The Lesson of the Photograph

In 1898, photography was newly accessible to the masses and was a hot topic for publications worldwide. In the following essay for Scribner’s Magazine, Kenyon Cox discusses how photography had begun to alter the art world, and what it could mean for artists in the future. In today’s world, where photography is so ubiquitous, it is fascinating to read someone’s thoughts at the beginning of the medium.

In Summer, Alexis Mazourine, 1989

In Summer, Alexis Mazourine, 1989

The time in which we are living might well be known as the age of photography. It is at least possible to believe that of all the wonderful discoveries or inventions of the nineteenth century that of photography is the most important, and that it will prove more far-reaching in its effects than any other since the invention of printing. The invention of printing was the discovery of a method for the preservation and multiplication of the record of human thought; the invention of photography was the discovery of a method for the obtaining, the preservation, and the multiplication of records of fact. Printing can only record what man knows or thinks; photography can record many things which man does not know and has not even seen, much less understood. In photography there is no personal equation. What a man has photographed is different from what he has seen or thinks he has seen, from what he declares he saw, from what he draws. Within its limits it is an accurate statement of what was. Hence, photography is one of the most valuable of the tools of science, at once a means of research and an invaluable, because impersonal, record. Its applications are infinite, and we are probably only at the beginning of them. It has become the indispensible tool not only of the natural science, of every study in which fact is of more importance than opinion or feeling. It will make history something different in the future from what it has been in the past, and, by the multiplication of reproductions of works of art, it has already revolutionized art-criticism.

But what has been and what is likely to be the influence of this great invention upon art itself? It has certainly added in some ways to the education of the artist; as an implement of investigation it has taught us much about the science of natural aspects. Yet, up to the present, its influence would seem to have been evil rather than good. We have had painters trying to rival the photograph in its accuracy of statement, and so nearly succeeding that their work has been hardly distinguishable from that of the camera, and now we have the camera attempting in its turn to produce art. Many of the cheaper magazines are illustrated almost wholly by photography, and nowadays they are filled with what are known as “photographic art-studies,” and we have whole exhibitions of the same sort of thing, like a recent one at the Academy of Design. One might almost be forgiven for thinking that art and photography have grown so to resemble each other that the mere cheapness and facility of the latter is destined to win the day for it, without regard to its superiority in verisimilitude, and that photography is likely, in the near future, entirely to supplant art.

There are, however, other signs of the times which point to an entirely opposite conclusion. Are not these the days, or rather, was not yesterday the day, or the poster fad? The poster is as far as possible from photographic; has as little as possible to do with fact of nature; is, in its extremist form, pure decoration run mad. Yet the day of the poster is coincident with the day of the photograph. The crisis of that fever is passed, but look at the current numbers of the “up-to-date” art-periodicals and observe the dominance of personality in the work they publish and comment upon, its decorativeness, its subjectivity, the variety of “tendencies” and “movement,” of alitys and isms, that are represented. Never have there been so many schools and groups and secessions. Impressionists and symbolists and the Rose+croix, tonalists and colorists and luminists, are rampant. In art this is preeminently a period of anarchy and revolt, and the revolt is precisely against the photograph and the photographic, though it has seemed at times that the revolutionaries would batter down many good things also, including sound drawing and common-sense.

No, the real danger at present is hardly that art will submit to the sway of photography, but that it will go too far in its rebellion and forget truth as well as mere fact. For photography is hopelessly ugly. The dreariness of the “photographic art-study” which has so impressed the artist, will end by impressing the public, and even the multitude will, in the long run, resent being fobbed off with mere nature when they ask for art.

Author Kenyon Cox. Photo by Pirie MacDonald

Author Kenyon Cox. Photo by Pirie MacDonald

If photography teaches the world nothing else, it will teach it that the end of art is not imitation. It will never again be possible for a great artist to believe, as Leonardo believed, that his aim is the production of a picture resembling as nearly as possible the reflection of nature in a mirror. We have the reflection made permanent all about us, and it does not suffice. The photograph has killed the doctrine of “realism.” But neither will the old doctrine of “idealism” answer any longer. The realist taught that you should paint nature as it is, the idealist that you should paint nature as it ought to be. But the photograph shows us that nature is no more like Rembrandt than like Raphael, and that the something which is art exists in the work of Terburgh as unmistakably as in that of Titian, while it does not exist in nature itself or in the impersonal record of nature. What is this something? The shortest word for it is arrangement. It is some form or order, harmony, proportion. It is arrangement of line, arrangement of color, arrangement of light and shade, for the sake of forming a harmoniously ordered whole which shall express some phase of human emotion and satisfy some vague desire of the human heart. There is even an arrangement of graven lines or of the strokes of a brush, so that “mere technique” may also be artistic and have its reason in the creation of harmonies, though they be not harmonies of the highest order of importance. Sometimes nature fortuitously arranges itself into a semblance of pictorial harmonies, and sometimes a photograph may seize and perpetuate one of these accidental arrangements, and then we have the best that photography can give us. The “snap-shot” at a landscape under a fine effect, or at the momentary grouping of figures in movement, is often deeply interesting to artists, although it is not art. Bu the more consciously the photographer attempts to be an artist the worse, in general, are his results, because the complicated harmonies which the painter arranges on his canvas are impossible of achievement anywhere else. You cannot pose figures as painters pose them, nor arrange drapery as they arrange it. You cannot get real light to fall as it falls in pictures, or natural color to harmonize as pictorial color harmonizes. The artist’s arrangement is complete, each smallest detail fitted to its place in the whole, each line and each touch of color studied and modified until its relation with every other line and every other touch is perfect, and these relations, although infinitely subtle and complex, are subject to unascertained mathematical law as certainly as the relations of notes in a musical score are subject to a law better known and partially understood. Try to pose figures before the camera and to make a picture like some work of art that you have seen, and you will discover that it cannot be done.  If one detail is right, another will be wrong. The painter has studied the parts separately, trying again and again for this line of that shade until everything fills its allotted place in a comprehensive scheme; but the photographer must get them all right at once or not at all. The result is that deadest of pictures, the tableaux vivant.

We all see photographs to-day, and most of us take them, and from this fact must surely come, if not a knowledge of what art is, at least a more general knowledge than has ever before existed in the world of what it is not. But while art is arrangement and not imitation, in the art of painting the things to be arranged are the forms and colors of nature. The art may be good while the representation is poor, but there is no reason why the art should not be finer while the representation is truer. If the artist’s knowledge is not so great that he can mould nature to his harmony, then he must leave the nature out, for the harmony is the essential; but if the harmony is attained, then the more nature is included in it the more delightful is the art. The figure-designer should know the human figure so well that he can fit it to any scheme of line without ever a bit of false anatomy, and there is surely no reason why the landscape-painter should not be able to produce great harmonies of color and tone without one misstatement of nature’s laws of light. For the competent artist there is no more necessity of falsification than there is need that the poet should write nonsense because he writes in verse. Meanwhile, there are no fully competent artists, and we need demand of those we have only that they shall be composers first, and that afterward they shall give us as much nature as they have learned to control.

Such is the lesson of the photograph. If we learn it, the influence of photography upon art will have been for good and not for evil.

Kenyon Cox (1856-1919) was an American painter, illustrator, writer, and teacher. He was an influential early instructor at the Art Students League of New York. This essay first appeared in Scribner’s Magazine Vol. XXIII, January, 1898, No. 1.