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Photography’s Effects on Modern Art

Since its invention, photography has been hailed by the masses as one of the best means of bringing the rest of the world to the public, affording them views of far-away places and peoples they would never have known about otherwise. The public appearance of the photographic process in 1839 (Leggat, 2000) revolutionized the way people saw the world around them and introduced a concept of capturing images that was so true to life that only the best painters could duplicate the effects. “As an aid in the search for reality, the photograph offered an immediate, faithful and permanent record, a source of artistic exploration” (Brown, 1971: 31). In its earliest forms, due perhaps in large part to the fact that exposure times were lengthy as the technology was in its infancy, photography was used as a narrative form, but even this early in its history, technological developments were allowing for more creative expression than simply recording the ‘truthful’ image. “At the turn of the century [1900], a small group of serious photographers tried to rescue the art form from its low estate by turning their backs on the more blatant forms of narrative photography and its continued reliance on and subservience to painting. They sought a more independent poetic vision based on the camera lens and motivated by a concern with contemporary forms” (Brown, 1971: 31). Thus, while it might be said that “The new malleability of the image may eventually lead to a profound undermining of photography’s status as an inherently truthful pictorial form” (Ritchin, 1990: 28), the new technological developments offered to photography are merely the latest in a long line of photographic tools that can be used to explore new creative possibilities and/or provide truthful representation, based upon the decisions made by the photographer. At no point in its history can photography be said to have been limited to merely ‘true’ forms of capturing images.

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Artists working during the relative time period between 1910 and 1920 were affected to a great degree by the technological innovations of the photograph. This period was an era of prosperity and modernization, when the entire world it seemed was becoming mechanized and the world of art was being questioned by such new technologies as photography and motion pictures, which could produce realistic representation at least as well as the artists in a fraction of the time for a fraction of the cost. In response, artists began experimenting with those forms of expression that the camera couldn’t touch, such as the colors and shapes of emotion. There remains a significant difference between the art produced at the beginning of this decade, such as Duchamp’s, with the art produced at the end of the decade such as Modigliani’s, which is primarily divided by the advent of World War I in 1914. As a result, one can see the cubist influences of the first decade of 1900 in the work of Duchamp, such as in his “Nude Descending a Staircase #2”. This painting is characterized with a lighthearted, warm light and a sentimentalized emotional content. This is sharply contrasted with the darkened spaces of Modigliani’s painting, “Head of a Woman,” in which the woman seems bent out of shape, dark and mysterious, impossible to penetrate and guarded in her forced interactions. Where Duchamp’s woman seems to glow from within as she floats down the stairway, Modigliani’s woman is smudged with dirt and seems off-balanced in her motionless state while her eyes remain coldly inexpressive and hollow.

Works Cited

  1. Brown, Milton W. “The History of Photography as Art History.” Art Journal. Vol. 31, N. 1, (1971): pp. 31-32 + 36.
  2. Duchamp, Marcel. “Nude Descending a Staircase #2.” Oil on canvas. Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1912.
  3. Leggat, Robert. The Beginnings of Photography. (2000).
  4. Modigliani, Amedeo. “Head of a Woman.” Oil on canvas. Bridgeman Art Gallery, c. 1915-1918.
  5. Ritchin, Fred. The Critical Image: Essays on Contemporary Photography. C. Squiers (Ed.). London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1990: p. 28.

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