Drawing with Light: on Photography

Camera obscura, image via Wikipedia

Camera obscura, image via Wikipedia

It is easy to romanticize the dawn of photography (literally “drawing with light”). I am not pretending I understand the technical intricacies of the entire process but I am drawn to the alchemical feel and terminology of the first photographic experiments. Apparently, it all started with “sun drawing” or heliography. Joseph Nicéphore Niépce created the first permanent photograph of the image in a camera obscura (“dark room”). Niepce partnered with Louis Daguerre, who invented the daguerreotype – a process which involved fixing images on a silver-plated copper sheet. The next phase in the history of photography was the calotype (“beautiful image”) invented by Henry Fox Talbot. This process utilized a silver salt solution, which made paper sensitive to light. As a result, multiple positive prints were able to be reproduced from negatives. But maybe it all started much earlier – with the Neolithic cave painters, who may have observed the camera obscura effects on cave walls. At least, this is a controversial theory put forward by one Matt Gatton (http://www.paleo-camera.com/ ). Whatever the truth may be, it can be safely asserted that the earliest uses of camera obscura always involved the interplay of darkness and light. In Ancient Greece, Aristotle observed how during a partial eclipse of the sun light that was passing through a small opening in a dark chamber produced an image on the opposite wall. Right until the 16th century astronomers had only this technique to make solar observations without causing damage to their eyes. In his essay “Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography,” Roland Barthes wrote: “It seems that in Latin ‘photograph’ would be said ‘imago luci opera expressa’; which is to say: image revealed, ‘extracted,’ ‘mounted,’ ‘expressed’ (like the juice of a lemon) by the action of light.”

 Subject worth of daguerreotype

Subject worth of daguerreotype

As every art form, also photography has offered us a new way of glimpsing the eternal. However, already at its advent there appeared critics who saw its dangers. Notably, Charles Baudeleaire, a prominent objector to middle-class values, did not welcome photography. He did not mince words in the review of the Salon of 1859: “From that moment our squalid society rushed, Narcissus to a man, to gaze at its trivial image on a scrap of metal. A mad­ness, an extraordinary fanaticism took possession of all these new sun-worshippers. Strange abominations took form.” Exactly same words could be used to describe the aggressive predominance of narcissistic images flooding us from every direction nowadays. Susan Sontag, in a brilliant essay “On Photography,” argues that nowadays photography is used by most people as “a social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool of power.” Family albums achieve the same purpose as portraits of royalty in times of yore: they are there to immortalize, to build a monument, to assert one’s public stance. Yet, much as they want to preserve the moment, photographs deal with Death, says Sontag:

 “Photography is an elegiac art, a twilight art. Most subjects photographed are, just by virtue of being photographed, touched with pathos. … All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another’s person (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt. A photograph is both a pseudo-presence and a token of absence. Like a wood fire in a room, photographs – especially those of people, of distant landscapes and faraway cities, of the vanished past – are incitements to reverie. The sense of the unattainable that can be evoked by photographs feeds directly into the erotic feelings of those for whom desirability is enhanced by distance. The lover’s photograph hidden in a married woman’s wallet, the poster photograph of a rock star tacked up over an adolescent’s bed, …, the snapshots of a cabdriver’s children clipped to the visor – all such talismanic uses of photographs express a feeling both sentimental and implicitly magical: they are attempts to contact or lay claim to another reality.”

Christmas Morning, c.1933, Harlem New York. photo by James Van Der Zee

Barthes goes further by claiming that “however ‘lifelike’ we strive to make it… Photography is a kind of primitive theater, …, a figuration of the motionless and made-up face beneath which we see the dead.”

Sontag compares the camera to the gun, taking a picture to sublimated murder. How so? The camera trespasses, violates, intrudes, presumes, exploits and at the farthest reach of metaphor, assassinate(s).” It turns people into “objects that can be symbolically possessed.” The same can often be said of tourist photography, which lays claim to a foreign space and attests that good time was had indeed:

 “A way of certifying experience, taking photographs is also a way of refusing it – by limiting experience to a search for the photogenic, by converting experience into an image, a souvenir. The very activity of taking pictures is soothing, and assuages general feelings of disorientation that are likely to be exacerbated by travel. Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter. … The method especially appeals to people handicapped by ruthless work ethic – Germans, Japanese, and Americans. Using the camera appeases the anxiety which the work-driven feel about not working when they are on vacation and supposed to be having fun.”

Barthes wonders whether a photographic image can ever capture the profound self. He concludes that “: ‘myself’ never coincides with my image; for it is the image which is heavy, motionless, stubborn (which is why society sustains it), and ‘myself’ which is light,  divided, dispersed; like a bottle-imp, ‘myself’ doesn’t hold still, giggling in my jar…” Soulful photography, the one that captures the profound and ineffable, is extremely rare but possible.

