The Birth of Photography
Photography has a long and checkered history. In this chapter I trace this history from its birth, beginning with the word itself, and ending with its association with death. In the middle I consider the impact of photography on perceptions of space and time and on bodily and mental aptitudes and capacities. Invoked crucially here is the work of Walter Benjamin on the history of photography and his concept/ metaphors of aura and trace. The invention of photography entailed the further diminution of the power of the hand in pictorial reproduction in favour of the eye, the tracing of the shadow of an object on a two-dimensional surface and the loss of aura, the unique appearance of an object in time and space, brought about in and by technological reproducibility.
Photography, as Raymond Williams (1974: 10) points out, means literally 'light-writing'. Although the inventors of the technology did not use the word 'photography', they conceived the idea in cognate terms. In 1826 Nicéphore Niépce coined 'the generic word ... héliographie or sun-writing/drawing' (Batchen 1997: 63; see also Virilio 1994b: 19). If this, or cognate terms, did not occur to his contemporaries, then at least the idea came to them, or so they said later. In 1870 Hercules Florence claimed that 'in 1832 ... the idea of printing with sunlight came to me' (cited in Batchen 1997: 44). The idea is not to have humans (or a human hand) and technology writing (via a pen or other instrument or tool) but light itself so that the process of writing would be free of human interference, and the object being written would record itself as it were with verisimilitude. Before the automatic writing of the surrealists in the twentieth century, nineteenth-century photography aimed to make light-writing the hand or the instrument that inscribed automatically the lineaments of an object.
The invention of photography had profound effects not only on what Virilio (1989) calls the 'logistics of perception' but also on human physiology. 'For the first time in the process of pictorial reproduction', Walter Benjamin (1973b: 221; 2002: 102; 2003: 253) argues, 'photography freed the hand of the most important artistic functions which henceforth devolved only upon the eye looking into the lens'. With photography, the eye became the dominant organ of pictorial production (rather than re production as that came later with lithography) over the hand. Moreover, the hand was reduced to a device for holding and aiming the camera, focusing the lens, adjusting shutter and film speeds, manipulating levers and dials, and ultimately clicking buttons. The hand became the servant of the eye and an appendage to the machine, and the human body became a kind of prosthetic vehicle for the camera that enabled it to get around and take photographs.
Photography gave the human eye greater power, but at the cost of the diminution of the power of the hand. Photography for Benjamin (1973b: 226; 2002: 105; 2003: 256) was 'the first truly revolutionary means of reproduction', not only pictorially but also physiologically with the eye overthrowing and wresting power from the hand in pictorial reproduction and, as Geoffrey Batchen (2008: 9) puts it, 'removing the mediation of the human hand'. For Roland Barthes (1972: 12; see also Giblett 1985: 123) 'God and the emperor had the power of the hand, man has the gaze'. 'Man', that creature of secular humanism, has not only wrested power from God and the emperor, but also shifted the instrument of power from the hand to the eye. Both hand and eye (rather than other areas of the body or other senses) are instruments of sublimation. Sublimation for Norman O. Brown (1959: 291) is 'a displacement upward [from the anal and genital zones] into other organs (above all the hand and eye)'. 'Man' may shift power from hand to eye but 'he' is still operating in a sublimated realm that 'he' shares with, or more precisely, had usurped from, God.
The aim of photography was to print or paint with sunlight, but to paint or write what? This question had been answered before the word had been coined or the idea conceived. The object, or 'what', of photography had been identified decades before the process, or 'how', was formulated, and before the word, or any of its cognates, was coined. In 1799 Anthony Carlisle (cited in Batchen 1997: 30 and 112) described the experiments of Thomas Wedgwood to 'obtain and fix the shadow of objects by exposing the figures painted on glass, to fall upon a flat surface'. Photography reduces heights and depths to surfaces, converts the three dimensions of an object in space into virtually two. Photography not only records an object in a place in space but also captures and freezes that object in a moment of time. The conjunction of an appearance of an object in time and space constitutes an event. Photography records an event. I define event simply as a moment in the movement of bodies of matter in time and space (see Flew 1983: 115). These bodies are either inanimate like light or animate like humans.
