Photography - a brief history From En Plein Air to abstraction


En plein air is an approach to painting by which painters seek to work directly in nature; making their paintings in the natural environment rather than constructing their work in an artist's studio.

This approach to painting became very popular in the early to mid 1800s and it was popularized by the Barbizon School of art in France. The movement was very much inspired by the English painter, John Constable, and it reached high status with the work of artists such as Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Edgar Degas.

The new approach to painting in the open air became so popular due to the interests in new technologies at the time, such as paints being available in ready to buy and transportable tubes, rather than the artist having to prepare their own paints in the studio. In addition, new and innovative devices were being designed and manufactured on mass to aid the artist in being able to move and transport their materials easily and freely, such as the Pochade Box. In the mid 1800s En Plein Air became increasingly popular across Europe, eventually spreading to America and California.


Around the time of the En Plein Air movement, great progress was being made in the new technology of the time, Photography. Pre 1800s the scientist Joseph Nicephore Niepce, is credited as the first person to make a photographic image using a camera obscura, but it was not until he joined forces with Louis Daguerre in 1829 that their experiments really began to develop into what we now know as Photography.

In 1839, after the death of Joseph Nicephore Niepce, Louis Daguerre developed a much more convenient and effective method of photography which he called the Daguerreotype. This process enabled the image to be fixed, permanently to a surface and thereby form a lasting image for the first time. The invention was sold to the French government and it then became very popular across Europe and America with new studios popping up in small towns and developing cities.

The only draw back with the Daguerreotype was that it only enabled the Photographer to produce a mono print, a one off image, without being able to reprint. However, in 1841 the English botanist and mathematician William Henry Fox-Talbot discovered a a process to make a negative image called a Calotype, which could then be used to make multiple images. This was the birth of modern portable photography and during the mid 1800s Photography technology grew at a rapid rate. More people were now able to access and use the new technologies and we begin to see Photography being used alongside the En Plein Air approach to painting. As previously outlined, many En Plein Air artists were captivated by new technologies and Photography was the biggest new technology to sweep across Europe and America.


In the late 1800s Photography began to impact greatly on painters and many Impressionists started experimenting with the new technology. Edgar Degas is well known for experimenting with Photography and he clearly used Photography to enable him to develop dynamic compositions for many of his artworks especially his series of ballet dancers. Degas was very interested in aspects of the formal elements as presented through Photography, such elements as line, tone, contrast, texture, composition etc. For Degas photography was functional and served a purpose which was to aid and enhance his approach to his paintings.

In 1888 further developments in Photographic technologies saw George Eastman invent the first 'point and shoot' camera. Eastman created Kodak which truly brought Photography to the masses; a visual revolution was about to explode across the world.


In the late 1800s and moving into the early 1900s Photographic technology advanced even further. Eadweard Muybridge, an early pioneer of photography, and later in his career, well known for his images capturing movement which served as an early forerunner to the moving image and film, began his photographic career by capturing large scale images of landscapes. Much of his early work was dedicated to Yosemite Park in California, America. He used new technologies in Photography to capture super realistic, detailed images of this famous national park. In doing so he brought this unique environment to life and his work enabled viewers to visually travel to great wildernesses, places that most people would never be able to witness physically. The Photograph became an important visual document in its own right, communicating a visual story with an audience.

This landscape genre was developed further through the work of American Photographer Ansel Adams. Like Muybridge, Adams sought to use Photography as a means to express the great American dream, the notion of exploration into the wilderness, the edge of humanity and the border into the great unknown. Muybridge and Adams produced images that are a window into another world, another dimension; images that allow us to wander, drift and image beyond what we know, images that traverse time and space. Photographs began to talk for themselves, conveying messages to audiences across the world.


In the early 1900s, as Photography technologies developed and more people began to have access to using and experimenting with Photography, we begin to see not only developments in representational forms of Photography but also abstraction. Photographers such as Paul Strand, Alfred Stieglitz and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy began to record their environments in different ways, questioning traditional representation and using aspects of the formal elements such as line, tone, contrast and composition in order to build a different image of their surroundings. Their work was provocative, it asked questions of the viewer, it was unconventional and challenging. As Photographic technologies developed and cameras became smaller, more compact and more transportable we begin to see Photographers play and experiment with how they physically hold and use the camera. They look for different angles and ways to shoot scenes. They are able to shoot from above or below easily without the need for a tripod. A more flexible and experimental street style is born, allowing the photographer much more freedom to experiment with angles and different views enabling them to give the viewer a different and new visual dimension.

In the mid 1900s and towards the end of the 1900s we see this growing sense of abstraction pushed even further by photographers such as, Aaron Siskind, Mario Giacomelli and most notably the Brazilian Photographer Geraldo De Barros. Photographers not only sought to exploit the possibilities of new camera technologies but they now had access to cheaper and better darkroom studio facilities, enabling them to experiment with their images after they were taken. This was truly liberating for many photographers as we begin to see experimentation with montaging, collaging and layering of images. The line between what was considered Fine Art and what was Photography had become blurred and Photography started to become considered as an Art form in its own right.

Created By
ted fox joyce


Created with an image by Alexander Andrews - "untitled image"