Did Caravaggio use 'photography' to create dramatic masterpieces?


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Jan 10, 2006
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I came across this article that quotes an Italian researcher as suggesting that Caravaggio (a 16th century artist) treated his canvas with light-sensitive substances, including a luminescent powder made from crushed fireflies, in order to "fix" the image as 19th century photographers later would. He then used white lead mixed with chemicals such as mercury, to outline the image in greater clarity. If true, he sure was 'ahead of his time', and pretty darn inventive.
Hmm... He was one of the first to infuse his work with such dramatic lighting... Interesting read, thanks Anty. :)
And, lest we forget one of his many accomplishments, he almost single-handedly developed the concept, now most notably seen in the lifestyles of certain rap stars, of the artist as gangsta.
The idea is nothing more than speculation.
Whilst it is entirely possible that he made use of an image projection technique (the camera obscura was known to the ancient Greeks) and traced the projected images I doubt that he used 'photographic techniques' to 'fix' the image.
Think about it.
Natural light coming through a small aperture being focused onto the canvas by a rudimentary lens? The image would be very dim. You could see it to trace it but the sensitivity of the supposed chemicals would be quite low.
Any exposure would take minutes, probably. Possibly a lot longer.
A 10x8 print takes 20 - 30 seconds under an enlarger using modern materials.
Try sitting in one of the poses in his paintings for a minute or two without moving.
And then there is the 'losing' of the technique.
If he used an early form of photography I am sure word would have gotten around and contemporary writers would have made some reference at the very least. The models would have talked. His apprentices would have learned how to do it.
But nothing along those lines has been found.
The simplest and most likely explanation is therefore that he did not use photographic methods but was, instead, a great artist who could draw and paint from life without having to 'cheat'.
And the fact that we have almost no sketches from him does not mean that he didn't make them. It just means that he may not have thought them worth preserving. Bearing in mind that in those days paper was extremely expensive and difficult to get hold of. Paper was regularly re-used when it had served one purpose. I mean, think how much you write in books when you are in school - and how much of it survives past your 30th Birthday.
How many other artists are there who are known to have been prolific yet little of their work survives? Da Vinci left fewer than 30 paintings and most of them are unfinished. And he left no sculptures that can be attributed to him even though he trained for a time as a sculptor.
Why should Caravaggio be any different? ;)
You certainly make good points. The least persuasive one (to me) was concerning how long the model would have to stay in one position....I saw a documentary back in '07 about a photographer who used a technique that required the subject to sit for about 2 minutes (not complicated poses, mind you, and I can't recall the name of the film, but it played at Hot Docs here in Toronto). The argument I personally find most persuasive is the query why the technique was not picked up, as I agree that apprentices likely would have learned it and models talked etc. Still, I found the initial article of interest as grist for the discussion mill.
Academics do this sort of thing on a regular basis. Without any other facts to back them up they seize on something 'inexplicable' then produce a whacky theory claiming that there is no other possible explanation.
They get sudden notoriety, the sales of the book they have written on the subject treble, then they go on the pundit/lecture circuit and make some money and get a better position. The truth comes out later when everyone has forgotten their five minutes of fame and no-one cares.
Happens all the time.

As for keeping a pose for a while. I would refer you to the pictures of Hill & Adamson.
Long exposures with people keeping still the whole time. It worked OK for a lot of the images but there are quite a few were bits of people moved.
If Caravaggio was recording images photographically then any movement would blur the image so it would be useless for his purposes and he would have to do it over.
I should imagine that the spoil rate would be at least 50/50. Expensive and time consuming, n'est pas?
And then how would he render the latent image visible?
If it is a direct conversion whereby light produces a visible darkening then we are talking an exposure time in the order of 30 minutes and upwards with the light levels he would be using. Otherwise he would need a developer and possibly a fixer.
The first known permanent photographic image was produced with white bitumen developed in oil of lavender. The exposure was 8 hours.
See Niepce.
If Caravaggio had somehow stumbled upon a process way ahead of his time - and remember that Chemistry hadn't been born then, it was still Alchemy with very impure chemicals - I really can't see that it would have remained a complete secret. And someone else would have probably stumbled onto it too.
Although is disputed by some, Vermeer also seems to have used a Camera Obscura for some of his paintings.

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