies they brought about. 

Episode 1: The invention of photography  

Over two centuries, photography has changed the way we create art, communicate with each other and remember the past. Cameras might be commonplace, but they’re still the focal point of heated controversies. Every technological breakthrough stirs up economical, ethical and cultural debates. These debates may seem new, but they all have a lot in common. 

Historically, big innovations are often met with a mix of enthusiasm and defiance. The fears that periodically bubble up to the surface have been dormant since the dawn of photography. These innovations shook up the way we live our lives, but the nightmare-scenarios many warned about never came true. Instead, technology has accelerated the democratization of photography by offering the general public access to what was previously exclusively the turf of connaisseurs. 

What you might not know is that photography itself once was among these controversial innovations. Photography is such a ubiquitous part of our lives that this backlash might be hard to imagine, so let’s travel back in time to the beginning of the XIXth century to get a feel for the early days of photography. 

"From Today, Painting Is Dead!.."

...and the camera killed it. French painter Paul Delaroche is thought to have said this in 1839, upon seeing a daguerreotype (one of the first commercial cameras). A bit dramatic, perhaps, but it’s a good example of the wave of anxiety taking over artistic communities in the face of the threat of photography.

Some people seem to think that when the process of taking photographs in color has been perfected and made common enough, the painter will have nothing more to do

It’s not surprising for photography to have been seen as such a threat. During previous centuries, painters strove to accurately depict reality. A painter’s job was to gather a good enough understanding of space, movement and human anatomy to bring their canvas to life. 
Photography would allow any amateur to accomplish the feat of an expert painter. 

These fears only grew throughout the century and peaked with color photography. “Some people seem to think that when the process of taking photographs in color has been perfected and made common enough, the painter will have nothing more to do,” laments painter Henrietta Clopath in a 1901 issue of the Brush and Pencil magazine.

Yet more than a century later and painting is still alive and kicking. How come?
In hindsight, we know that photography has challenged realism in paintings. By representing reality with unrivaled accuracy, photography allowed painters to explore more abstract forms of expression. Photography ushered in a new era of post-impressionist and symbolic painting by liberating painters from their allegiance to physical realities.

We assume that recent technologies have somehow made us more narcissistic


Easterly's Daguerreotype Gallery, St. Louis, 1851

 Easterly's Daguerreotype Gallery, St. Louis, 1851, U.S. work public domain

Unflattering portraits

Admittedly, we all take selfies… but we’re not always proud of it. We associate selfies with self-absorbed Instagrammers, hungry for likes and approval. We tend to see this selfie craze as a modern affliction: we assume that recent technologies have somehow made us “more narcissistic...” So the portrait-craze taking over the XIXth century bourgeoisie might seem surprising.

Before photography, portrait painting was an expensive luxury that only a few could afford. When the first cameras hit the market, a huge chunk of the upper-class was able to finally get their portrait taken. But this portrait-craze attracted its fair share of criticism. Criticism that might sound familiar...

Cameras are brutally honest. They shine a light on every skin imperfection, every crooked smile, every flaw...

Charles Baudelaire painted an unflattering picture of his contemporaries, accusing them of being narcissistic and self-absorbed… Which might make you wonder what he would’ve thought of Kim Kardashian. 

Unflattering: that’s another surprising argument used against photo portraits. Getting your portrait painted by a professional painter certainly had its perks: to keep the client happy, painters tended to bring a flattering touch to their art, hiding pimples, magnifying eye colors, making cheeks glow artificially… Think of it as the original Instagram filter. 

Cameras, in comparison, are brutally honest. They shine a light on every skin imperfection, every crooked smile, every flaw...Miles away from the #nofilter trend and the backlash around airbrushed photos. 

So are our photos too retouched, or not enough? These questions are not new.  

Caricature of the first portrait photographers

© LACMA, US public domain 
The french caricaturist Honoré Daumier mocks the uptight postures of portrait models

Is photography art?

Is photography art? Of course, it is! Or at least that’s what most of us would answer without a moment’s hesitation. But it wasn’t so evident just a few centuries ago. Many purists refused to see the artistic potential of photography. 

The first cameras were seen as purely technological. And the process of creating art can’t be as simple as pressing a button… Human genius must come in to play. The feat of taking photographs was mainly seen as a mechanical one, leaving little room for creativity. Technology or art: it’s one or the other. 

It’s interesting to see that the same arguments are still raised today in the debates surrounding the use of algorithms in art. The question of the intersection between art and photography is a tricky one. It resonates throughout the last centuries and the recent progress in the realm of AI just adds a layer of complication.

The following decades have proven that the mechanics of photography leave enough room for artistic expression. But this realization took time, and the relentless work of some of the most brilliant artistic minds of the past century. 

This artistic revolution was accompanied by a profound cultural shift. Millions of amateurs across the world took to their cameras to document their lives and preserve happy memories. The booming photography industry allowed many companies to prosper. Among these, Kodak was one of the most iconic. It quickly became a household name, symbolizing cherished moments preserved on film.

Another big revolution was quickly going to change that. At the turn of the new millennium, digital cameras were set to disturb this fairly new industry. If you want to know about that, head to the next episodes : 

Episode 2: Digitial photography 

Episode 3: Photography and the internet

Episode 4: What is computational photography?

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