In the summer of 1839, when Louis Daguerre “forced the sun to take pictures,” the first daguerreotypes led to a mania that gripped all of Paris. Chemicals, lenses and camera obscuras sold out at shops. Across the City of Light, men were seen balancing bulky boxes on tripods. “Everyone wanted to copy the view offered by his window,” one Parisian recalled. “The poorest pictures caused him unutterable joy.”
Pictures, two-dimensional models of a 3-D world, have captivated humanity since the first artist painted the first bison by torchlight. But the typical art history is defined by its medium, charting the progress of painting, photography or frescoes. Artist David Hockney and art critic Martin Gayford have a broader purpose. Their big, beautiful book, “A History of Pictures,” explores our long love affair with pictures from all media and all millennia.
The history of pictures, Hockney says, “begins in the caves and ends, at the moment, with an iPad.” Hockney and Gayford trace the history in a conversation, similar to the one in their 2011 book, “A Bigger Message.” Again the celebrated British artist proves as innovative in thought as he is on canvas. And Gayford, art critic for the Spectator, is a gentle guide, steering the conversation through a thematic tour of the world’s images, some classics but most little-known.
Reading “A History of Pictures” is like touring a great museum with an artist and critic chatting over your shoulder. The conversation sometimes drones on, especially when Hockney rehashes his “optical theory” that artists from Jan van Eyck onward used lenses to project images onto canvas. But most of the dialogue, abundantly illustrated with full-page glossies, is original and surprising.
Where else would we find images from Giotto compared to Disney cartoons? Caravaggio to “Hollywood lighting”? Plato’s cave to television? At times, Hockney and Gayford are encyclopedias of images, contrasting figures separated by centuries of art history. Elsewhere, they are awestruck amateurs, gazing in wonder at the beauty and power of a Velázquez, a Hokusai, a sepia-toned photo by Eugène Atget.
Some of the history, including a full chapter on Renaissance art, will be familiar to any museum-goer, but the authors enliven their tour by discussing the commonalities of pictures and the unique vision of their creators. Chapters focus on shadows, mirror images, moving images, staged photos and, finally, the future of pictures. Hockney includes some of his own works, including a stunning still life done on an iPad and a collage he made on an early fax machine. Pictures, he notes, are “a personal angle on reality.”
Though Hockney knows his art history, Gayford is the expert, spicing the conversation with rubicons in the long cavalcade of imagery. Opening the chapter on “Photography, Truth and Painting,” Gayford recounts an 1862 legal battle between French painters and photographers. Seems the painters had copied photos onto canvas, leading the photographers to sue for violation of copyright. But French copyright law applied only to art. Was photography an art? Painters protested that photography was nothing more than “a series of completely mechanical manipulations.” The judge sided with them, but the photographers won on appeal.
Like any conversation, the talk is sometimes bogged down by banality. “People like pictures,” Hockney says. “Pictures are a way of representing the world,” Gayford chimes in. But once the talk turns to contemporary pictures, our image-drunk world unfolds beneath the eyes of these experts. Suddenly, the most iconic pictures are revealed to have deep roots. The crowded cover of the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper” album is compared to the group portraits of impressionists made by Fantin-Latour. We learn that, long before Photoshop, photographers manipulated images in the darkroom or in the field. They ask: Can we trust photography anymore? Could we ever?
In comparing paintings with photos, both authors side with the former. To prove their point, they juxtapose a photo of France’s Mont Sainte-Victoire with one of Cézanne’s many renderings of the mountain. Only the most evocative photos compare with what Damien Hirst calls the “yumminess” of paint. Yet whether made by hand or by camera, Hockney insists, any image deserving our attention must be “the product of hard looking, skill, and require the hand, the heart and the eye.”
But pictures may be too much with us now. The stirring self-portraits of Rembrandt and van Gogh have morphed into the ubiquitous “selfies” of everyone everywhere. Estimates suggest that nearly 400 billion photos are taken each year, more snapped every few minutes than were taken in the 19th century. Hockney is not encouraged by this glut. Given its ubiquity and idiot-proof process, photography as we once knew it is over, he laments.
Gayford is less pessimistic. Smartphone cameras and other wizardry have made, he says, “a revolution as profound as that brought about by printing.” Even if Hockney complains about a surfeit of photos, few of them memorable, the snapshots just keep coming. Google any word, click “images” and the clutter fills your screen. Such clutter demands a cleanup, which makes “A History of Pictures” vital reading.
Bruce Watson is the author of “Light: A Radiant History From Creation to the Quantum Age.”
By David Hockney and Martin Gayford
Abrams. 360 pp. $45