Vermeer and the Art of Digital Sensors
Letter From the Editor

Digital imaging is changing photography, shaking the very foundations of the art and science of taking pictures. Not just the "loss of film" but the entire electronic overhaul of cameras themselves. In my lifetime we've gone from manual settings of focus, aperature and shutter timing to dialing up that little green square and listening to the high pitched whir of an autofocus lens. These revolutions have largely removed the technical demands of making a picture, and meant a massive influx of people into photography.

These "amateur professionals" are making life tough for a generation of professional photographers who have seen prices of things like wedding packages and school portraits fall drastically, while entire markets (such as "model portfolios") have virtually disappeared.

Is this a new thing?

Johannes Vermeer of Delft was born in 1632 in Holland and was admitted to the Guild of Saint Luke in 1653 which would mark his professional start as a painter.

Vermeer's masterwork was The Art of Painting which he painted some time between 1662 and 1668. The image is photographic in its focus, with the foreground soft and the model and painter sharp and in focus. The image is so photographic in fact that many experts suggest that (horrors) it was done with a camera obscura. Vermeer certainly knew folks who knew optics, his executor was Von Leewenhoek the famous microscopist, and there's really no reason to doubt that he used a camera obscura for at least part of the work.

Would Vermeer have used digital imaging? I suspect so, he painted to live, and likely used whatever shortcuts he could to achieve the ideal of his time, a realistic depiction of daily life. Vermeer, like most of his fellow artists, didn't have a government or foundation fellowship, teach in a University, or have an artist-in-residence position which would allow him to make personal art. He was a thoroughly commercial artist making commercial paintings. The customers for these paintings were the Dutch merchant classes, and he had plenty of competition for the business. In fact there was a large glut of painters at the time, perhaps similar to what we hear about today with our auto-focus and auto-exposure cameras... there were dozens if not hundreds of painters driving prices down, putting many out of business.

But what was the other effect of this competition in Holland in the late 1600s? The creation of the Dutch Masters of course. With competition comes an improvement in artistic technique, and here we see a generation of artists whose knowledge of the effects of light on a scene, whose use of lighting in an image was second to none.

The simple necessity of making a better painting than the fellow down the street drove these artists to find ways to make a more photographic, a more realistic image, and to make it faster than the competition. Another interesting thing was the development of the niche painter. Artists specialized in very specific themes in order to stand out from everyone else.

The centuries since then have weeded out the plodders, the technicians, the formula painters and have revealed the best and the brightest.

Just like today's photography market, the painting market required skill, certainly, and artistic technique, but also marketing skills and great publicity. The Art of Painting was a marketing sample, larger than many of Vermeer's other paintings and it remained at his studio his entire life as a sample for the customers who wandered in looking for "the real thing".

Was Vermeer famous and rich in his own time? No, he died owing large sums of money, he, his wife and their 11 children lived in rented rooms in his mother-in-law's house. The Art of Painting was sold at his death and disappeared for 100 years before resurfacing and ending up in Austria... with a rival's signature (Pieter de Hoogh) to boost the price. Vermeer himself faded from view until the advent of photography when his skills began to be appreciated. His reputation has since grown until he has become one of the giants.

What does all this say about modern photography? The adoption of time-saving and economical technical advances is not new. The flooding of the market with new photographers using these simplified tools will drop the price of photographs and dilute the quality of the market for a while, but eventually a new and more masterful set of  artists will emerge, in small groups perhaps, each specializing in a thematic niche. The photographer's "style" will become even more important as each tries to become the "go-to" artist for that specialized image.

Do we photograph for the money or the ages? Perhaps, in a competitive market, the pursuit of one can bring both.

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Photos Copyright ©2005 Kim Taylor. All rights reserved.