Perspective as Photography

One of the paradoxes of the discovery of perspective during the early Renaissance was the fact that landscape painting played so small a part in this new “science.” Today, art students are taught to use perspective to measure the distance from foreground to middle ground to background so that the progression into depth seems “real.” As the result of the deployment of centuries-old techniques, the landscape unfolds effortlessly before the viewer’s eye (assumed to be singular, fixed and frozen in time) and ambles with assured ease into the sunset or at least towards the horizon line and the vanishing point. Some objects, from trees or walls, establishing sites, form the repoussoir or that which marks the beginning of the spectator’s stance and pushes space back as far as the unmoving eye can see. Under the assumption that the eye can focus more acutely on things that are near, these are usually painting in more detail, with stronger colors and sharper outlines. Other objects are graduated down in size, becoming smaller as the figures or architectural elements march into the depths. These distant forms are softer, darker and less clear, dimming as human vision dims. As any artist knows, these rules of perspective, from the horizon line to the vanishing point, to the diagonal orthogonals, are but visual tricks of the trade, mimicking an artificial notion of human vision so convincing we believe that this is how we see. Stuart Clark asserted in Vanities of the Eye: Vision in Early Modern European Culture that “…perspective rests on the ultimate visual paradox: complete deception in the service of utter veracity. The optical illusion is given of three-dimensional forms, receding behind a two-dimensional plane but this is conceived as a window on what (and through which) the eye actually sees, constructed according to the way it sees..This, by definition, is what mimetic art is–an ambiguous and irresolvable combination of the false and the true..”

The projection method, Brunelleschi’s peepshow,
according to Rudolf 
Arnheim in 1978, is an effective method

for the creation of an illusion of depth.

And yet the Renaissance artists who were the early adaptors of perspective were not landscape painters. Focusing on architecture and the human being in space, these artists used landscape or an open-air setting, when they used it at all, as a backdrop for the main narrative. Fillipo Brunelleschi, who is credited with “inventing” perspective, used his new knowledge to draw three-dimensional buildings–the Bapistry of the Florence Cathedral–situated in a three-dimensional space. His early paintings are lost, as Samuel Y. Edgerton explained in his book, The Mirror, the Window, and the Telescope: How Renaissance Linear Perspective Changed Our Vision of the Universe: “It is generally believed that the first of the two lost perspective paintings by Brunelleschi depicted an image of the Florentine Baptistery, then known as the ‘Church of San Giovanni,’ showing it as if observed frontally from the opposite portal of the Cathedral of Florence.” The author then quoted a contemporary eyewitness to the mathematical feat of the architect, Antonio Manetti, who described a small panel of eleven and a half inches square with “burnished silver” for the sky. Manetti explained that Brunelleschi made a small “hole in the painted panel at the point in the temple of San Giovanni which is directly opposite the eye of anyone stationed inside the central portal of Santa Maria del Fiore, for the purpose of painting it. The hole was as tiny as a lentil bean on the painted side and widened it conically like a woman’s straw hat to about the circumference of a ducat or a bit more on the reverse side.” To the modern reader, these are substantial holes, perforating the small painting. But the painting was the means to another end. One did not simply look at the painting but used the panel in tandem with a mirror. The viewer would “place his eye on the reverse side where the hole was large, and while ringing the hole up to his eye with one hand, to hold a flat mirror (specchio piano) with  the other hand in such a way that the painting would be reflected in it..the spectator felt he saw the actual scene when he looked at the painting..”

Piero Della Francesca. The Flagellation (1455)

From a dazzling novelty, a primitive stereoscope, painting in the Renaissance became more sophisticated. Thirty years later, in his painting of 1455, The Flagellation, Piero Della Francesca placed his heavenly and sacred figures inside Renaissance buildings and used the omnipresent tiled floors and their elaborate patterns as visual aids in drawing a spatial diagram, a cube for his characters to inhabit. Like Masaccio’s  Tribute Money, the Renaissance artists were thinking in terms of a stage upon which their characters could comfortably play. In his book, Seen/Unseen: Art Science and Intuition from Leonardo to the Hubble Telescope, Martin Kemp wrote of this “box” where people could be placed, like dolls in a miniature house.

