Through the Magnifying Glass: Painters or Photographers? PDF
Written by Doifel Videla   




George Desmarées, 1744. Portrait of the Court Painter Franz Joachim Beich. (David Hockney’s book: Secret Knowledge)




In December 2001, an eventful conference was held in New York, crowning two years of intense research during which the painter David Hockney collected evidence to prove the thesis that the nature of painting was radically altered when it adopted the projected image as a tracing pattern. According to Hockney, this change took place in the city of Bruges as early as 1430, that is, at the beginning of the Renaissance.


gioto Robert Campin Circa 1430

The book Secret Knowledge: rediscovering the lost techniques of the old masters is the outcome of this research and presents the paintings themselves as "scientific evidence". A comparative analysis that places hundreds of images next to each other ordered chronologically from 1300 to 1870 illustrates an irreversible change in the way the Flemish, and later on the Italians, painted from the middle of the fourteenth century onwards. A study by Charles Falco, an optical scientist at the University of Arizona, demonstrates the use of optical devices (concave mirrors and magnifying glasses) and suggests the possible methods used to take advantage of the projected image to trace drawings or produce the necessary marks for the creation of lens-based paintings. Such a technique would have given an unmistakable optical look to the paintings that would soon be found all over Europe.


From David Hockney's book, pages 66-67


In this way, the use of the projected image as a tracing pattern would have become the basic means of registering visual reality in the Renaissance and during the next four centuries. This optical-graphical tradition would continue until 1839 when it was replaced by the optical-chemical system—better known as photography—, freeing painting at last from what Hockney has called the "tyranny of optics".


If we take an ordinary magnifying glass and place it some 20 cm from a wall opposite a window, we will be able to see the projection of a small inverted image, analogous to what we can see with our eyes. This principle—which was also used in "magical" shows since ancient times—is based on a natural phenomenon that can be observed even without the use of a lens (by means of a pinhole in a wall of a darkened room). This phenomenon had already been described by Mo Ti in China in the 5th century BC, by Aristotle in the 4th century BC and by the Arab Alhazen of Basra in the 10th century AD. Giambattista Della Porta, for example, in his book Magiae Naturalis of 1558, recommended the use of the camera obscura to help painters achieve correct perspectives. All subsequent versions of the optical camera, including present-day digital cameras, are based on the same principle: a lens produces an inverted image of reality that is then recorded.


Hockney recreates one of the possible techniques employed to paint with the assistance of a concave mirror. From Hockney's Secret Knowledge, p. 76.

Hockney recreates one of the possible techniques employed to paint with the assistance of a concave mirror.
From Hockney's Secret Knowledge, p. 76.


Hockney's thesis now reinforces the fact that optics has played a major role in the visual arts. From tracing the projected image by hand, to the chemical fixing of the image on a photographic plate and the current means of recording it using a CCD chip, it can be said that what has changed is just the recording system, not the underlying principle. Whether or not optical instruments are used to produce an image could even form the basis for a typology of the visual arts, in contrast to the one based on the medium.







Some four years ago, in my classes for film students at Arcis University in Santiago de Chile, and in several workshops, I began questioning the term photography, which comes from photos = light and graphos= writing or drawing. I was bothered by the fact that the term photography was used to name a chemical system invented precisely to replace the graphical system.


The error originated, in my opinion, not only with the name itself, but also with its definition. Any book on photography defines a photograph as an "image obtained through the action of light on a photosensitive material." If we took this as our starting point, then a bikini line on tanned skin would fit our definition perfectly, as would the mark left by any object on a newspaper exposed to the sun, or the marks on metals such as silver, bronze or copper. Clearly, we would never have come up with photography as we know it by paying heed to such a definition; even though in this field no one seems to care about definitions. However, an accurate definition that can encompass not only photography, but also analogous disciplines such as Renaissance painting, cinema and video, is possible. An example of this definition could be: "Manual, chemical or electronic recording of an optically projected image", or more concisely: "The recording of a projected image".

