|Waxed paper negative, 1855, by Samuel Smith|
One of the many questions I get from painting students has to do with photography. Is it a good idea to paint from photos? It depends on whether you consider the photo a destination or a point of departure. That is, are you merely copying it, or are you using it as a reference for a painting? There's a big difference between the two. Copy photographs, and you get better at - you guessed it - copying photos. Use photos as a reference, memory aid or an inspiration, and you get better as an artist. Why? Because you are improving your creative skill by synthesizing a new work from a variety of sources. Copying a photo doesn't create anything new. It makes a copy.
I'm continuing to read Philip Gilbert Hamerton's book, A Painter's Camp. (Here is my earlier post on him.) During one of his many painting trips to the Scottish Highlands, he began to experiment with photography as an aid to painting. Since his trips happened in the late 1850s, he was one of the very earliest painters to drag the equipment out into the field.
He used something called the "waxed-paper process," one of many photographic technologies that evolved but then died when George Eastman invented his modern process in 1884. Here's an article from 1858 that describes how to prepare waxed-paper for photography: http://albumen.conservation-us.org/library/c19/catech2.html.
Even at the time Hamerton published his book, in 1866, he was still uncertain about the value of photography to the painter:
Nobody has ever yet answered the often-suggested question how far photography may be useful to the landscape-painter; and whether, under certain limitations, he can wisely practise it himself. Nor can I answer this question yet, in any decisive way. I have hitherto only practised the waxed-paper process, and cannot speak authoritatively of the limitations of the wet collodion. Besides, I perceive that photographs taken for especial purposes, as memoranda, may be useful to a degree which as yet nobody has any idea of, for such photographs are not to be had in the market, where they would be unsalable, except to artists.
He compares photography to two different ways of painting:
Again, with reference to the study of nature, I dare not as yet advance definite opinions, because my object is so new, that the experience of my predecessors is of little assistance, except in merely technical matters. For instance, Turner's way of study, good for an imaginative painter, is not exact enough for a topographic one; just as in literature, the degree of accuracy in historical facts which suffices for the poet or the novelist is quite unsatisfactory to the historian. On the other hand, what is known as the pre-Raphaelite system, of doing all from nature, is obviously inapplicable to transient effects. Between these two some other system will have to be ultimately traced out, and I am making experiments to that end, which include the painting of a good many pictures, so that it is not likely I shall be able for some time to offer any definite conclusions on this subject either.
Finally, he decides:
Subsequent investigation has convinced me that no artist should ever copy a photograph at all, though most artists do, more or less. But as memoranda of isolated natural facts, photographs are invaluable. By seeking only for one fact in each photograph, you may get, in a large collection, a rich encyclopedia of facts of form. In this way the photograph is very useful to all students of nature; not otherwise. It can never replace good drawing, and is valueless for pictorial purposes, on account of its defective scale of light, and its false translation of colour into shade. [Remember that Hamerton only had black-and-white photography available to him.]