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Chapter 8 - Modern Art / Newton Triumphant

The wintery ice sheet blanketing Western art and thought began to thaw in the middle of the nineteenth century. Where cracks appeared, inflows began to erode the reigning Newtonian mind-set and the tyrannical system of perspective. At the time, these innocent-looking freshets issued forth from so many different quarters that they would not have appeared to an observer to be the beginning of a flash spring flood. Yet they were interconnected in an indiscernible pattern that would eventually profoundly change both art and physics.

The invention of photography was one such current that affected people's common notions of space, time, and light and also had a major impact on art. Through knowledge gained in the fields of optics and chemistry the scientist built a little machine that could create in an instant what it took an experienced artist days and sometimes months to accomplish. The machine's product was a piece of paper that reproduced a single moment frozen from the space of visual reality. It would come to be called appropriately enough, a snapshot. With the click of a shutter and the flash of magnesium, the camera could record the here and now with stunning accuracy. By the middle of the nineteenth century, photographs were ubiquitous throughout Europe.

The new contrivance was named a camera because of its similarities to the camera obscura invented in the fifteenth century. Camera obscura means "dark room" in Italian. Leonardo described its principles in his unpublished notes, and they remain the same today. If, on a sunny day, you sit in a darkened room with only a pinhole open on one side, images of the outside world will be projected upon the opposite wall. Trees, passing vehicles, pedestrians strolling; all appear in lifelike detail -- except they are upside down. If, next, you place lenses in the pinhole, the images are righted. The room is already something of a small box; if you reduce its size still farther, to that of a portable box, the camera obscura becomes an instrument you can aim at a group of people at a lawn party. In the sixteenth century in Europe magicians did just that, to the pleasure, amazement, and mystification of the well-to-do.

The miniaturized camera obscura quickly became an indispensable aid for painters to solve problems of perspective. Some found it easier simply to trace the lenses' two-dimensional image on the camera's glass than work out the geometrical details of depth. The idea of preserving images had to wait for advances in chemistry. The vast numbers of images this instrument has produced has made it difficult to remember that, like the telescope, microscope, and sextant before it, the camera is a scientific instrument that measures space and time. The crucial element necessary to conduct these measurements is light. "Photography" literally means "writing with light": photo-graphy.
  Chapter 8 - Modern Art / Newton Triumphant

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