The construction of a durable origin story for photography was, as early as the 1860s, the almost exclusive province of a tight network of “experts.” To understand the still very palpable urge to codify this prehistory, we must investigate how this expertise and its associations of social class were employed in the nineteenth century to police the boundaries and the integrity of a solidifying canonical account. Most suggestive are the handful of efforts during this period to re-write that prehistory by introducing evidence of photographic relics supposedly of an earlier date, and to account for the defensive reactions that these proposals catalyzed.
This paper will explore what is perhaps the most revealing of these largely forgotten episodes, which unfolded in the early 1860s when Edward Price, a servant of the industrialist Boulton family, produced a group of silver plates and paper pictures which seemed eerily to anticipate the innovations on both sides of the channel. Asserting that the objects in question had been locked up in a study since the 1790s, Price presented to the Photographic Society a tantalizing set of specimens that threatened to destabilize an increasingly codified origin story. The strongest opposition to Price’s theory came, somewhat surprisingly, from the heir to the Boulton fortune, who published an illustrated pamphlet denouncing Price, largely in terms of his social class. Over the following two years, a series of presentations, examinations, testimonies, and accusations held the attention of the photographic press. This study locates that contest within the emerging discourses of expertise and professionalism, and considers their prescriptive impact upon the creation of an origin story bequeathed to the twenty-first century largely intact.
In his “Small History of Photography” (1931) Walter Benjamin describes the first decade of photography’s history as a time of “magic” and “innocence.” Importantly, for Benjamin these early years of photography also predate its industrialization. In the work of David Octavius Hill Benjamin finds shy subjects surrounded by an “atmospheric medium” -- the very “aura” whose demise in photography he would later celebrate in his more famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936). In this early moment, before the industrialization and commercialization of photography, Benjamin recognizes some of photography’s most striking (if not “revolutionary”) characteristics – the “optical unconscious,” the “tiny spark of contingency,” the “Here and Now.”
Returning to the early history of photography, this paper seeks to discover what Benjamin saw in the work of its first practitioners. It looks to the photography of Hill, but also looks back from Hill in order to try to understand some of Benjamin’s most provocative ideas about the startling expansiveness of photography’s spatial and temporal innovations. It returns to early photography and to a moment in Benjamin’s thoughts on photography before “businessmen invaded professional photography” and “a sharp decline in taste” set in, a moment before Atget and August Sander were needed to “emancipate” their subjects from an increasingly suspect aura. The paper asks one to pause in the early moments of photography, and in a fleeting moment in Benjamin’s thoughts on photography, in order to find “a hiding place” in the “waking dreams” of photography’s history.
Although Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre is remembered for his invention of the daguerreotype and contributions to the development of photography, the full range of his work—as a set designer, Salon painter, lithographer, and entrepreneur—remains relatively unknown. In order to approach this work and better understand its relationship to what retrospectively came to be called photography, I argue that we must shift attention away from the “history of photography” per se and instead focus on individual artistic practice, in this case by locating the daguerreotype within the material, cultural, and political context in which Daguerre worked. Such a shift not only opens our eyes to the diversity of his artistic output, it also has potential consequences for the way we look at photography and its early history. In this talk, I will consider two such consequences. On a practical level, a serious consideration of Daguerre’s work raises some difficult questions about the attribution, dating, and characterization of daguerreotypes. In terms of methodology, an examination of the daguerreotype in relation to the broader visual culture of the nineteenth century disturbs some commonly accepted ideas about the realistic nature of Daguerre’s art and presents an alternative framework for discussing the still fraught relationship between art and photography. In particular, I suggest that the daguerreotype should be situated within a pictorial economy that sought to represent nature as spectacular illusion, not just photographically, but through the use of a variety of supports to create luminous effects and stable images in various media.
This paper expands the discursive field in which multiple physical objects, all of which we now call “photographs,” came into being. One of the most significant aspects of the earliest photographic images was the gap between what the silvered plate or salted paper captured during lengths of exposure that shortened from eight hours (with Niépce in 1826) to several seconds by 1841 and what the eye perceived as a continuous world in various degrees of motion. The often-noted “frozen” qualities of particularly the daguerrean image and the ways that photographs reconfigured the appearance of the passage of time comprised part of the “strangeness” of the new medium that distinguished it conceptually and formally from drawings and paintings. Rather than fitting into a tradition of camera obscura vision (which was historically associated with the surprise of seeing the world in motion), the still photograph, I will argue, entered into a dialogue with physiological and philosophical debates about the differences between the living and the dead. The phenomena resulting from long exposures (such as blurs, ghost images, glazed bodies of water, fuzzy shadows, grimaced features) challenged the syntax that artists had developed to depict the world as well as current conceptions of visual constancy and the material traces of time.
In 2001 a NASA Explorer mission launched the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) to study the evolution of the universe as a whole. This mission produced a WMAP satellite microwave image of the universe as it appeared very soon (a mere few hundred thousand years or so!) after the Big Bang. It is the oldest “light” that we can ever “see.” Is our record of that light also our first photograph? In what ways has this image not only altered our understanding of the origins of the universe but also changed how we see the origins of the photographic medium?
