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Photography Unlimited

I

Reality has always been interpreted through the reports given by images; and philosophers since Plato have tried to loosen our dependence on images by evoking a standard of an image-free way of apprehending the real. But when, in the mid-nineteenth century, the standard seemed finally attainable, the retreat of the old religious and political illusions before the advance of humanistic and scientific thinking did not—as anticipated—create mass defections to the real. On the contrary, in the new age of unbelief the allegiance to images was strengthened. The credence that could no longer be given to realities understood in the form of images was now being given to realities understood to be images, illusions.

In the preface to the second edition (1844) of The Essence of Christianity, Feuerbach observes that “our era” “prefers the image to the thing, the copy to the original, the representation to the reality, appearance to being”—while being aware of these preferences. And his premonitory complaint has been transformed in the twentieth century into a widely agreed on diagnosis: that a society becomes “modern” when one of its chief activities is producing and consuming images, when images that have extraordinary powers to determine our demands upon reality, and are themselves coveted substitutes for firsthand experience, become indispensable to the health of the economy, the stability of the polity, and the pursuit of private happiness.

Feuerbach’s words—he is writing a few years after the invention of the camera—seem, more specifically, a presentiment of the impact of photography. For the images that have virtually unlimited authority in a modern society are mainly photographic images; and the scope of that authority stems from the properties peculiar to images taken by cameras.

Such images are indeed able to usurp reality because a photograph is not only an image (as a painting is an image), an interpretation of the real; it is also a trace, something directly stenciled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask. While a painting, even one that meets photographic standards of resemblance, never does more than state an interpretation, a photograph never does less than register an emanation’ (light waves reflected by objects)—a material vestige of its subject in a way that no painting can be.

Between the fantasy alternatives that Holbein the Younger had lived long enough to have painted Shakespeare or that a prototype of the camera had been invented early enough to have photographed him, most Bardolators would choose the photograph. This is not just because it would presumably show what Shakespeare really looked like, for even if the hypothetical photograph were faded, barely legible, a brownish shadow, we would probably still prefer it to another glorious Holbein. Having a photograph of Shakespeare would be like having a nail from the True Cross.

Most contemporary expressions of concern that an image-world is replacing the real one continue to echo, as Feuerbach did, the Platonic depreciation of the image: true in so far as it resembles something real, sham because it is no more than a resemblance. But this venerable naïve realism is somewhat beside the point in the era of photographic images, for its blunt contrast between the image (“copy”) and the thing depicted (the “original”)—which Plato repeatedly illustrates with the example of a painting—does not fit a photograph in so simple a way. Neither does the contrast help in understanding image-making at its origins, when it was a practical, magical activity, a means of appropriating or gaining power over something. The further back we go in history, as E.H. Gombrich has observed, the less sharp is the distinction between images and real things; in primitive societies, the thing and its image were simply two different, that is, physically distinct, manifestations of the same energy or spirit. Hence, the supposed efficacy of images in propitiating and gaining control over powerful presences. Those powers, those presences were present in them.

For defenders of the real from Plato to Feuerbach to equate image with mere “appearance”—that is, to presume that the image is absolutely distinct from the object depicted—is part of the process of desacralization that separates us irrevocably from the world of “sacred” times and places in which an image was taken to participate in the reality of the object depicted. What defines the originality of photography is that, at the very moment in the long, increasingly secular history of painting when secularism was entirely triumphant, it revives—in wholly secular terms—something like the primitive status of images. Our irrepressible feeling that the photographic process is something magical has a genuine basis. No one takes an easel painting to be in any sense co-substantial with its subject; it only represents or refers. But a photograph is not only “like” its subject, an homage to the subject. It is part of, an extension of that subject; and a potent means of acquiring it, of gaining control over it.

Photography is acquisition in several forms. In its simplest form, we have in a photograph surrogate possession of a cherished person or thing, a possession which gives photographs some of the character of unique objects. Through photographs, we also have a consumer’s relation to events, both to events which are part of our experience and to those which are not—a distinction between types of experience that such habit-forming consumership blurs. A third form of acquisition is that, through image-making and image-duplicating machines, we can acquire something as information (rather than experience). Indeed, the importance of photographic images as the medium through which more and more events enter our experience is, finally, only a by-product of their effectiveness in furnishing knowledge dissociated from and independent of experience.

This is the most inclusive form of photographic acquisition. Through being photographed, something becomes part of a system of information, fitted into schemes of classification and storage which range from the crudely chronological order of snapshot-sequences pasted in family albums to the dogged accumulations and meticulous filing needed for photography’s uses in weather reporting, astronomy, microbiology, geology, police work, medical training and diagnosis, military reconnaissance, and art history. Photographs do more than redefine the stuff of ordinary experience (people, things, events, whatever we see—albeit differently, often inattentively—with natural vision) and add vast amounts of material that we never see at all. Reality as such is redefined—as an item for exhibition, as a record for scrutiny, as a target for surveillance. The photographic exploration and duplication of the world fragments continuities and feeds the pieces into an interminable dossier, thereby providing possibilities of control that could not even be dreamed of under the earlier system of recording information: writing.