Even if the object is still, light moves through wave and particle motion to produce shadows. Wedgwood concluded that 'the new method of depicting by a camera promises to be valuable for obtaining exact representations of fixed and still objects' (cited in Batchen 1997: 112). Photography fixed a static object and a moment in time on a flat surface. Later photography, such as that of Marey and Muybridge, fixed the sequential movements of a dynamic object in moments of time on a flat surface. With Marey, Virilio (1991: 18) argues, 'light is no longer the sun's "lighting up the stable masses of assembled volumes whose shadows are alone in movement"' but the means of tracking the dynamic movement of masses in space and time. The emphasis, though, in early photography fell not so much on fixing the object itself, but on fixing the shadow of an object. In 1830 William Henry Fox Talbot (cited in Batchen 1997: 91; see also Batchen 2008: 9) referred to photography as 'the art of fixing a shadow'. The object was incidental, or coincidental. It was just required to produce a shadow. The shadow was all.
The art, and act, of fixing a shadow had a profound impact on perceptions of space and time. Photography was, for Talbot, 'a "space of a single minute" in which space becomes time, and time space' (cited in Batchen 1997: 91). The appearance of an object in space becomes fixed in a moment of time, and a moment of time is fixed in the configuration and manifestation of an object in space. Time and space are collapsed together in the photographic event. 'The noblest function of photography', one booster claimed in 1864, was 'to remove from the paths of science ... the impediments of space and of time' (cited by Ryan 1997: 21). With photography, seeing the world becomes, according to Virilio (1994b: 21), 'not only a matter of spatial distance but also of the time-distance to be eliminated'. For their contemporaries, railways annihilated space and telegraphy annihilated time whereas photography for its contemporaries went one step further and produced in its early days, as Benjamin puts it, 'a strange weave of space and time', that he called aura (see also Caygill 1998: 93–4 and 102–103; and Wolin 1982: 187–190 and 237–238).
Considering photography as simply 'light-writing' is good etymology but problematic aetiology for it implies the question of what sort of writing? For Virilio (1989: 81) 'photography, according to its inventor Nicéphore Niépce, was simply a method of engraving with light, where bodies inscribed their traces by virtue of their own luminosity'. Yet in inscribing its traces the engraved body was engaging in a double process split between writing as inscription and writing as trace (see Giblett 1996: chapter 3; 2008b: chapter 1). The body engraved in and by the photograph always leaves its traces, just as living, or more precisely habitation, for Benjamin is 'a leaving of traces' (Adorno and Benjamin 1999: 104; see also Benjamin 1973a: 169). Photography for Benjamin (1973a: 48; 2003: 27) 'made it possible for the first time to preserve permanent and unmistakable traces of a human being', but s/he is not necessarily inscribed in and by the process. Photography is light-writing, but the writing of photography is split between writing as inscription and writing as trace. Benjamin (1999b: 512; see also 1979: 244) argues that 'the first people to be reproduced entered the visual space of photography with their innocence intact – or rather, without inscription'. In other words, they entered it, and their image was reproduced, or traced, with their aura and their innocence intact.
Photography as trace and without inscription is auratic. Benjamin (1999b: 518; see also 1973b: 222 and 224; 2002: 103–105, especially 123n5; 2003: 253–256) defines aura as 'a strange weave of space and time: the unique appearance or semblance of distance, no matter how close it may be'. To what does 'it' refer? Grammatically it refers to 'distance', but how can distance be close, or faraway, for that matter? That is aura, the closeness or proximity of distance when distance is overcome, but still maintained. Aura is the experience of an object looming up and receding at the same time. In collapsing time and space together, early photography produced an auratic 'presence in time and space' (Benjamin 1973b: 222).
Aura is akin in this respect to Freud's concept of the uncanny, a strange, spectral presence/absence. Just as the uncanny is the return to the repressed content or portion of the unconscious (see Giblett 1996: chapter 2), so the auratic is the return to the repressed of what Benjamin (1979: 243; 1999b: 512; 2002: 117; 2003: 266) called 'the optical unconscious'. And just as psychoanalysis brought the former to light, photography for Benjamin brings the latter to light – literally:
For it is another nature that speaks to the camera than to the eye: other in the sense that a space informed by human consciousness gives way to a space informed by the unconscious. ... It is through photography that we first discover the existence of this optical unconscious, just as we discover the instinctual unconscious through psychoanalysis. (1979: 243; 1999b: 510–511)
Just as the uncanny is by definition invisible but is made sensible, especially through the sense of smell (see Giblett 1996: chapter 2; 2011: chapter 3), so the auratic is the invisible made visible.