The technological achievement of the WMAP image is astounding. We are looking at the tiniest seeds of structure imaginable; far beyond visible light into the microwave regime. Moreover, these seeds have energy (analogous to “color”) differences from their neighbors of mere thousandths of a degree in temperature. Encoded in this light is the subsequent evolution of the universe, the progenitors of all the galaxies, stars, and planets that exist today. Only through the integrative nature of photography is this image possible; it is one of the ultimate accumulations of photons with an “exposure time” of years, starting in 2001 and lasting until 2010. We usually understand photography as recording the present, but in the case of the WMAP image, photography looks back in time and sees things the way things were, 13.7 billion years ago. Just as Daguerre’s image of the Boulevard du Temple is a historical slice of Paris from 1838, so is the WMAP image an historical slice of the universe dating back almost to the Big Bang itself. We have to rely upon the past to witness Paris as Daguerre saw it, but here we rely upon the present to witness the remote history of the universe.
William Henry Fox Talbot is remembered primarily as a photographic pioneer and influential early voice on photographic aesthetics. Talbot's interest as a Victorian gentleman of science, however, ranged widely across the natural sciences, classical scholarship and Assyriology. This paper will give a broader picture of Talbot as a creative intellectual, taking into account the mindset behind his multiple interests. The variety of media in Talbot’s recently catalogued archive at the British Library, comprising natural specimens, diaries, letters, notebooks and photographs, now enables us to make sense of the corresponding versatility of Talbot’s scholarly methods.
Exploring the complementary character of note-taking and photography as two different yet comparable methods of recording is an example of this approach. This talk will thus compare Talbot’s notebooks and photography as complementary note-taking practices and place the origins of Talbot's experiments in the context of the search for new recording devices and tools for reproduction, such as printing technologies, in order to select, organize, store, memorize and circulate information. The paper argues that Talbot’s photography mirrors his note-taking practices, that is, his methods of knowledge production.
The paper then turns to Talbot's role as an antiquarian, especially his interest in script and decipherment, in connection to his photographic achievements. Though for Talbot photography was a means of reproduction and copying, in his book The Pencil of Nature he initially introduced photography as an interpretative and thus epistemological tool, determined by a gaze directed by a specific guiding interest. Talbot’s gaze was that of an antiquarian who knew about the objects he photographed. This paper will critically explore how we could rethink the origins of photography in Britain in light of these hitherto unexplored archival sources.
Between 1839 and 1840 William Henry Fox Talbot sent 36 photogenic drawings and correspondence related to his photographic process to the Bolognese botanist Antonio Bertoloni (1775-1869). These are preserved in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Album di disegni fotogenici, known as The Bertoloni Album. While the album has been examined as an artifact of photography’s early development, enabling the assessment of Talbot’s motivations and achievements, this interpretation has obscured the significance that the album held for its Italian audience. In this respect, The Bertoloni Album is representative of Italy’s position within histories of photography’s origins, namely one of invisibility. This paper re-evaluates The Bertoloni Album, interpreting it as a palimpsest from which the complex origins of photography within Italy and their historiographic legacy might be traced. The album demonstrates the central role the scientific community held in photography’s dissemination within Italy pre-Unification, aligning the new technology with those scientists’ aspirations for economic and social progress.
The 1839 announcement of photography coincided with the First Reunion of Italian Scientists, bringing together representatives from throughout the peninsula to discuss the practical potential of scientific discoveries. It is within this context that Bertoloni compiled Talbot’s photogenic drawings, adding to them some of the first Italian photographs in existence: three contact prints by an Italian chemist. Now nearly invisible, these images evoke the fragile state of Italian photography’s origins, and represent a difference within traditional narratives of photography’s history, a point of contact that has faded to the margins.
This paper will elaborate on the question of why we examine the origins and early reception of photography, a medium that has been notoriously difficult to pin down. In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes aptly described the frustration photography evokes in our desire for familiarity (to know photography, in and of itself), noting the photograph to be an “absolute particular” (always-already particular to the instant photographed) and an invisibility (as windowpane to landscape, the photograph rendered invisible by the transparency of the medium itself). In short, “it is not it that we see.” How, then, may we enact a genealogical study of that which is invisible, unfixed? It is in our attempts to understand photography’s origins, I maintain, that the very unfixed nature of the medium may be fixed, and knowledge of photographic culture gained.
To demonstrate this point, I offer a model for attending to the particularities of photography’s invention, from the earliest iterations of the technology; to the earliest reactions, wondrous and fearful; and the earliest conventions of use, however tentatively asserted. Drawing on my research of studio advertisements, photographic manuals, and British and American periodical literature of the early 1840s, I will discuss the first discernable reactions to photographic portraiture and the implications of these reactions in shaping cultural understanding of the new medium. This “originary” approach to photography will both draw and reflect upon the methodologies and definitions of media archaeology, which, in its archival “excavation,” recognizes the complexities of articulating a medium’s history.
This paper will focus on photography’s origins and initial reception through the lens of translation. What would it mean to think of the relationship between painting, lithography, and early photography as translation instead of remediation?
Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator” and Bolter and Grusin’s work on remediation will help to frame how I answer this question and extend it to photography’s cultural reception by attending to the language of early photography—from the names proposed for the process, to the earliest written descriptions of its steps and outcomes, to the elaborate and recurrent metaphors that were deployed to help the public understand the unknown new medium through the known. By recognizing the essential role that language and the written record play in media shift and emphasizing the role of translation (linguistic and otherwise) in ideation and reception, I aim to trouble this idea of origin—and even plural origins—and encourage us to think even more about the significance of recurrence and continuity in early photography. Moving in this direction—certainly not a new one, but one worth returning to in the interest of recovering some of the “original” scholarship on photography and recognizing its resemblances to our own—should help point the way forward as we think about where photography is going as well.