Unruly Thoughts on Photography’s Origins

My last post concluded with this thought:

“…there’s no analogy in photography for the expressiveness of flung paint–and in truth, the two mediums are much further apart than they often look.”

A harmless form of woolgathering: photography vs painting. 

My preoccupation with this subject goes back to my salad days when I suffered with an absorption for art history.  I liked reading about painters back then, and didn’t start calling myself a photographer until a few years later. For better or worse, I still amuse myself by dismembering the two art forms.

Does any of this really matter?


At any rate, the game plan with this post is to stay focused on photography (and to discuss its origins). To keep things sufficiently disorganized…we’ll start with painting.

The earliest known paintings are in Australia where in some places, they’ve found pictographs that are older than recorded languages. Because of that, they even predate “religions” (as we currently define them).  The pictures were painted 50,000 ago during the Stone Age. Tens of thousands of years later, similar paintings show up in France and Spain.

No one has the key. The paint is there on the rocks but the motives are completely gone. We assume the paintings had ritualistic significance. If that’s true, then the world’s first paintings might well have been the work of shamans. To me, paintings that old are not about art or individual expression (at least not the way we define those things today).   These were people who were nose to nose with survival in a way that was both constant and existential. Because of that, the first paintings were created under circumstances that were so radically different from our own,  that we have no point of reference.

Are the origins of painting different from the origins of photography?


The  Camera Obscura was known throughout the ancient world, but the discovery of how to record an image using light-sensitive materials only came about after the Enlightenment. The first permanent photograph was made in 1826 by French inventor Joseph Niépce. Niépce’s discoveries took place during an invigorating period of research which had gradually spread through Europe after many centuries of torpor. After his initial contribution, photography took off like a hockey puck–getting passed along from one good player to another. Daguerre in France, Talbot in England, and Florence in Brazil–all three adding substantial and surprising refinements.

But in truth, it wasn’t a team effort. They were individuals–free-lance inventors who worked with one eye over their shoulder in order to monitor the competition. Interestingly, the art form’s seminal years took place during the same time as Darwin’s research. It was a period when innovation was in full bloom, and there was a flood of design everywhere. Free inquiry had finally become as cherished as the religion which formerly repressed it. In that sense, photography had very different origins than those of painting. It was discovered by inventors, and not by shamans.

If you like, consider my picture of the rainbow in this fashion:

The picture was taken near a railroad–and to make a point, let’s say that I photographed it that way in order to demonstrate that photography has been on a journey.  Ever since its earliest days, its inventors have been the travelers. They’re on the rails, and no one knows where the trip ends. Recently, the tracks took a swerve, and in sense, those of us who call ourselves photographers lived through nothing short of a sea change.  In case you missed it, we don’t record on light sensitive materials anymore and it’s no longer about chemistry.

Nowadays we displace electrons. But the inventors that brought this thing forward into the digital age were probably not much different from Niépce and Daguerre.

Let’s go further:

The rainbow represents light. Painters have had their pigments since day one (even back in the cave). But it’s  been different for us photographers because we work with light.

The lens has been our brush all along.

By happy chance, photographs of rainbows are more than just shuffled electrons. Even in the earliest photographs, it was patently clear that these new types of images were capable of triggering a complex range of emotions. It’s true: they document the world around us, but they also function viscerally.  No matter how much they’re tethered to technology, photographs will always be able to ask to the good questions. And that includes the ones that have no answers.

I pick up the tintype of my great grandmother and wonder who she was. Thankfully, we no longer require shamans for most of our mysteries.

As an afterword of sorts,  a person comes to mind:

Baruch Spinoza was a 17th century philosopher whose importance is understood even to those who’ve never pored through his books (myself included). There weren’t any photographs in his day,  but the pieces were falling into place. I like to think that he was one of those helped it come to pass.

Spinoza was Dutch, born to Portuguese parents in Amsterdam. He lived out his days between 1632 and 1677. Today, we remember him for his philosophy and arguments for rational thought. In many ways, his writings set the stage for the Enlightenment. The revolution that began with his philosophy was one of the events that would eventually lead to photography.

It wasn’t easy for Spinoza because he lived in trying times. He was Jewish, but was reviled and shunned by his own community for doing little more than thinking unauthorized thoughts. Had he been a Catholic, or had he been in another country his situation could’ve been far worse: these were the times of the Roman Inquisition. Fortunately, no one forced him into silence. He remained in Holland where a slightly more tolerant society at least granted him permission to think. He encircled himself with like-minded heretics–intellectuals, people with a sincere desire for change.  He was able to write, but his greatest writings were to remain unpublished until after his death.

It was with more than a little irony that I first realized that Spinoza made a living as a lens grinder. He died young, at 44, succumbing to tuberculosis–a condition which was said to have been seriously exacerbated by the fine dust he inhaled while grinding lenses. A tragic way to die indeed. But I like to think of his death in a different light, especially in terms of its symbolism. He was a lens grinder after all, and my hunch is that if  he’d ever constructed camera lenses they would’ve performed with the finest resolution.

Perhaps Spinoza showed us the world through a different sort of lens.

Here was philosophy that clarified and resolved thirteen centuries of morbid orthodoxy. Here were writings that flung open the doors of the Dark Ages. Here was a person who rekindled the light of antiquity.  In the details of his life, we witness the resilience of curiosity. In his unwillingness to be silenced, new light was cast upon the meaning of individual freedom.

In that sense, Spinoza’s work was a lens. I like to think he would’ve been delighted with the invention of photography.

10 thoughts on “Unruly Thoughts on Photography’s Origins

  1. Edward Abbey:
    “All men are brothers, we like to say, half-wishing sometimes in secret it were not true. But perhaps it is true. And is the evolutionary line from protozoan to Spinoza any less certain? That may also be true.”
    from his towering book, Desert Solitaire


  2. another philosopher who liked beautiful natural scenery was Nietsche. He lived out the end of his life in Sils Maria in Swiss the Alps, a place we visit regularly. John, you would find lots of material for your camera…


  3. Hello, John. Thanks for dropping by my blog. I looked over your photographs and they are amazing! I particularly like the Sag Harbor photo. Also the New Bedford ones. They all speak volumes. Not too loud and jarring. Just reassuring.


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