The Frontal Cortex

Technology (The Limits of)

Kottke links to some early reviews of cinema. Needless to say, hyperbole ruled the day. As one critic proclaimed:

Photography has ceased to record immobility. It perpetuates the image of movement. When these gadgets are in the hands of the public, when anyone can photograph the ones who are dear to them, not just in their immobile form, but with movement, action, familiar gestures and the words out of their mouths, then death will no longer be absolute, final.

But Hollywood didn’t erase death and the internet won’t nullify time, space, geography, etc. Technology is marvelous, but human nature is persistent. Speaking of which, I’ve always loved the story about how the painter J.W. Turner, after seeing a daguerreotype for the first time, said that he was glad he’d already had his day, since the era of painting was now over. But photography didn’t diminish painting – it just made it different. Instead of lusting after verisimilitude, painters discovered abstraction. Here is describe the shift in my book:

Inspired by Baudelaire’s writings and the provocative realism of Edouard Manet, a motley group of young French painters decided to rebel. The camera, they believed, was a liar. Its precision was false. Why? Because reality does not consist of static images. Because the camera stops time, which cannot be stopped; because it renders everything in focus, when everything is never in focus. Because the eye is not a lens, and the brain is not a machine.

These rebels called themselves the impressionists. Like the film in a camera, their idiom was light. But the impressionists realized that light was both a dot and a blur. If the camera captured the dot, the impressionists represented the blur. They wanted to capture time in their paintings, showing how a bale of hay changes in the afternoon shadows, or how the smoke of a train, leaving Gare Saint Lazare, slowly fades into thin air. As Baudelaire insisted, they painted what that the camera left out.


  1. #1 Jason
    June 6, 2008

    Love the book and the blog! Keep up the great work!

  2. #2 Jim
    June 6, 2008

    I’ve always found it ironic that Turner would say such as thing, when he was one of the first painters to show what paint could do and film couldn’t – it was his groundbreaking work with light which kicked off the whole Impressionist movement.

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