Photography has existed since the 1820s, according to most historians, giving the medium a history of less than 200 years. Two-dimensional art, meanwhile, has been around for 20,000 years, as far as we know — with the animals painted on cave walls in Lascaux, France, being among the first-known examples.
As the infant of the visual arts, photography inevitably draws upon the millennia of picture-making that came before it. And the thousands of years of development, thought, research and hard work that have marked the history of art can provide powerful sources of photographic inspiration.
Here are just a few lessons that old paintings can teach us about photography.
Impressionism: Qualities of Light
Most photographers are aware of Impressionism, primarily because it is a movement dealing with natural light and the changing qualities of light. Claude Monet, Georges Seurat and others were more concerned with the way things were seen than with creating realistic descriptions of their subjects.
The movement paralleled the rise of photography. From about 1860 onward, there was a push and pull between the two, as each strove to define itself in relation to the other. At least one painter, Edgar Degas, created photographs himself, and those who study his compositions will recognize immediately that his unusual use of cropping was intrinsically photographic. In fact, it mirrors what most of us do today with Photoshop and other imaging software.
More than anything else, Impressionism reminds us that light is the primary source of an image, painted or photographed, and that the quality of light, which was of great interest to the Impressionists, can make or break a picture.
Chiaroscuro: Using Contrast
An Italian word for “light-dark,” the term “chiaroscuro” is used to describe the dramatically lit, high-contrast oil painting that reached its peak in the 16th Century. When a photographer today makes a portrait lighting a single side of the face while allowing the other to fade to darkness, he or she — perhaps unknowingly — is using a tool wielded by Ugo da Carpi, Giovanni Baglione, and still later, Caravaggio.
Chiaroscuro was a powerful technique in Renaissance art, and it remains so today in the hands of countless photographers. But as anyone who has worked in the studio knows, directing a single, highly directed light source can be a tricky business. Studying Mannerist and Baroque painting is one way to help master the technique.
The first and best masters of composition were painters and draftsmen. Most photographers have some awareness of the basic principles of composition: lines, the rule of thirds, shape, proportion and balance. The best painters were masters at using these elements together to create eye-trapping scenes.
Peter Paul Rubens, a Flemish painter working in the 16th and 17th Centuries, took compositional complexity to an extreme. Joan Miro, a 20th Century painter from Spain, used the same principles but applied them sparingly, including few elements in his paintings and drawings.
Some of our greatest photographers, such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Miguel Rio Branco, worked with brushes first and cameras later. Both are masters of formal composition because they spent long hours studying it. A deep familiarity with composition in painting can be applied to photography to create true works of art rather than snapshots.
Abstract Expressionism: Going Deeper
Often characterized by the loved-and-loathed drip paintings of American artist Jackson Pollock, Abstract Expressionism was much more than that. The idea of covering an entire surface with marks, and using non-representational imagery, was one of the most important artistic revolutions of the 20th Century.
The idea is that there is something deeper, something that flows from the subconscious, which can be captured and expressed in art. This is fertile soil for fine-art photographers and those who are interested in pushing their photography in new directions.
Remember, two-dimensional art is at least 10 times as old as Christianity. Photographers should not ignore this part of their visual heritage, but rather, embrace it, build upon it, and apply it to their work. Painting is not photography — but it contains lessons that can make us better at what we do.