With the explosion in popularity of artificial intelligence (AI) text-to-image generators, it sometimes feels like photography is facing its most serious threat yet.
Over the past few months, DALL-E has been used to create incredibly realistic portraits of people who don’t exist. Meanwhile, one Midjourney user even won an art contest using an image he created with the software.
With AI systems like DALL-E and Midjourney effortlessly producing photorealistic images, it might seem like there’s no hope for photography anymore.
With the havoc that AI-generated art could wreck in the field of photography, for some people this may recall how the invention of photography devastated painters in the 19th century.
However, a recent article by Livia Gershon in JSTOR Daily revealed how completely wrong this narrative about photography destroying painting can be.
Old Dutch painters offer hope
According to the article by Gershon, photography historian Hans Rooseboom claims that portrait painting actually experienced a resurgence at a time when it seemed like the invention of the camera could decimate the art form.
Rooseboom looks specifically at the impact of photography on 19th century Dutch painters. When the first reports of photography appeared in 1839, a Dutch periodical published a letter warning of the new “terrifying invention…which might alarm our Dutch painters.” A method has been found by which sunlight itself is elevated to a master of drawing, and accurate depictions of nature are made in minutes.
However, despite fears around the new technology, Rooseboom found only one report of an artist displaced as photography gained momentum: an 1874 reference to a recently deceased portrait painter who found himself “on the verge of poverty” thanks to “his marriage”. , blessed with a pack of children, and secondly photography.
In contrast, Rooseboom uncovered a number of reports suggesting an artistic revival around the time photography was taking hold. Many artists have long scoffed at portrait painting as a lesser form, and some have welcomed the idea that photography would replace it, leaving painters to do more ambitious work.
In 1846 the painter Jan Adam Kruseman said that “after a long period of languishing” art “was awakened with renewed life and again made great progress”. He mentioned some forces pushing in the other direction, including public tastes, art criticism and fashion, but not photography.
In some cases, the advent of photography has led to a greater demand for portraits. In 1910, the painter Jan Veth indicated that he was behind on the paintings he had undertaken to produce. “I always have a hard time bringing myself to cancel things,” he wrote. “But sometimes it’s impossible to cram everything into my already packed schedule.”
Some artists described a lack of work. However, Rooseboom readily found similar complaints dating back to pre-photography times.
Gershon’s article notes that the invention of photography also offered benefits to artists. Some started taking side shots when paint jobs were slow. Photos could be used as studies for paintings, instead of sketches. And they represented a way to easily reproduce works of art, allowing artists to sell prints of their work or display them after an original work has been sold. As Veth wrote in 1885 regarding the decision to photograph a portrait, “It is such a nuisance in our art that once a thing has been delivered you never see it again.”
According to Gershon’s article, an anonymous writer claimed as early as 1855 that predictions of how photography “would be the death of art” had been proven wrong, and “experience shows that it marks the dawn of a new dawn for art by producing another, unexpected result every day.
In this light, the emergence of AI-generated art by no means signifies the end of photography.
Picture credits: Header photo by Simone Mascellari.