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as authentic as a photograph

March 28, 2012 Comments off

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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Indexicality as form

February 14, 2012 Comments off

The first [surviving] photographic image is Nicéphore Niépce’s View from the Window at Le Gras, while the first photographic negative is from Fox Talbot’s latticed window in Lacock Abbey. It seems more than a mere coincidence that the first images produced by the new representational medium pictured the 15th century architect, sculptor, painter, and theorist Leon Battista Alberti’s metaphor for painting: “…an open window through which the subject to be painted is seen” While the former show a grainy image of rooftops out side of the French chemist’s window, the latter brings to mind Albrecht Dürer’s glass frame with grids, the painter’s aid for accurately preserving the figure’s spatial relationships.

Marcel Duchamp, Fresh Window (1920), replica 1964

Alberti’s window was not one that opened to the real world out side, but rather its purpose was to produce a window-view of the painting’s subject for the spectator. Similar to fenestra caeli, the “window of heaven” where through figure of Mary the Lord’s light shines over the spectator,  standing in front of the painting from a fixed position, it will open to the historia (imaginative narrative paintings of great events and classical heroes) as an architectural window opens to the orange tree, or the parking lot outside. Until the invention of photography, painting’s technical progress was to deliver an image that seemed perceptually identical from the view through an open window. But the windows that Niépce and other pioneers of the new medium opened, let painting shut the blinds and walk outside of the camera lucida of appearances of the world outside. Painting stopped cross-dressing itself as a window, refused to serve as a decoy, a real-looking surrogate, painting stopped being a [hieroglyphic] text. A lie could now be a color, an impression a flat surface, a feeling an illusion of depth. Just as the Reformation freed the image from God and gave it to the word, photography untied painting from the appearance of the real.

Curiously, while painting’s history (until the invention of photography) is one of maximizing its representational quality to that of an open window, history of photography on the other hand is of a representational medium’s departure from reality. Painting progressed [technically] to render the imaginary real, photography the real as imaginary. Photography at its best claims to show that which is beyond representation, a window that opens to that which does not render itself visible. Therefore at its best, photography questioned its own indexicality and claimed to represent beyond the mere traces of light on the sensitive emulsion. But simultaneously it was through its very indexicality that photography could point beyond its semiotics. From the surrealists to the avant-garde, from propagandists to documentarists, all used this inherent tension of the photographic medium. Thus the photographic index became form, a vessel that carried a semiotic displacement. Colin Powel’s fraudulent presentation before the UN Security Council in support of the Iraq war is a telling contemporary example of this semiotic displacement. Images, aerial photographs and satellite images were used to show exactly what the images were not an index of, rather the representational quality was used as a rhetorical device in support of the administration’s argument that hinged on the existence of weapons of mass destruction storages and facilities. Here, the indexicality of the photograph transformed the contents of the target’s landscape to the desired constituents. But this rhetorical maneuvering is hardly unique to the Pentagon, from early years of snap-shots, people were expected to smile in photographs, here the landscape smiled for the aerial photos. Furthermore, before photographs made time stand still, photographed subjects had to stand still to be captured by the camera. Before cameras could capture the world, the world had to practice posing for the cameras, thus the technological advancement of photography from its outset carried a semblance of an index. Rather than the smoke rising from the chimney signifying the fire, it was the fire that burned to be signified. In Sistine Madonna, Raphael, alluding to the tradition of picture curtain—a curtain before the cult image which can conceal and reveal it as a ritual apparition—frames his painting with an open curtain.

Raphael, The Sistine Madonna (1513-14), Oil on canvas, 270 x 201 cm ,Gemäldegalerie, Dresden

“When the costly curtains were drawn back, the divine conception of the painting (the Iddea) appeared as if alive, being the divine person (iddio) in the ideal of beauty (idea), thus uniting religion and art in one.” The curtain is the only remaining residue of the material image, that curtain’s reincarnation is the photograph’s indexicality: it conceals as well at it reveals.

The image before [and after] the era of art

February 7, 2012 Comments off

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In Likeness and Presence, Art Historian Hans Belting, looks at the role of images in society before the era of art. According to Belting, the era of art begins when Reformation deprived the images from their religious function and the disempowered image, redefined itself in the category of art.

Luther announced that “the kingdom of God is a kingdom of hearing and not of seeing”, and urged his contemporaries to free themselves from the alleged power of images. The image which formerly represented the presence of god, now was emptied from his presence. The Reformation taught the domination of the word, and all images, signs, and symbols were suppressed under the power of the word, and became its servants. In the era of Gutenberg, the word became present everywhere as the tool of rational argument and reason. Intellectuals of the time, no longer trusted the surface appearance of the visual world, and the word became the refuge of the thinking subject. The humanists and the theologians emphasized that the painter can at best represent only their body, but their soul is expressed in words. With the iconoclast’s removal of the images from the churches, texts previously read in books took their place on the altar, and demanded the same kind of veneration. The humanist culture with the mind represented by the word, triumphed over matter and the “outward image.”

Erasmus of Rotterdam (1526), Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471–1528) Engraving

Images, having lost their function in the church, took on a new role in representing art. Not even the Catholic church survived this upheaval of the word and not even there the holy image could escape its “metamorphosis into the work of art.” Belting writes: within the realm of art, images symbolize the new, secularized demands of culture and aesthetic experience. In this way a unified concept of the image was given up, but the loss was obscured by the label “art”, which now was generally applied. A general validity of an image independent of the idea of art became inadequate to the modern mind. Its abolition opened the way to an aesthetic redefinition in terms of the “rules of art.” Art, after becoming a discipline in itself, separated images from their previous functions, and recuperated them into its own narrative. This marked a beginning of art history, which later expanded itself beyond Medieval times (the last era before art) to the caves of Lascaux. It is from then on that a picture is no longer to be understood in the terms of its theme , but as a contribution to the development of art. Furthermore, images were ever since evaluated according to rules of aesthetics, a science that supported and explained the new formed discipline.