Albrecht Dürer was a Photographer

(This is part of series looking back at posts I wrote a decade ago. First published on November 4, 2011.) 

If Albrecht Dürer were alive today he would be a photographer. I’m sure of it. I’ve been a fan of Durer’s work for many years and have always felt he was a kindred spirit, shaking off the pomposity of the Church, reveling in his status as an artist, as a thinking person.

So I was thrilled to discover a work by Dürer that I was unfamiliar with. It came today in Harvard Magazine. (Graduates of that esteemed institution of learning get a free subscription to the journal, unbidden, apparently for life.* Some students, I have heard it said, misspend their time in Cambridge and view the monthly arrival of their copy as a sort of consolation prize.)

There it is on page forty-two, in full-page splendor. It is a woodcut, a map of the heavens showing the constellations and many small numerical notations, apparently indicating the locations of stars. It is the first printed star map.

Along with it are pictures of etchings from around 1600 showing the goings on of a print workshop, a portable, cylindrical sundial for travelers, Dürer’s famous Rhinoceros, where he boasted it was drawn from life (that is, drawn based upon actual observations rather than imagination), and a startling engraving of what appears to be a sperm whale washed ashore in the Netherlands–I was surprised later on to learn that sperm whales still exist in the Mediterranean.

All of this is part of a new exhibit at the Sackler Museum (not the Sackler that is part of the Smithsonian–the Sackler that is part of Harvard University). Entitled Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge in early Modern Europe, the show seeks to show the connections between science and art–an attention to anatomical detail, illustrations of scientific instruments and their uses, a pride in the depiction of and use of cutting edge technology such as the printing press. Science and art were stumbling ahead, together.

If gives one a jolt to think of how much has been lost, how far art has drifted. Today, five hundred years after Dürer cut his star map, the pecking order is oh so different. A physicist thinks he’s the best. A chemist eyes the physicist with envy. An economist dreams of being a hard scientist. A sociologist pretends to use the methods of economics, hoping for respect. And an artist apes the movements of the sociologist or, worse, the political scientist. Five hundred years is a long, long time.

What also struck me, looking at the pages of the article and at its excellent illustrations, was that I was, in spirit, looking at the beginnings of photography. For it was here that artists began to take seriously the idea of scientifically accurate depictions of nature. It was here that the drive toward realism took deep root as artists strove to increase their ability to offer a depiction of the world that mirrored that world. Two and a half centuries later photography offered a chance to make a great technological leap toward achieving that aim.

See for yourself. The article and all of the illustrations (plus many more) are online at Harvard Magazine’s web site.**

(P.S. I ordered the show’s catalog, Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe (Harvard Art Museum)
–said to be of exceptional quality even though it is in softcover only. Through the magic of Amazon, it will be here in less than twenty-four hours. I’ll report back when I have a look at it.)

*This is one of the mechanisms through which the hidden powers-that-be, with whom your humble narrator is complicit, organize themselves and secretly rule the world. Just thought you’d like to know.

**Sorry–you don’t get the secret password to the Illuminati’s Twitter feed in the online version.

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This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Randy Moe

    I was once promised admission to Harvard first year of HS, I rejected that path. No regrets.

    1. When I was there the faculty had two general theories about the student body. One theory was that Harvard took in these lumps of unformed clay and worked its magic, transforming them into amazing new people, the top achievers. The other theory was that Harvard was just a magnet that attracted some of the most ambitious, driven students and that these same students would have done just fine had they gone somewhere else. The faculty was split about 50/50 on these two possibilities.

  2. Philip

    I don’t know that it is right to say that this is where seriousness in accurate depiction began. There are astonishing ancient Egyptian portraits, made contemporaneously with the familiar icnoic/stylized ones, if memory serves, indicating that not everyone accepted the limitations of iconography even then.

    1. I’ve seen some of those portraits–I have photographs of them but can’t find them now. I was quite amazed when I saw one for the first time–so very different than what you’d expect in the Egyptian art wing of the museum!