Focussing after the fact

This morning’s Observer column.

“From today painting is dead” is an aphorism often attributed to Paul Delaroche, a 19th-century French painter, upon seeing the first daguerreotypes (though Wikipedia maintains there is no compelling evidence that he actually said it). In a way, it was a misjudgment on the same epic scale as Thomas Watson’s celebrated observation that the total world market for computers was five machines. What Delaroche was presumably getting at was that painting as a naturalistic representation of reality was terminally threatened by the arrival of the new technology of “painting with light”. If that is indeed what he meant, then he was only partly right.

What brought Delaroche to mind was the announcement of the Lytro light field camera, which goes on sale next year. Based on some discoveries made by a Stanford student, Ren Ng, the camera turns the normal process of compose-focus-shoot on its head. Instead you just point the Lytro at whatever you want to photograph, and then you can retrospectively focus in on any part of the image. As the New York Times explained: “With Lytro's camera, you can focus on any point in an image taken with a Lytro after you’ve shot the picture. When viewing a Lytro photograph on your computer, you can simply click your mouse on any point in the image and that area will come into focus. Change the focal point from the flower to the child holding the flower. Make the background blurry and the foreground clear. Do the opposite – you can change the focal point as many times as you like.”