Unknown. The Miraculous Mirror, 18th century. Engraving. International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House, Rochester, N.Y.

Unknown. The Miraculous Mirror, 18th century. Engraving.
International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House, Rochester, N.Y.


On the other hand, if we wanted to give a name to this definition, we would clearly need to include the term optic because if light is not organized optically, as occurs in our eyes, it loses all meaning by not providing an image and becoming just a radiant chaos. If, for example, we defined writing as the action of ink on paper, without mentioning the pen as the organizing element, we would have to accept that an inkblot on paper is writing. In recent years I have proposed the term Photoptics, which could stand for optically organized light.


Optics, as a system that organizes light, gives birth to a kind of syntax that is analogous to the distinctive features of the human eye and can be understood by our interpretative system. This optical syntax allows us to make sense of notions such as focusing, framing, choosing a vantage point, varying the perspective, etc. This role of optics goes far beyond the recording system, which can vary (it can be a pencil, a photographic plate, a CCD chip) without altering the continuity and conceptual unity of the visual syntax and can be decoded by any person with an optical education. On the other hand, images that are not generated through an optical process are the expression of associative mental images, rather than visual representations, and they have played a different role in the history of the visual arts. A classic example is children's painting, which is very similar in most parts of the world, and omits entire portions of the visual reality in order to obtain a mental representation. These images represent the child's understanding more than what he or she actually sees. Lens-based images are point-by-point mappings from an analogous source, such as the projected image. For them to work, they need to create a matrix first, and this is precisely what Renaissance painting did by submitting itself to the optical pattern, unconsciously transforming itself into a kind of photography.



Hans Holbein. The Ambassadors, 1533. In the foreground, a skull that has been deformed through optical means can be observed.
From David Hockney's book, p. 56


The title of Hockney's book "Secret knowledge…" reminds us that the use of projected images was kept secret for centuries. I would claim that it was not a secret as such, otherwise Hockney would not have been able to find sufficient evidence to prove his thesis on so short notice. It could rather be the result of a deliberate attempt at providing painting with a sacred and supernatural aura. This can easily be understood if we recall that for centuries painting served a religious function, that the Inquisition prohibited the use of optical instruments and that in general no painter would have cast doubts on his own reputation by giving technical explanations to the public and his competitors. The truth is that before the advent of optical devices nobody, no civilization or culture, had managed to produce "realist" paintings, and suddenly, after this date, most painters showed an almost incomprehensible talent for them. It goes without saying that various generations of painters had to pass through a long period of apprenticeship, surrendering rigorously to the “tyranny” of optical instruments, before this concept was finally accepted as "natural".


The evolution towards optical representation. From David Hockney's book, p. 166-167


The "secret" fell into oblivion and the quasi-religious desire for the existence of demigods in the pantheon of arts could count on the accomplice negligence of most collectors, admirers and museum curators. After all, why look for explanations if time itself would take care of erasing all traces? As Hockney explains, the use of computers would change all of this by making it possible to discover by simulation the type of optics and techniques that could have been used. After all, paintings cannot be hidden and they are themselves the evidence that a projected image was used as pattern.



Carel Fabritius. 1625. View of Delft with a Musical Instrument Seller's Stall.
The optical deformity was probably created by the use of a camera oscura with a wide angle lens


The silence regarding the explanation of the supernatural character of “naturalistic” painting would also have different consequences, particularly for the invention of photography.





As we have seen, the natural principle behind the projected image was known since Antiquity. Projection systems, based on a small hole drilled through the wall (pinhole) of a darkened room (camara obscura) and acting as a lens (by diffraction), have existed at least since the 14th century. Projection using concave mirrors was already possible in the 15th century. The replacement of the holes by lenses in the camera took place in the 16th century. Portable optic cameras would be used in the 17th century, and the camera lucida would finally be invented in the 18th century. There is then a whole history of cameras without film, which demonstrates two fundamental ideas: first, cameras were actively being used to the point that they were constantly being improved and second, film was not (nor is) essential. Four centuries of cameras without film versus one and a half of film-based cameras prove this point.




