Documentation and Photography

©Werner Hammerstingl, 1999, 2011

Introduction and background

This lecture explores the relationship between photography and documentation. Before we can discuss this relationship meaningfully, we must investigate the concept and role of documentation in our social, economic and political framework. The efficient functioning of society relies on the documentation of practically every aspect of our excistence and the keeping of records.

Wherever possible, the documentation includes photography.

Before we begin to discuss the specifics of the photographic document, it may be valuable to consider the impact of Photography on Artists of the mid 19thC. as artists had traditionally carried the responsibility of creating the visual record for society with drawings, paintings and etchings.

The invention of the Daguerreotype caused considerable concern to many artists, who saw their means of livelihood coming to an end. Delaroche is credited with claiming that painting was now dead, whilst it is said that Sir William Ross, on his death-bed in 1860, commented sadly that "it was all up with future miniature painting." It is also claimed, but with scanty evidence, that Turner, looking at an early daguerreotype, commented that he was glad he had had his day!

Charles Baudelaire, whilst reviewing a photographic exhibition in 1859, clearly saw the need to put photography firmly in its place:

"If photography is allowed to supplement art in some of its functions, it will soon have supplanted or corrupted it altogether....its true to be the servant of the sciences and arts - but the very humble servant, like printing or shorthand, which have neither created nor supplemented literature....

"Let it rescue from oblivion those tumbling ruins, those books, prints and manuscripts which time is devouring, precious things whose form is dissolving and which demand a place in the archives of our memory - it will be thanked and applauded. But if it is allowed to encroach upon the domain of the... imaginary, upon anything whose value depends solely upon the addition of something of a man's soul, then it will be so much the worse for us."

A number of artists, seeing the writing on the wall, turned to photography for their livelihood, whilst others cashed in on the fact that the images were in monochrome, and began colouring them in. Baudelaire's assertion that photography had become "the refuge of failed painters with too little talent" was rather unfair, but it is true that a number turned to this new medium for their livelihood. By 1860 Claudet was able to claim that miniature portraits were no longer painted without the assistance of photography.

In any case, absolute likeness was not always what the sitter wanted. Alfred Chalon, one of the last miniaturists, when asked by Queen Victoria whether photography was a threat to miniature painting, replied "No Madam - photography can't flatter!" Lady Eastlake, wife of the Director of the National Gallery (who also was the first President of the Photographic Society) also had her reservations, claiming that whilst photography was more exact, it had also become less true, and that in portraiture the broad suggestion of form had been replaced by a fussy accumulation of irrelevant detail:

"Every button is seen - piles of stratified flounces in most accurate drawing are there - but the likeness to Rembrandt and Reynolds is gone!"

Clearly she did not share the dread that painting was an art of the past.

However, a further blow to miniature portraiture was to come when the Carte-de-Visite craze began to develop (300-400 million Carte-de-Visite's are produced per year by the mid 1840's). By 1857 an Art Journal was reporting that portrait photography was becoming a public nuisance, with photographers touting for custom (much as artists do today at the Montmartre, in Paris). "It has really now become a matter for Police interference both on the grounds of propriety and public comfort!" the writer thundered. In that same journal Francis Frith claimed that photography "has already almost entirely superseded the craft of the miniature painter, and is on the point of touching, with an irresistible hand, several other branches of skilled art."

In 1865 Claudet, by then a respected photographer, came to the defence of photography, following a blistering article in a French journal:

"One cannot but acknowledge that there are arts which are on their way out and that it is photography which has given them the death-blow! Why are there no longer any miniaturists? For the very simple reason that those who want miniatures find that photography does the job better and instead of portraits more or less accurate where form and expression are concerned, it gives perfectly exact resemblances that at least please the heart and satisfy the memory."

Miniature painting, in fact, made a comeback at the turn of the century.

Though photography was seen by some as the invention that was killing art, this is a one-sided view, because it also proved to be an aid to their work. Portrait photographers found that by employing photography the number of sittings required could be reduced or even eliminated. Joshua Reynolds sometimes needed up to fifty sittings for portraits; it is said that his painting of Sir George Beaumont had required twelve sittings for the painting of the cravat alone!

A problem is that few painters would readily admit to using photography as an aid, almost as though this were a form of cheating! David Octavius Hill used photography to make a record of people to be painted, whilst in the 1860s Robert Howlett was employed to take photographs of groups of people attending the Derby from the top of a cab, these photographs later being used as group studies in William Powell Frith's painting "Derby Day." This however did not stop William Powell Frith from observing, thirty years later, that in his opinion photography had not benefited art at all. Others who used photography to assist them in painting included Negre, Tissot, Gaugin, Cèzanne, Gustave Courbet, Lautrec, Delacroix and Degas.

An example of photography being used for this purpose can be seen in a portrait of Sir William Allen, by Sir John Watson Gordon (1837), Royal Academy; this clearly comes from an 1843 Calotype. Muybridge's , work led to a change in the way artists painted horses on the move.


The history of photography is full of people who, with great intensity, put forward theories on the nature of photography, or who denigrated the work of others, or set up break-away groups. These people have their place, but fortunately there were others who avoided controversy and who set about recording the life and times of the period in which they lived, either from a sense of mission, or simply to leave an accurate version of their life and times for others.

Up to the time photography was invented events were portrayed by means of painting, and whilst many of them evoke an emotional response it is difficult to be sure that what we are being presented with is not fanciful, incorrect, or even blatantly dishonest. There are, for example, so many different paintings of Queen Elizabeth I that it is not clear what she looked like!

Photography does add to authenticity, but the oft-quoted adage that "the camera cannot lie" is a very misleading one. Even with "straight" photography (i.e. where neither negative not print has been retouched), there are many ways by which the process can be used to manipulate and mislead, for example by selection of viewpoint, or by using a picture out of context. Used honestly, however, photography has the capacity to capture a particular moment in time, to reproduce images in considerable detail, to overcome language barriers, and compellingly to draw attention to situations about which we might otherwise be unaware. This capacity was immediately recognised by early photographers.

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