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as authentic as a photograph

March 28, 2012

At some point in October 1833, while visiting Lake Como in Italy with his wife, Fox Talbot’s “frustrations with pencil come to a head.” Superimposing the image on the back of a camera lucida he “found that the faithless pencil had only left traces on the paper melancholy to behold,” as he recounted in his book The Pencil of Nature.

In Burning with Desire, photography historian Geoffrey Batchen writes on the epistemological shift that occurs towards the end of 18th and the first half of 19th century that created the conditions of possibility within which photography came to life. He mentions how amongst photography historians there is a genre of origin stories, each trying to determine when exactly the new medium was born. He brings together an almost encyclopedic collection of the stories of proto-photographers. The book’s title refers to a letter sent from Daguerre to Niepce in 1828 in which the former expresses how he is “burning with desire to see your experiments with nature.” Batchen shows how in the period that he is examining, there is a desire to permanently “fix” the fleeting world, the images on the back of a camera lucida, experiences of the observing subject.

The Head of Christ from a Painting on Glass, William Henry Fox Talbot, Iodide-fixed photogenic drawing negative,1839

One might be able to trace back this “desire” further back in time that the period that Batchen is examining. A telling example of the attempt to fix an ephemeral image can be traced back to the Holy Mandylion and the Veronica image, both carrying an imprint of the features of Christ on a piece of cloth. According to the legend of the former, King Abgar of Edessa’s painter, instead of coming back with a drawing of Jesus, brings a cloth with which he wiped his face and thus imprinted it on the cloth the sight of which instantly cured the kind. The Veronica image is on a cloth that was offered to Christ to wipe his face as he was climbing the Mount of Olives. Both these images one can say carry the same “desire” that Batchen mentions in his book on photography. Images did not rely on artistic imitations of the “faithless pencil,” but are created in direct contact with the subject testifying to historicity and the presence of the subject at some point in time. Thus the desire to fix the fleeing moments of time for the future, is not necessarily limited to the modern period discussed in Burning with Desire. About the Veronica image Hans Belting writes “it was as authentic as a photograph… It ranked as a touch relic (brandea), as it had been in physical contact with the Original—Christ himself.” He follows by saying that the idea of a “true portrait initiated a development that would have long-term consequences in Western art.” The images of Veronica, similar to photographs, were reproduced in thousands bearing the inscription Copie authentique de la Sainte Face de Notre Seigneur.

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