That photographic recording is always, potentially, a means of control was already recognized when such powers were in their infancy. In 1850, Delacroix noted in his Journal the success of some “experiments in photography” being made at Cambridge, where astronomers were photographing the sun and the moon and had managed to obtain a pinhead-size impression of the star Alpha. He added the following “curious” observation:

Since the light of the star which was daguerreotyped took twenty years to traverse the space separating it from the earth, the ray which was fixed on the plate had consequently left the celestial sphere a long time before Daguerre discovered the process by means of which we have just gained control of this light.

Leaving behind such puny notions of control as Delacroix’s, photography has made ever more literal the senses in which a photograph gains control over the thing photographed. The technology that has already minimized the extent to which the distance separating photographer from subject affects the precision and magnitude of the image; provided ways to photograph things which are unimaginably small as well as those, like stars, which are unimaginably far; rendered picture-taking independent of light itself (infra-red photography) and freed the picture-object from its confinement to two dimensions (holography); shrunk the interval between sighting the picture and holding it in one’s hands (from the first Kodak, when it took weeks before a developed roll of film was returned to the amateur photographer, to the Polaroid, which ejects the image in a few seconds); made images move (cinema) and achieved their simultaneous recording and transmission (video)—this technology has made photography an incomparable tool for deciphering behavior, predicting it, and interfering with it.

Photography has powers that no other image-system has ever enjoyed because, unlike the earlier ones, it is not dependent on an image-maker. However carefully the photographer intervenes in setting up and guiding the image-making process, the process itself remains an optical-chemical (or electronic) one, the workings of which are automatic. Its machinery will inevitably be improved to provide still more detailed and, therefore, more useful maps of the real. The mechanical genesis of these images, and the literalness of the powers they confer, amounts to a new relationship between image and reality. And if photography could also be said to restore the most primitive relationship—the partial identity of image and object—the potency of the image is now experienced in a very different way. The primitive notion of the efficacy of images presumes that images possess the qualities of real things, but our inclination is to attribute to real things the qualities of an image.

As everyone knows, primitive people fear that the camera will rob them of some part of their being. In the memoir he published in 1900, at the end of a very long life, Nadar reports that Balzac had a similar “vague dread” of being photographed. His explanation, according to Nadar, was that

every body in its natural state was made up of a series of ghostly images superimposed in layers to infinity, wrapped in infinitesimal films…. Man never having been able to create, that is to make something material from an apparition, from something impalpable, or to make from nothing, an object—each Daguerreian operation was therefore going to lay hold of, detach, and use up one of the layers of the body on which it focused.

It seems fitting for Balzac to have had this particular brand of trepidation—“Was Balzac’s fear of the Daguerreo-type real or feigned?” Nadar asks. “It was real…”—since the procedure of photography is a materializing, so to speak, of what is most original in his procedure as a novelist. Balzac’s method was to magnify tiny details, as in a photographic enlargement, to juxtapose incongruous traits or items as in a photographic layout: made expressive in this way, any one thing can be connected with everything else. For Balzac, the spirit of an entire milieu could be disclosed by a single detail, however paltry or arbitrary-seeming. The whole of a life may be summed up in a momentary appearance.1 And a change in appearances is a change in the person, for he refused to posit any “real” person ensconced behind these appearances.

Balzac’s fanciful theory, expressed to Nadar, that a body is composed of an infinite series of “ghostly images,” eerily parallels the supposedly realistic theory expressed in his novels, that a person is an aggregate of appearances, appearances which can be made to yield, by proper focusing, infinite layers of significance. To view reality as an endless set of situations which mirror each other, to extract analogies from the most dissimilar things, is to anticipate the characteristic form of perception stimulated by photographic images. Reality itself has started to be understood as a kind of writing, which has to be decoded—even as photographic images were themselves first compared to writing. (Niépce’s name for the process whereby the image appears on the plate was heliography, sunwriting; Fox Talbot called the camera “the pencil of nature.”)

  1. 1

    I am drawing on the account of Balzac’s realism in Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis. The passage that Auerbach analyzes from Le Père Goriot (1834)—Balzac is describing the dining room of the Vauquer pension at seven in the morning and the entry of Madame Vauquer—could hardly be more explicit (or proto-Proustian). “Her whole person,” Balzac writes, “explains the pension, as the pension implies her person…. The short-statured woman’s blowsy embonpoint is the product of the life here, as typhoid is the consequence of the exhalations of a hospital. Her knitted wool petticoat, which is no longer than her outer skirt (made of an old dress), and whose wadding is escaping by the gaps in the splitting material, sums up the drawing-room, the dining room, the little garden, announces the cooking and gives an inkling of the boarders. When she is there the spectacle is complete.”

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