A series of portraits of an artist Jean-Michel Basquiat by James Van Der Zee

A camera, as Sontag put it, can be “the arm of consciousness.” We are anaesthetized nowadays by a proliferation of images showing both beauty (or just prettiness) and atrocity. Can we still be pierced or arrested by a photograph, though? Can it touch us “like the delayed rays of a star?” asks Barthes, and writes further:

 Ultimately – or at the limit – in order to see a photograph well, it is best to look away or close your eyes. ‘The necessary condition for an image is sight,’ Janouch told Kafka;· and Kafka smiled and replied: ‘We photograph things in order to drive them out of our minds. My stories are a way of shutting my eyes.’”

The laughing Kafka

The laughing Kafka

It is the invisible that makes photography into art, what we may see when we close our eyes. The last word belongs to Barthes:

“Always the Photograph astonishes me, with an astonishment which endures and renews itself, inexhaustibly. Perhaps this astonishment, this persistence reaches down into the religious substance out of which I am molded; nothing for it: Photography has something to do with resurrection: might we not say of it what the Byzantines said of the image of Christ which impregnated St. Veronica’s napkin: that it was not made by the hand of man, acheiropoietos [made without hands]?”

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18 Responses to Drawing with Light: on Photography

  1. Viv says:

    beautiful and powerful post and haunting images. Thank you.

  2. Marie Taylor says:

    Very illuminating, as always. I was particularly moved by the idea of photographs as momento mori. So true. A pinned butterfly for the future to view.

    • Thank you. I agree. I wonder if this why when we look at photos of those recently deceased, especially in tragic circumstances, the feeling of sorrow is almost impossible to take.

  3. Maria F. says:

    Love this Monika. The other day I was analyzing the name “Veronica” with an etymologist. You have also chosen the most pivotal excerpts by Susan Sontag:

    “A photograph is both a pseudo-presence and a token of absence. Like a wood fire in a room, photographs – especially those of people, of distant landscapes and faraway cities, of the vanished past – are incitements to reverie. The sense of the unattainable that can be evoked by photographs feeds directly into the erotic feelings of those for whom desirability is enhanced by distance.”

    What an interesting post Monika. Photography is also the science of the physically “seeing” people; so it immediately excludes the “non-seeing” such as the blind, leaving this minority in oblivion. How fascinating that you end the post with St. Veronica, known as the woman who wiped Jesus’s face with her veil and retained His image on it;, a truly interesting symbol transcending the need for a camera to perceive an image. Brilliant post as usual Monika, thanks!

    • I agree about Veronica (love that name because of my late grandmother) – I think her significance cannot be overestimated and I would love to dedicate an article to her perhaps at some point.
      Interesting point about the blind and always important to remember. I think, though, by them relying on inner vision they may often be able to “see” into the heart of things. I think relying too much on the camera may actually make us blind to the world, but, paradoxically, it may also happen that through taking a good photo we will reveal something very striking about our subject – something we had not seen before.
      Thank you very much for your kind comment.

  4. Your eloquent insights provide a well from which I so often draw for understanding.

  5. Alethea Eason says:

    This is an amazing piece of writing. I’m finding that photos of my childhood fading, just like the memories.

  6. Hi Monika. Interesting post. I liked the history of photography and how you likened it to alchemy. Curious on your thoughts regarding how the proliferation of digital photography, particularly through the use of mobile phones, figures in to this. It almost seems to me that this proliferation allows the documentation of the human experience in a way that was unparalleled in the past. On the downside, people experience life through the screen of their iPhones. I was at a concert last week and could not help noticing the sheer number of smartphones that were held up recording clips of the performance. I confess snapping a couple shots myself 😉

    • Hi Jeff, I totally agree with you about people putting smart phones between themselves and the actual experience. If I were to be honest with you, I would have to say I do not actually take photos (despite rare snapshots with my phone), do not collect them and rarely look at other people’s private photos. This just does not interest me. However, some photographs that I see or that are caught into my field of vision, I can find extremely appealing or arresting. So even though I do not document my life, I appreciate photography as art form.
      Thank you for commenting!

  7. This post reminded me of something my son Lucius said, “Someone already invented a time machine…the camera.”
    Rightly so, rightly so. Much can be said about pictures these days, especially with so many feeds dependent upon them. I really like the reference to sun worship.

  8. Fascinating, and beautifully written, the way you’ve weaved together these quotations with your own. I liked what Sontag said about photography being an elegiac art: the presence of things absence. There is always a sense of pathos, no matter how beautiful or inspiring. More so than other art forms.

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