In 1839, during a period filled with inventions, finding mechanical methods that could replace manual activities was a common occurrence. The search for a chemical procedure that could record the images generated in optical cameras was not an exception. As Albertus Magnus had already described the photosensitive properties of silver salts in the 12th century and the German chemist J.H. Schulze had experimented with them in 1727, only one question remained unanswered: How could the image formed on a photosensitive surface be preserved in broad daylight? In other words: How to fix the image? Several painters and photographers would soon answer this question: Herschel (1818) and Talbot (1835) in England, Hercule Florence (1833) in Brazil and Nicephore Niepce (1827), Hippolyte Bayard (1839), and Louis J. Mandé Daguerre (1839) in France. Therefore, when the official date of the birth of photography was resolved, what was actually discovered was the fixer. In relation to the centenary presence of optic images, the daguerreotype was probably not understood as a revolution but as an improvement on painting. Hence Delaroche's famous pronouncement before the invention of Daguerre: "From today, painting is dead!"


Unknow photographer. Jabez Hogg making a portrait in Richard Beard's studio, 1843. Daguerreotype. Bokelberg Collection, Hamburg.

Unknow photographer. Jabez Hogg making a portrait in Richard Beard's studio, 1843.
Daguerreotype. Bokelberg Collection, Hamburg.


The daguerreotype was invented by the painter Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, who would be known to history not as a painter but as a photographer. In his case, as in the case of many other painters who transformed their ateliers into photography studios, the legacy of painting would be brushed over. In an age filled with inventions such as the telegraph and later on the gramophone, the pictorial inheritance would be silenced by the photographers themselves, who wished to portray their activity as a novelty and also by painters who were still tied to the secret of their optic past. We know that a few years later, faced with the impossibility of continuing to paint in accordance to the canons of optics, painters would chose to return to the tradition of associative mental images, abjuring from any notion of optics and at the same time challenging it through what has been called "Modernism".


Paul Cézanne. Five Bathers, 1885-7. From David Hockne's book. Pág. 194.

Paul Cézanne. Five Bathers, 1885-7. From David Hockne's book. Pág. 194.


Nevertheless, this omission would have important consequences for the newly born discipline. Through the term graphos, its name would continue to be associated to the art of drawing and it would persistently be considered part of the graphic arts. For example, the first photography book, issued by Henri Fox Talbot, would be titled The Pencil of Nature (1844-46). This means that there existed a tradition that chemical procedures could not erase. While presented as a novelty, in the practice—and with good reason—it did not manage to think of itself as such, imagining pencils where they were not present anymore. This dichotomy would split photography in two apparently irreconcilable tendencies. The first one, which called itself pictorialist, continued the ancient tradition of the optical-graphical system, preserving its style, its genres (portrait, landscape, still life, nude, etc.), its painted backgrounds, its poses, and devoting itself with great success to coloring daguerreotypes, retouching negatives, creating compositions with various negatives (a technique derived from the Flemish painters) and other types of painterly effects. The other tendency, which was more up to date and did not carry the weight of painting on its back, will see photography as a neutral means of recording visual reality, in the same way as a microphone, which will be used with greater freedom but probably with a more limited or improvised sense of aesthetics.


Oscar G. Rejlander: The Two Paths of Life, 1857. Photograph composed with the use of more than thirty different negatives.

Oscar G. Rejlander: The Two Paths of Life, 1857. Photograph composed with the use of more than thirty different negatives.


Having gained only the recognition of the scientific community and having been rejected by painters who had not converted to photography, the question “Is photography an art?” could only cast doubts, leading ultimately to the rupture between both tendencies. The incomprehension of its true nature—a recording system for optically projected images—, the disconnection with its hundred-year-old inheritance, the incongruence of its name and the absence of a true definition will create a sort of schizophrenia in the practice of this discipline, generating important delays in the acknowledgement of its true worth. The sense of abandonment shared by photographers will be without parallel and will endure for all of the 19th and 20th centuries.