“The way we think about space, consciously and unconsciously, is profoundly associated at the deepest structural level with the say that space has come to be represented in Western art from the time of the invention of linear perspective in the Renaissance. The dominant schema of visualization is what might be called the cubic unit, potentially extensible to infinity, but for the most part related to the finite spaces we inhabit inside the predominately urban environments that house increasing numbers of the world’s population. It is a form of ordering that we also show a marked propensity to impose on more rural topographies for a variety of visual, psychological and functional reasons. It is a schema which has pervasively entered world cultures which traditionally have represented space in very different ways if at all,” Kemp wrote.

In her book, The Invention of Infinity: Mathematics and Art in the Renaissance, Judith Veronica Field directly links the Renaissance with modernity or the beginning of the modern era with the invention of perspective. She stated, “We indebted to the Renaissance for the characteristically mathematical nature of what we now call science in much the same way that we are indebted to it for the classical architecture of many public buildings and the Roman style typefaces that dominate our printing..” Field set out to tell the story of the period as “a story of how mathematics became important in the everyday lives of more and more people–craftsmen, tradesmen, and intellectuals.” She continued by stating that her focus would be “..the history of the emergence of perspective studies form the world of artists into that of mathematics. The artistic practice of the fifteenth century led to the invention of a new kind of geometry in the seventeenth. This is undoubtedly the most important of the contributions that art made to mathematics.” For today’s artists, the idea that perspective, a simple mimetic device, should be considered so profound a discovery that it led to the development of modern geometry and mathematics. But perspective enabled an artist to shift from the Medieval worldview of a heaven-ward gaze where there was no space and no time to a corporal world in this physical life of gravity and substance. Renaissance books bristle with charts and graphs and directives for the artists, their bristling lines aggressively asserting the significance of the task ahead: the use of lines arranged in a precise prescribed fashion on a flat plane can create an illusion of three-dimensional space.

Sixteenth Century Diagram of Linear Perspective

What is intriguing about the Renaissance use of perspective is not how the grid opened the paintings to vast vistas but how the rigid diagram created a closed place, recreating an architectural and not a natural space. One could argue that the Renaissance staging of Biblical scenes via the rules of perspective was based upon the Medieval mystery plays performed in the piazza in front of the local church with a house of religious worship serving as a backdrop. Even when the setting is secular, as in Mantegna’s frescoes of the 1470s for the Palazzo Ducale, Mantua, the life-sized figures loom at the very edge of the proscenium rising imperiously above the viewer. the background, to the extent that there is any, is dropped down like a flat curtain behind the players on a stage. Opening the grid and taking advantage of what Kemp termed the “potentially extensible to infinity” was the achievement of the Baroque artists in Italy who used the carefully demarcated internal spaces of their predecessors, like Giotto’s crowded rooms in Confirmation of the Rule in the Badi Chapel, break through the architectural restrictives and dare to imply an ascent into the heavens themselves. In his book, A Theory of Cloud: Toward a History of Painting, Hubert Damisch quoted Jacob Burckhardt from “The Cicerone” on Correggio’s ceiling in San Giovanni, painted between 1520-24, as saying

“From the point of view of the concept of a ‘Baroque’ or ‘pictorial’ or ‘painterly’ (malerisch) style, whose most striking feature is possibly its ‘antipathy to any form with a clear contour,’ historically speaking, the cupolas painted by Correggio could not fail to mark, as it were, a new departure: his work, remarkably precocious and confident, constitutes one of the first manifestations of an art in which the propositions of the perspective cube and the orthogonal and closed tectonic space of the Quattrocento (fifteenth century) seem to fall apart. The Church interior, its (the Baroque style’s) greatest achievement revealed a completely new conception of space directed towards infinity: form is dissolved in favour of the magic of spell of light–the highest manifestation of the painterly. No longer was the aim one of fixed spatial proportions and self-contained spaces with their satisfying relationships between height, breadth, and depth..The space of the interior, evenly lit in the Renaissance and conceived as a structurally closed entity, seemed in the Baroque to go on indefinitely. The enclosing shell of the building hardly counted: in all directions, one’s gaze is drawn to infinity..

