If AI is Killing Photography, Does That Mean Photography Killed Painting?


With artificial intelligence (AI) text-to-image generators exploding in popularity right now, it sometimes feels like photography is facing its most serious threat yet.

In the last few months, DALL-E has been used to create shockingly realistic portraits of people who do not exist. Meanwhile, a Midjourney user even won a fine art competition using a picture he created with the software.

With AI systems like DALL-E and Midjourney effortlessly churning out photo-realistic images, it may seem like there is no hope left for photography.

With the havoc AI-generated art could wreak on the field of photography, for some people, this may bring to mind the way the invention of photography devastated painters in the nineteenth century.

However, a recent article by Livia Gershon in JSTOR Daily has revealed how this narrative about photography destroying painting may be all wrong.

Old Dutch Painters Offer Hope

According to Gershon’s article, photography historian, Hans Rooseboom argues that if anything, portrait painting actually experienced a resurgence at a time when it seemed like the invention of the camera could decimate the art form.

Rooseboom looks specifically at the impact of photography on nineteenth-century Dutch painters. When the first reports about photography came out in 1839, one Dutch periodical published a letter warning about the terrifying new “invention… which could cause some alarm to our Dutch painters. A method has been found whereby sunlight itself is elevated to the rank of drawing master, and faithful depictions of nature are made the work of a few minutes.”

However, despite the fears around the new technology, Rooseboom found only one report of an artist being displaced as photography caught on: an 1874 reference to a recently deceased portrait painter who had ended up on “the edge of poverty” thanks to “his marriage, blessed with a pack of children, and secondly photography.”

In contrast, Rooseboom discovered a number of reports suggesting an artistic revival around the time photography was taking hold. Many artists had long scoffed at portrait painting as a lesser form, and some welcomed the idea that photography would replace it, leaving painters to do more ambitious work.

In 1846, painter Jan Adam Kruseman said that “after a long period of languishing” art “had awakened with renewed life and again made great advances.” He did mention some forces pushing in the other direction, including public tastes, art criticism, and fashion—but not photography.

In some cases, the advent of photography led to a bigger demand for portrait painting. In 1910, painter Jan Veth indicated that he was behind on paintings he had agreed to produce. “I still find it very hard to bring myself to cancel things,” he writes. “But sometimes it’s impossible to cram everything into my already packed program.”

Some artists did describe a lack of work. However, Rooseboom easily found similar complaints going back to the time before photography.

Gershon’s article notes that the invention of photography also offered benefits to artists. Some picked up taking photos as a side gig when painting work was slow. Photos could be used as studies for paintings, in place of sketches. And they represented a way to easily reproduce artworks, allowing artists to sell prints of their work or keep them on display after an original work was sold. As Veth wrote in 1885 regarding the decision to photograph a portrait, “It is such a nuisance in our art that once a thing has been delivered you never see it again.”

According to Gershon’s article, an anonymous writer argued as early as 1855 that predictions on how photography “would be the death of art” had proven mistaken, and “experience shows that it marks the breaking of a new dawn for art by producing a different, unexpected outcome each day.”

In this light, the emergence of AI-generated art may not signal the end of photography by any means.

Image credits: Header photo by Simone Mascellari.