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When the camera recast the image

When Louis Daguerre announced his discovery of what became the first widely used photographic process, in 1839, his invention spread around the world with amazing speed. Far from making painters and sculptors obsolete, as some predicted, photography quickly proved useful in the studio. Artists could save the time and cost of repeated sittings by photographing their models.

A whole new branch of publishing emerged, providing photographic versions of traditional artistic subject matter, ranging from the female nude to pictures of costume, everyday street scenes, and architecture from every part of the world. Using such sources could enormously expand the artist's visual vocabulary at relatively modest cost.

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The middle of the 19th century was the heyday of academic realism, but it was far from obvious that the clarity and detail of the photographic image could be of much use to later artists who did not strive to produce realistic images. Artists themselves confused the issue by their public statements. Some were so eager to be thought creative, and so afraid to be associated with a popular new invention that gave pleasure to ordinary people, that they denounced the medium and asserted that they never had used and never would use a mere mechanical process in their work.

Recent scholarship has shown, however, that photography was in fact used by a wide range of artists whose styles and attitudes appear to be completely antiphotographic. A new exhibition, "The Artist and the Photograph: From Degas to Picasso," explores the ways in which early modern artists took advantage of this new technical resource.

Paul Gauguin's languorous, dreamlike renderings of South Sea Islanders are obviously not realistic in the sense of using one-point perspective and an academic style. Still, most of us imagine that, with some expressive distortion, he was painting what he saw when he lived in Tahiti.

Not true, we learn. By the time Gauguin moved there, Tahiti was a bustling French colony, transformed by economic development. The South Sea Islands of Gauguin's art came from picture postcards showing Europeans a primitive Utopia. For "Polynesian" architectural motifs, Gauguin relied on a favorite photograph of the Buddhist temple on Borobudur, far away in Indonesia.

Edgar Degas, famous for paintings that used the off-center cropping of Japanese prints to depict bathers, dancers, and jockeys, made photographs of his own and was, like many other artists, then and now, fascinated by the stop-motion photographs of Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne-Jules Marey.

Painters and sculptors had wondered for years whether all four of a horse's legs were ever off the ground at the same time. Muybridge's photographs showed that they were, and added a surprise. Whereas artworks routinely portrayed the horse's legs spread out, forward and back, at the moment when all four were off the ground, the reverse was true; it now appeared that the horse's legs were gathered inward at the critical moment.

Working from photographs, Degas created a bronze sculpture showing how the horse's legs looked in photographic reality. He never exhibited the bronze, which would have seemed grotesque when compared with more conventional ideas of how horses galloped.

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The small, hand-held Kodak camera, introduced late in the 19th century, set off a popular craze for photography and also helped change the practice of painting. For such artists as Felix Vallotton, Edouard Vuillard, and Pierre Bonnard, snapshots of friends and family translated themselves into artworks in which the figures were posed in startlingly unacademic ways.

For Vallotton and Vuillard, indoor photographs often served as direct source material for paintings of interior scenes. By contrast, Bonnard photographed outdoors and in conceiving his paintings of interior scenes used his snapshots in a more general way, not as studies for specific paintings but rather to liberate his own vision and his subjects' poses from centuries of tradition.

By the 1850s, photography had become central to the practice of the traditional fine arts. A photograph could be an aid to memory, a medium for recording works in progress, or a substitute for travel. Going beyond these practical considerations, many pioneering modern artists used what seemed to be a totally uncreative technique to produce works that challenged our most deeply accepted ideas of what is real.

Organized by the Dallas Museum of Art, "The Artist and the Photograph" will be seen through Jan. 2, 2000 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, in Dallas from Feb. 1 through May 2, 2000, and at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Spain, from June 12 through Sept. 10, 2000.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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