If perspective mathematics can be used to imply endlessness, it can also be placed more firmly on solid ground where the modern landscape qua landscape begins. It is with the Baroque period in Holland among the Dutch landscape painters that the now-common techniques of perspective can be seen most clearly in scenes that are purely descriptive of local scenes. In contrast in France the artists who practiced there, such as Claude and Poussin, used the Italian theatrical perspective as a backdrop to the drama playing out in the foreground or stage thrust into the viewer’s space. Medieval artists were largely unconcerned with the viewer or where she or he was standing. These painters did not include the worshiper who gazed upon the altarpiece because the world depicted on these panels were ethereal realms, set apart and away from the sinful supplicant. The Renaissance artists, on the other hand, included the viewer by thinking of the picture as a window through which s/he was gazing. The architect Leon Battista Alberti wrote in his treatise On Painting (1435) that explained perspective as “..on the surface on which I am going to paint, I draw a rectangle of whatever size I want, which I regard as an open window through which the subject to be painted is to be seen.” The focal point or the painting was thought of as an arrow aimed towards the stationary eye of the one who was at the “window.” The book, The Psychology of Perspective and Renaissance Art by Michael Kubovy notes that “Perspective is easiest to understand once are familiar with the camera obscura (‘dark chamber’ in Latin)..Although the issue is shrouded in uncertainty, there is some evidence that the device was invented by Alberti. It is no more than a box, or a room, with a relatively small hole in it, called a pinhole. If the box is to serve its purpose as a camera obscura, light should not enter it except through the pinhole. The side of the box opposite the pinhole is called the picture plane.” 

Music I, Ellicottville, New York (1974)

The hole of Brunelleschi, the focal point or arrow aimed in Alberti’s window also became the aperture of the camera obscura, combining the techniques of perspective and the box with an actual physical object that, hundreds of years later could be transported as a handheld camera. It is the Renaissance “dark room” that John Pfahl (1939-) carries into the field, seeking landscapes that he “alters” just as artificially as his Renaissance predecessors. Interested in mapmaking, the photographer became famous for his series Altered Landscapes (1974-78) in which he intervened with nature, measuring and marking the space on the flat surface of the glass viewfinder of his small 4″ x 5″ camera. His process for these forty images–dye transfer prints–was both simple and complex: first, he aimed his camera at the desired point in space, creating a window or a frame. Second, as if to emphasize the fact that the end product–the photograph–would be flat, Pfahl drew lines, like those of a perspective diagram, which measured the depth of field in the three-dimensional site in front of the camera.

Triangle Bermuda (1975)

It is no coincidence that Pfahl is a former mathematician, who said, “The grid is a very important symbol for the rational side of the brain. I`m imposing a grid over the landscape as a way of reducing it to discrete parts that can be studied in isolation.” Having made these investigatory records on the viewfinder, the photographer placed and attached these two-dimensional measurements into the landscape itself with string or tape–anything that could be seen through the viewfinder. Third, these physical elements were adhered to the natural objects in the frame of the camera’s “window” and adjusted until the tapes or strings, etc. lined up with the drawn marks on the viewfinder. Then in a fourth and final act, Pfhal photographed the landscape, complete with the additions. The result of his mathematical intrusions into the site makes the three-dimensional space “look like” a two-dimensional entity marked in such a way to make the illusion of three dimensions. There is wit along with a clever ingenuity in Pfahl’s practice, evidence of a nimble mind which is capable of somersaulting between dimensions, bouncing back and forth between two and three and back to two dimensions.

The illusion of illusion works only if one is standing, like the Renaissance subject, at one point, at one time, looking keenly as if an arrow was aimed at the eye which was positioned at the center of the window. Once the process is completed, the photographer removes all traces of his procedure from nature, erasing his presence and the landscapes are  no longer “altered.” Indeed, as someone interested in mapmaking, Pfahl would have known of surveying techniques which employ strings and cords, usually bright orange, to measure the space. But literalizing a Renaissance perspective diagram goes even further back to gardening. In Reframing Photography: Theory and PracticeRebekah Modrak and Bill Anthes pointed out that in 1712 a book La Théorie et la practique du jardinage by Dezallier d’Agenvillle advised beginning with a drawing on paper which was then transferred to the plot of land itself with strings attached to stakes. Although there are those who place this photographer as a “landscape photographer,” like Ansel Adams, Phafl’s photographic practice has been a long meditation on the tradition of painting. These early color photographs–and this artist is among those who were developers of color photography–nodded to Renaissance perspective and traced, as if with a string, the camera back to the “lentil-sized” hole Brunelleschi drilled in his small square panel and to Alberti’s window, framing the artificially-structured world. Like his predecessors, Phafl plays with space and with this “play” the photographer entered the ranks of early postmodern artists commenting upon history and revisiting the past.

Blue Right Angle, Buffalo, New York (1975)



If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

Get in Touch!

4 + 10 =