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Members' Research Report Archive

The Origins of Photography and the Future of the Image

Hagi Kenaan, Tel Aviv University
William C. Seitz Senior Fellow, 2016–2017

William Henry Fox Talbot, Haystack, 18441844

William Henry Fox Talbot, Haystack, 1844, salted paper print, Paul Mellon Fund, 2007.29.41

In the heated debates over the significance and value of photography that swirled around the medium in the first few decades after it was introduced, it was already clear to both enthusiasts and detractors that the new image-making process was poised to radically alter human vision. Today, some 180 years after its inception, photography has established itself as the regulating standard for seeing and picturing, remembering and imagining—and, even more fundamentally, mediating relations between—our world, ourselves, and others. It is now so intimately intertwined within our ordinary routines that we cannot begin to imagine our everyday lives without it: photography is an intrinsic condition of the human. But its rootedness in human life is so deep that photography also hides from us, challenging us to find an outside vantage point for assessing how it pervasively, albeit transparently, structures human experience.

During my residency at CASVA, I have been completing an interdisciplinary book, at the interface of philosophy, art history, and photographic theory, tentatively titled “Photography and the Disappearance of the Shadow.” The book’s basic methodological assumption is that the aforementioned vantage point on the present condition of the photographic can be achieved by a rethinking of the threshold that connected and separated a world that was prephotographic and one that ultimately became photographic in essence. As a way to understand this dramatic historical transformation, the book’s first part frames the inception of photography within a dialectic between two crucial dimensions in the life of images: the visible and the visual. This distinction allows me to articulate photography’s ontological specificity in terms of the uniqueness of its visualization of the visible as compared with processes of visualization in a prephotographic world.

The book’s second part deals with the photographic and the painterly as embodying two forms of vision that operate as intersecting vectors within the visual. I discuss the complicated, albeit dynamic, relationship of the young art of photography to the more traditional image paradigm that preceded it, by focusing on the work of William Henry Fox Talbot (1800–1877), the British inventor, and that of the art photographer Oscar Gustave Rejlander (1813–1875). I show that whereas Talbot’s ambivalent relation to drawing is characteristic also of his “competitor” on the other side of the Channel, Louis Daguerre (1787–1851)—the inventor of the daguerreotype—the first decades following the invention of the medium brought with them a sublimation of the conceptual tension on which photography rests: with photography’s aspiration to be recognized as an art, its deep affinities with the traditional visual arts were recurrently emphasized (for example, in Rejlander’s work). In this context, Pliny the Elder’s tale of the Corinthian Maid tracing the outline of the shadow of her departing lover becomes a case in point to which I dedicate a chapter. For photography’s inventors and first practitioners, Pliny’s homespun tale, with its emphasis on the shadow as a “natural copy,” provided another conceptual/figurative scheme by which photography could be rooted in the primordial idea of drawing.

Photography’s origin in the primal setting from which the tradition of visual representation itself emerges has become a recurring theme also in late twentieth-century photographic theory, with its emphasis on the index, the trace, and the triangular structure that supposedly grounds the image: presence, absence, and representation. The book’s third part is dedicated to twentieth-century theoretical appropriations of Pliny’s myth, as in the work of Roland Barthes (1915–1980), with emphasis on their influence on contemporary photographic practice: the work of Nan Goldin (b. 1953), Sophie Calle (b. 1953), and Jeff Wall (b. 1946), among others. In this context, I offer a new critical evaluation of Barthes’s tremendous influence on photographic theory. Unlike contemporary critiques of Barthes that typically emphasize his shortcomings in accounting for digital photography, I read Barthes as anachronistic to begin with, precisely because he unwittingly internalizes the traditional Plinian model, which, as I show, could never have accounted for the photographic. The book’s aims are thus to explore the senses in which the emergence of photography radically and irreversibly transformed the relationship between human vision and the image and to trace photography’s continual reaction to that transformation. It is a reaction through which the idea of photography came into its own, materialized, as I argue, as a self-aware pictorial medium and one that is, at present, suffering a crisis it cannot overcome.

Talbot, William Henry Fox
British, 1800 - 1877
William Henry Fox Talbot