At the end of the 19th century, the enthusiastic users of the earliest amateur cameras included many artists. What role did photography play in their lives and how did it influence their work? We will go in to this, however visual answers to those questions are on view at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam during the exhibition Snapshots from October 14, 2011 to January 8, 2012.
The invention in 1888 of the first manageable, easy-to-use camera for amateurs resulted in painters like George Hendrik Breitner latching onto this new possibility of 'spontaneous' photography. Breitner and other painters drew on their artistic background to look at the world in a different way. They used the camera like everybody else, but with the added benefit of their artistic eye.
In general, as claimed by former MoMA curator Peter Galassi, photography at the time was a legitimate child of the Western pictorial tradition. That is to say, its ultimate origins – both technical and aesthetic – lie in the 15th century invention of a new pictorial language, mainly concerned with linear perspective: the construction of three dimensions out of two. Photography was born of this fundamental transformation in pictorial strategy. This is not so much an argument to describe the painter's actual method but rather to call attention to fundamental changes in the conventions of representation. In the 17th century, for example, painters often introduced prominent foregrounds that, a century earlier, would have been considered bizarre and inappropriate.
In the history of perspective, the result of pictorial experimentation is not so much an escape from convention but rather the establishment of a new convention. Breitner found elements in the prints that he used in his paintings and graphic work: sharp contrasts between light and shade, striking cut-offs and overlaps in the picture. On isolated occasions, adopting surprising perspectives, he used the photographs directly as studies for a specific work. In any case, it is clear that photography had an effect on Breitner's view of the world. It has even been suggested that Breitner's preference for cloudy weather conditions and a greyish and brownish palette resulted from certain limitations of photographic material.
Breitner, the people's painter, was renowned for the way he captured dynamic street life. In the late 1880s and early 1890s, with photo cameras becoming more affordable, Breitner had a much better instrument to satisfy his ambitions. He liked to experiment with the new cameras and was very interested in capturing movement and illumination in the city, and eventually became a master at doing this. In contrast to older art, these works appear to be formed by the eye instead of the mind. As stated here, this was an experimental attitude among artists that had already begun to develop before photography was invented.
About the exhibition
Snapshot. Painters and Photography, 1888 - 1915 sheds light on this creative process, presenting 220 photographs and 70 paintings, prints and drawings from seven artists. The exhibition will also be on view at The Philips Collection in Washington from February to April 2012 and at the Museum of Art in Indianapolis from June to early September 2012. The catalogue in English, entitled Snapshot, explains the importance of photography in a series of articles, which also look at the interaction with art in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the role of the seven artists included in the exhibition.
Also read our article, concerning the Snapshot exhibition at the Van Gogh museum, about Henri Evenepoel and about Edouard Vuillard.
Besides the exhibition a competition is open for you to send in your current snapshots
of Amsterdam, inspired by the renowned artists featured in the exhibition.