Aura is also similar to Freud's concept of symptom in which the surface of the body of the patient (including their behaviour and clothing) bears and manifests the traces of their psychopathology (see Giblett 1996: chapter 4). Aura operates in the circuit of the uncanny and symptomatic: simultaneously returning to the repressed to return the repressed to the surface of the body. Aura is the expression in old photographs of a profound and unique moment in time and a place in space; aura is more than a mere event, but the imbuing of an event with ritual significance that transcends time and space. It is the trace of the performance of a body in eternity. Commenting on a c.1850 photograph of Schelling, Benjamin (1999b: 514) argues that 'the creases in people's clothes have an air of permanence'. Even the evanescent creases in their faces have a similar air of permanence. Aura is the play of permanence and evanescence. Benjamin (1973b: 228; 2002: 108; 2003: 258) suggests that 'for the last time the aura emanates from the early photographs in the fleeting expression of a human face'. The light-writing of photography kills the object in photographing it, but the photograph always bears the traces of the living body of the subject, whether it be human, animal, vegetable or mineral, though it will not necessarily convey its aura.
Trace and aura are similar but Benjamin (1994: 586; 2003: 106; Adorno and Benjamin 1999: 290) asserts that 'the concept of the trace is defined and determined philosophically in opposition to the concept of aura'. Trace is a chemical residue indicating current absence and past presence, whereas aura is a physical quality symbolising present presence. Benjamin (1999a: 447) differentiates them in the following way:
[T]he trace is appearance of nearness, however far removed the thing that left it behind may be. The aura is appearance of a distance, however close the thing that calls it forth. In the trace, we gain possession of the thing; in the aura it takes possession of us.
In the early photographs, the thing photographed takes possession of us – we do not take possession of it. We bask in its aura. The thing is separate and distanced from us. The aura for Benjamin (1999a: 314) is 'the aura of distance opened up with the look that awakens in an object perceived'.
Aura for Benjamin (1973a: 147–148; 1973b: 189–190; 2003: 338) is the looking back of the object of the camera (and its 'gaze' and the gaze of the photographer) at the viewer of the photograph:
What was inevitably felt to be inhuman, one might even say deadly, in daguerreotypy was the (prolonged) looking into the camera, since the camera records our likeness without returning our gaze. But looking at someone carries the implicit expectation that our look will be returned by the object of our gaze. Where this expectation is met ... there is an experience of the aura to the fullest extent. ... Experience of the aura thus rests on the transposition of a response common in human relationships to the relationship between the inanimate or natural objects and man [sic]. To perceive the aura of an object we look at means to invest it with the ability to look at us in return.
The living body's transposition of aura to the dead matter of the camera was possible in the age of long exposure times but declined with the advent of the snapshot.
Aura may wane as objects become nearer but trace will never disappear as objects become further away. Things may decreasingly take possession of us, but we will continue to take possession of them, and imbue them with significance. The decline of aura is concomitant with the incline of commodity fetishism. With aura, things take possession of us whereas with what Benjamin called 'the phony spell of the commodity' we take possession of things. In this process things will leave their traces (on us and us on them for 'living means leaving traces' (Benjamin 1973a: 169; see also Adorno and Benjamin 1999: 104)) and decreasingly wrap us in their aura. In the later photographs, we take possession of the thing itself – it does not take possession of us. It leaves it traces but we do not bask in its aura. Aura is an energy or force field that all objects possess and that is acknowledged and reproduced in ritual.
Benjamin (1999b: 327–328) distinguishes three aspects of genuine aura: 'First, genuine aura appears in all things, not just in certain kinds of things'. Aura is the sacral quality with which all objects (including everyday objects and subjects) are imbued in traditional and premodern cultures. A vestige of that quality lives on in modern cultures in the fetishism or phony spell of commodities. 'Second, the aura undergoes changes.' Aura is not fixed or eternal, it can wax and wane. The auratic significance with which objects are imbued ebbs and flows without ever becoming totally bereft of it. 'Third, the characteristic feature of genuine aura is ornament, an ornamental halo, in which the object or being is enclosed as in a case.' The auratic object is framed or contained. It is marked off decoratively and spatially from other objects with which it shares sacrality on a continuum.
The fundamental distinction between the auratic and the inscriptive does not correlate to that between nature and culture, nor orality and literacy, but between the cultures of first, or worked, nature and of second, or worked over, nature (see Giblett, 2011: chapter 1). Aura is pervasive in the former, vestigial in the latter. For Benjamin (1999a: 362) 'the decline of the aura and the waning of the dream of a better nature ... are one and the same'. Both go hand in hand with the commodification of nature, the photograph and photography. Nature is drained of sacral significance, and imbued with capitalist value, just as the aura of human subjects and other objects declines, and just as the photography of events rises. For Heidegger, the fundamental event of the modern age is the conquest of the world as picture. Photography contributes not only to that conquest but also to the fundamental event of the hypermodern age: the conquest of the world as commodity.