Commonplace
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www.common-place.org · vol. 2 · no. 2 · January 2002
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Gregory Fried is an assistant professor in the philosophy department of California State University, Los Angeles. He has written on the work of the philosopher Martin Heidegger, and is currently working on a multidisciplinary project on race entitled "The Mirror of Race."

True Pictures
Gregory Fried

Part I | II | III | IV | V
Early Photographic Techniques


Fig. 1. Photographer unknown: subjects unknown (boxers), quarter plate ambrotype, c. 1860-65. Collection of Greg French.

Man is the only picture-making animal in the world. He alone of all the inhabitants of the earth has the capacity and passion for pictures . . . Poets, prophets, and reformers are all picture-makers, and this ability is the secret of their power and achievements: they see what ought to be by the reflection of what is, and endeavor to remove the contradiction.

--Frederick Douglass

In the late summer of 1839, at an extraordinary joint meeting of the Academy of Science and the Academy of Fine Arts in Paris, Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre presented to the public and to the world the first truly successful photographic process: the daguerreotype. It is hard for us to grasp now, after more than 160 years of photography, the astonishment and enthusiasm that greeted Daguerre's discovery. On a small plate of metal, Daguerre coaxed the sun's rays, guided by the lens of a camera, to produce an image whose detail was as minutely faithful to reality as the reflection in a mirror--only in black and white. In an age of soaring expectations of science, the daguerreotype symbolized the possibility that human ingenuity might capture the very essence of nature.

The daguerreotype is truly a marvel: strictly speaking, it is impossible to reproduce one, since a daguerreotype image sits on a silver surface that reflects like a mirror; one therefore sees oneself in the image, too. The only way to appreciate a daguerreotype properly is to see it, as it were, in person. This personal intimacy and immediacy lent much of the fervor to what Frederick Douglass called the new "passion for pictures." While the inventor of the daguerreotype was a Frenchman, nowhere did this passion catch on as it did in the still young United States. For Douglass, the former slave and abolitionist orator, photography, as a mirror of reality, would serve as a new weapon in the fight for freedom and human dignity.

Samuel F. B. Morse, the American inventor and painter, happened to be in Paris in 1838-39 to promote his own invention, the electromagnetic telegraph. There he met and befriended Daguerre. Morse tried his hand at the process as soon as Daguerre made it public, and, on his return to the States, he successfully spread word of Daguerre's genius to his fellow Americans. Scores, then hundreds, and finally thousands of American practitioners took up the art, improving the technique so rapidly that by the early 1840s a skillful daguerreotypist could earn a respectable income as a portraitist. The American public hungered unrelentingly for portraits. Douglass explains this passion well: "The great discoverer of modern times, to whom coming generations will award special homage, will be Daguerre. Morse has brought the seeds of the earth together, and Daguerre has made it a picture gallery. We have pictures, true pictures, of every object which can interest us . . . What was once the special and exclusive luxury of the rich and great is now the privilege of all. The humblest servant girl may now possess a picture of herself such as the wealth of kings could not purchase fifty years ago."

By the 1850s and 1860s, American ingenuity had led to an explosion of photographic techniques including the ambrotype, tintype, and carte de visite--all to feed the endless American appetite for portraits. Tens of millions of images were produced. Once, portraiture had been the "special and exclusive luxury" of the rich or the noble in the form of paintings or sculptures that cost a small fortune to commission; now Americans could assert their egalitarianism in self-representation. For a day's wages, even a mill worker could confirm her dignity and make her bid for immortality (fig. 2).


Fig. 2. Photographer unknown: subjects unknown (mill workers in Winooski, Vermont), tintype, c. 1875. Collection of Gregory Fried.

As Frederick Douglass saw it, