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Monday, 12 September 2016


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When I was taking Art History class in high school, I was always drawn to Vermeer because his paintings were so un-abstract, so "realistic," in my developing brain's way of thinking. Compared to the other pieces we were learning about, I responded to Vermeer's work in a way I rarely did with some other works. I definitely count myself as 90% convinced after seeing that doc, too.

Goes to show, too, that if you really get to the core of a story you can make a compelling documentary about just about anything (and more now than ever, the reverse is true as well).

Hello Mike,

Does Vermeer settle the, 'is photography art' question?

Greetings, Leslie.

Ha, ha, haa!

"...I'm reading The Forger's Spell, which includes plenty of cautionary tales about art experts becoming "true believers" of their own judgments! Even when you're convinced of something, it never hurts to leave some room for the possibility that you're wrong....)"

That is so dang wise.

Yes, "Tim's Vermeer" is cute and quite compelling. But while its thesis -- that Vermeer used projections and lensing as drafting guides -- is fascinating to most of us in the general public it's not quite as revelatory in the art history world as the filmmakers make it seem. Nor is Vermeer likely to have been the first to use such a technique. But it is nevertheless a fascinating little film worth watching if you're at all interested in the history of painting.

Vermeer, by most definitions would be in fact be a photographer.
The two words are joined to include photo/light and graph/media.
Ergo he would be making Photographs. The word cameradoes not be used for these definitions.

He did not capture the images on light-sensitive media. But if he's to be the first photographer, then Seurat should be the first digital photographer. In the early days, they had all that color noise!

The cover picture for that film is a copy of a painting; it's not a real photograph at all. Next you'll be telling me that people use cameras to make paintings. : ]

The painter David Hockney was onto the use of 'cameras' by Renaissance masters some years ago. There is this article on Wikipedia describing that work and his findings: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hockney%E2%80%93Falco_thesis

I haven't seen the film yet, but he appears to be using a camera lucida. David Hockney's book Secret Knowledge also explores the idea of using similar devices to aid artists.

Caravaggio has also been called the first photographer, and he predates Vermeer by 60 years.
One could also claim that Caravaggio was the first Photoshopper. Many of his canvases are composites of several different views.

Although technically interesting, these claims are somewhat meaningless. The camera obscura had been know for centuries, and perhaps millennia.

Niepce is still the first person to create photographs as an end product. Anyone before that was just using optical tools to help them draw.

[There's a problem for me with giving Caravaggio primacy...I don't *like* Caravaggio. --Mike]

At the urging of a friend, I sat through Tim's Vermeer and found it a rather tedious, "See, I told you so!" sort of film that seems to want to prove that Vermeer was something less of a master artist and more of a paint by numbers kind of guy. Without doubt, he used the camera obscura as a legitimate technique in some of his work as did other painters. Not a big deal and no worse than Photoshopping. By the way, Anthony Bailey's "Vermeer: A View of Delft is another good read for anyone interested in the artist and his times. And if you get to the Netherlands, skip Amsterdam and go straight away to the Mauritshaus in The Hague. Great collection of the Dutch masters.

Albrecht Dürer used drawing aids, though they lacked lenses, over 100 years before Vermeer was born.

This page illustrates a Dürer woodcut of one being used that dates from 1525.


As Gordon pointed out, David Hockney and physicist Charles Falco dug into that theory in some depth (as far as I can tell, well before Tim Jenison did his experiment).

Hockney and Falco's book "Secret Knowledge" is quite convincing, and fun to read as well. Recommended.

I would say he is most certainly NOT the "first photographer", either in terms of his use of optical aids to assist in rendering a scene, or in terms of a "studio setup" as in commercial photographers. It's pretty easy to find antecedents: Holbein instantly comes to mind, and before him Van Eyck and other Northern Renaissance painters. Undoubtedly the Italian Renaissance painters used these devices, and studio setups are just part and parcel of painting, period.

To me, no painter is a "photographer" in any sense of photography. First there is the overhyped "moment" aspect of photography. I think more importantly, however, is the extreme difficulty until very recently of significantly altering a scene in any way but crude excisions. A painter is free to add and remove, change perspective, focus and defocus, ....just about do anything to a scene, while with photography capture those things are impossible outside of camera movements, and there is a limit to how far one can go with movements.

Here to me is the key difference, and I speak as a painter who had a devil of a time with photography. Photographers have to deal with the "inconvenient" in a scene in a way painters do not (painters have other challenges...). Of course until Photoshop and its ilk.

Another interesting possibility -- Vermeer and Leeuwenhoek, the inventor of microscopy and lens pioneer, were contemporaries and neighbors. There is no definite connection, but ...!


I used to know Tim back in the Video Toaster days when I was an amiga developer. Among other things he claims responsibility for an ordinance prohibiting wearing a leafblower and rollerskates in Topeka Kansas. A really interesting guy.

I'd like to clarify about Tim's Vermeer. Tim Jennison wasn't trying to establish the legitimacy of the claim that Vermeer used the camera. His (Tim's) point in the exercise was specifically to determine whether it would have been possible using materials and techniques available to Vermeer. He satisfied himself that it was possible that Vermeer was availing himself of the advanced optics technology, while not suggesting that it proves that Vermeer did.

I personally enjoyed the movie.

Another painting oriented movie I've recommended on here (years ago) was The Mill and the Cross, which is about Pieter Bruegel painting the titular painting, while simultaneously being about the various tableaux in the painting itself. I nicknamed it In Bruegel.


I saw Tim's movie last year. To me the second most important take away was that no painter no matter how talented and skilled they were and how well they could see it was biologically/neurologically impossible to achieve this precision and accuracy in colour gradations (e.g. back wall lit from the side in the Vermeer) without some device like the one Tim worked out.

The most important take-away was the vast, enormous difference between the Vermeer painting and the copy that Tim made of it painstakingly over months. It is two-fold. One is the ability to imagine, come up with the scene and its elements, and make all the many decisions along the way. The other to render them in such a way that there is 'magic', such as in the Vermeer original. Entirely missing from the copy.

In a word: the difference between high art and something that is a rather soulless copy.

I also think that some of the discussions here on TOP a couple of months ago and at other times earlier revolve around that one thing. Some pursue in photography something akin to documentation and reporting (and occasionally this too can be high art at the same time). And of course there is nothing wrong with that, and the result sometimes can even be very abstract. Others pursue, try to get to art or even maybe high art and that is their main goal, not (so much) the documentation and reporting. (And the results might be rather close to photographic realism shall we say, or very far from it... either way.) Not saying they often achieve it, but some landscapes by Metzker do, to use just one example of someone who at times pursued more the reporting side of photography and at others the more sublime for art's sake.

To put it another way, to me on the one hand there are of course large differences between painting and photography, but often the more important differences are between what approaches high art or at least is aiming in that direction, be it a painting or a photograph, and what does not.

I sense quite often a certain uneasiness about this topic (perhaps only my perception). We do live in a culture that tends to tell us that playing is only of value for children and that art making is rather childish and not nearly as important and vital as a number of other serious pursuits. Also a culture that does not tend to have as healthy relationship with the 'unconscious' and if there is such a thing, other sources of art, as would be salutary.

When Dostoyevski wrote that Art will Save the World he was not jesting. One of the most recent publications that delves into this topic brilliantly, widely and deeply is last year's book 'Reclaiming Art in the age of artifice' by J.F. Martel. It is relatively short and unlike most books I've read on similar topics. I'm reading it for the third time now. Highly recommended.

I saw Tim's Vermeer and it was pretty much a waste of time, IMHO.

Vermeer may have used optical aides; but then again, maybe not. There's a whole cottage industry (right this minute!) involved in teaching people how to paint in the style of Vermeer, Rembrandt, etc., **without** optical aides. It takes a while to master the technique -- maybe four years of study -- but it certainly can be done, and literally hundreds of people have done it. The weird thing is, these Vermeer skeptics tend to argue that Vermeer MUST have had optics, because NOBODY could have made these photorealistic paintings without help...but you can actually go and watch somebody do it. In fact, in most major metro areas, you can go to what is usually called an "Atelier" and have somebody teach you to do it. You need persistence, but not necessarily talent.

Even if Vermeer used optics, actually laying out the picture is not the hardest part -- the hardest part is controlling the paint and the color. If "anyone" could do it, as the "Tim" video implies, then many more would have; but they didn't, because the aid provided by optics in nowhere near the hardest part of doing what Vermeer did.

People have suggested that David Hockney became convinced that Renaissance artists used optical aides because he couldn't do what they did. Well, maybe -- but other people can. And maybe optics were used. Who cares?

No, Vermeer was not the first photographer.
That answers your question.

Vermeer was a very good "light artisan", as most dutch/flamish barroque masters were. But he was not a photographer. He was more of a constructed HDR end illustration master.

And because there were not photos, we think they were trying to mimic reality. Well, they were not. The comissioned art the atelier had [I really doubt, and it is well known in Delft, that Vermeer was an atelier with some apprentices. Not as big as Dürer, but he was not alone] was to generate artworks to impress and cause a retina melting moment.

Regarding Vermeer vs. Caravaggio
I guess it is like Barça vs. Real Madrid. Pick your side.

Color Photography begins with Vermeer.

Some people think the Shroud of Turin may have been the first photograph -- a lensless contact print onto a light-sensitive material. This hypothesis is independent of whether or not the subject was Jesus Christ.

I'm interested historically in how early and how commonly optical aids to getting perspective right were used by painters. It doesn't mean a darned thing about the actual paintings, no; but I'm enough of a tech-head and also interested enough in history to be curious anyway.

In particular, I'm interested in whether the first people to get perspective into artworks used optical aids, or had been exposed to optical aids. I won't try a "nobody could do that" argument since their history, as has been noted already by various posters, is filled with spectacular errors, but I'm interested in whether people did or did not figure out how to render optical perspective properly on a flat surface on their own, without optical aids. Art historians probably know this already; anybody?

Piling on for Secret Knowledge by Hockney.

"I'm interested historically in how early and how commonly optical aids to getting perspective right were used by painters" -DDB

I'm sort of pulling this information out of my butt, because my perspective books are in a different place, but I believe mathematical perspective was developed way before lenses were used as painting aids -- mathematical perspective (which is correct, while optical perspective may not be, because of lens effects) was being studied by the Greeks and Egyptians. IIRC, the much later Renaissance perspective began with a guy who painted the reflection of a building on a mirror (although I guess that could be considered a form of optical perspective) and others may have painted images on window glass. From those beginnings, a rigorous mathematical perspective was quickly developed, and is still used. There were (are) all kinds of non-optical aids used back as far as anyone was making records, and those are still used today (Van Gogh did drawings of some of his perspective frames, which are just wooden rectangles like picture frames, strung with string.) The problems with optical perspective can be seen with any uncorrected photos of high buildings (or in paintings done by beginners using color slides and projecting the slides on the canvas.) Those errors typically don't occur in paintings done by well-trained painters.

Getting the perspective right is first year stuff at Art School. Mastering light with only six or seven different pigments is something else. Vermeer certainly carefully made his set up first before he started with paint. The way Tim is doing it seems rather silly to me. So much machinery between the subject and the painting must be a hindrance rather than a help for a good painter (which Vermeer was without any doubt). At the internet you can buy much better Chinese falsifications than the one Jenison made, painted straight on the canvas without any extra tools.
(But for the same money I prefer to order a terracotta statue with my own head on it to place in the in the garden).

With David Hockney I believe that from a certain moment on some painters started using a camera obscura. You can see it in their compositions. Also some of the Vermeer interiors are set up as if he was using a frame. With a Mondriaan-like precision every detail matters, from edge to edge. Very different from let's say Rembrandt's work, where details at the boundaries are less important or are not even there at all.

When Vermeer was the first photographer, then the first snapshot must be Velázquez’ masterpiece Las Meninas.

I am constantly amazed by the general public’s rampant ‘supposition’ demonstrated as an excuse for the lack of accessible and accurate information.
David Hockney’s landmark publication Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the lost techniques of the Old Masters clearly validates without equivocation the use of lenses in many, if not most, Renaissance portrait painters studios.
Upon their deaths, all artist’s possessions were inventoried to be appropriately taxed. Reviewing these inventories Hockney discovered numerous mentions of glass lenses that were used in camera obscuras (as well as camera lucidas).
The most elegant proof of their use is the fact that an innumerable number of Renaissance portraits show the subjects holding wine glasses, flowers or swords in their left hand..far far beyond any rational possibility that the entire Renaissance was left handed. This effect is caused when tracing an image that is optically reversed.

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