Illustration by Nadar. The ingratitude of painting refusing the smallest place in its exhibition to photography to whom it owes so much. Engraving from the Journal Amusant, 1857.

Illustration by Nadar. The ingratitude of painting refusing the smallest place in its exhibition
to photography to whom it owes so much. Engraving from the Journal Amusant, 1857.


With the arrival of the 21st century, the widespread change from chemical to electronic recording devices and the adoption of the digital system are starting to erase the divisions that will permit this discipline to recover its century-old inheritance and start to take advantage of the best of both worlds: precise neutral recording and infinite (mathematical) manipulation.


Since the invention of film and the chemical process in 1839 were celebrated as the beginning of photography, today, when film and the chemical process have their days counted, we can say with all certainty: Photography is dying!







If painters had acknowledged the use of lenses and camera obscuras as soon as they started using them towards the beginning of the Renaissance, the Church might have expelled them from the painter's guild and the discipline would have received a different name. Perhaps something having to do with light, with optics and with drawing, maybe "light draftsmen", or simply "photographers". The history of photography would have made its official appearance in due time and the invention of film would have been interpreted as a modernization made possible by the Industrial Revolution, in the same way the telephone replaced the telegraph without losing sight of the concept of communication at a distance.


Nowadays, the abundance of declassified documents, the information that is shared on the net and the advances in computerized tools allow us to review historical interpretations more rigorously. With greater frequency we see that history has been colored by myths, omissions and constructed truths. One of these weak links is art, with its attachment to less than adequate scientific standards and the concentration of myths of a religious nature in which "beliefs" often replace understanding. Even though trying to examine facts rationally might not always be welcome—and might even be considered "heretical" or "insane"—it is worthwhile to side with those who have fought in the past for a clearer and less prejudiced view of things, a perspective that has allowed human beings to evolve and assume their own capabilities.


Today, as always, our appraisal of reality is mediated through our sense organs, which transform perception into data. More than ever before, the eyes have become our privileged sense organ and optical organization has become a universal language. Images created with the assistance of optical instruments populate the day-to-day life of big cities and exercise a decisive attraction on distant towns. The real key to the production of images—be they painted, printed or projected, still or moving—is found in the phenomenon of optical projection. An accurate understanding of this fact should lead us to create a branch specific to the arts uniting all the disciplines that fit the definition of "a recording of an optically projected image".


Erwin Blumenfeld. What Looks New,1947.
Erwin Blumenfeld. What Looks New,1947.


The only way we can move beyond the conceptual fragmentation surrounding the varied production of optically based images is to consider the phenomenon in its historical totality. This implies assimilating four centuries of "naturalist" painting, starting with Renaissance painters, as a direct precursor of photography and cinema. Only this global understanding can lead us to comprehend the mechanics of the evolution of the image and understand, for example, the implications of the adoption of the digital system of notation.


The fact that the optical image shares today the same coding system as graphic art, text and sound, poses several questions with regards to its future. Answers to these queries can only be advanced provided that we have a global vision of the historical dimension, the cycles and the general trend of the phenomenon. In a certain sense, the adoption of the digital system is placing the counters back to zero; we therefore need to understand what we mean by zero. Clarifying these questions would clearly be beyond the scope of this article and could well be the subject of another article. Let's leave these questions open, on the foundations we have just described and let's judge the fairness of this reasoning, trying to think differently for one moment. Perhaps the answer lies in what we had always intuited.


The horizon is wide open; let's move ahead.


Doifel Videla


William-Adolphe Bourguerau, La Vague, 1886. From David Hockney's book, p. 195.

William-Adolphe Bourguerau, La Vague, 1886. From David Hockney's book, p. 195.





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