I normally wouldn't consider this a question of photography, except for the fact that several answers on this question made note that art history was something important to the education they received in art school.

What are important principles for a photographer taught through art history and what are resources (they need not be free or online) that I can learn them from (apart from art school - which will never happen for this working father)?


2 Answers 2


Having an art school background means that I've had to sit through any number (dozens, probably) of Art History classes... Some of the big 'principles' that come out of art history include:

  • A strong sense of that which has come before. So many photographers approach photography in a vacuum... Having no idea (and often not caring) that art is built on the shoulders of who came before. Knowing something about Art History makes it possible to speak to whether a work is derivative (a capital insult in the art world), or homage (often a complement to both the person giving and getting the homage).
  • Beginning photographers (especially ones who've only been photographers in the 'digital era') often rely on luck, volume (quantity of shots taken), and post-production corrections in order to get good photographs. An Art History education really trains the mind to be deliberate in all aspects of photography (lighting, subject, background, DoF, etc.) This is because spending a lot of time looking at the different ways others handle those same problems heightens awareness of them in the work you're doing, and having a library of techniques to draw on to emulate will often strengthen the work.
  • Reoccurring patterns and motifs are illuminated. To watch how (for example) art's portrayal of the devil over the course of 500 years has evolved can inform my own work. Maybe a less extreme example... It is possible to see something like 'short lighting' being invented by observing painters draw inspiration from one another over the course of centuries.
  • All of the above which leads to the 'big' principles of art history... A strong history of R&D in the art world- Rip off and Duplicate. Art evolves as the result of artists building liberally on other artists work over time, and there's no reason that Photography shouldn't draw from that well too.

In terms of resources:

  • Crash on the floor in the Art section at a local 'big box' book store and leaf through all the big glossy books (and maybe you thought computer related books were expensive... I only manage to find $100+ books in the art section! I never buy, just look).
  • The library can also great for looking at art. They also are less likely to frown at you if you spend hours looking but don't buy anything. :-)
  • Paradoxically I often find the internet to be a hindrance to actually studying pieces of art... But that just may be me. I tend to find that most of time the pictures on the internet are too small to really get much out of... On the other hand, its never been easier to read the written histories of great (and more obscure) artists, which can really add depth to the works as you view them.
  • Finally, there's absolutely nothing like actually viewing paintings (or photographs, for that matter) 'in person.' Visit a museum. Visit a gallery. Visit lots of 'em. If you're lucky enough to live somewhere that gets traveling exhibits that come to town, go see them, or go on vacation somewhere that has a reputation for great art.

A course in art history is great the same way reading Shakespeare and the Bible is great when you decided to delve into literature: it gives you a foundation on which to base your understanding of modern photography, since so much of what we do now references what has already been done. You also learn about a rich language of symbology, about emotional expression and a lot of color theory.

Painting is photography's close cousin and it has been influencing photography since photography was invented (and, lately, the other way around as well). Paintings are, in a sense, purer than photographs because everything they contain is placed there on purpose. The composition, lighting, aspect, subject matter... everything is there because someone took the time to paint it there. Painters work with multiple planes, they don't have hacks like shallow DOF. Happy accidents are very rare, and that's a great thing to learn from.

Do all these things translate to photography directly? No, you can't recreate Picasso's Nude Woman with a Necklace, but you can take a lesson from his use of color and positioning. You can learn poses, you can learn so much about light and expression. A painting like The Blue Boy would work just as well as a photograph, don't you think?

As to resources... this is a pretty decent book, but generally speaking, any album with paintings that you enjoy would be a great starting-off point. You don't need to buy it, scour your local library. I have a personal fondness for the old Dutch masters, if only because of their "photorealistic" approach to light.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm less interested in a general art history book and more in a resource that applies the historical art lessons to photography. Otherwise, I've had a decent amount of general art history from other sources (university and private art lessons earlier in life). \$\endgroup\$
    – rfusca
    Commented Jan 18, 2011 at 1:59

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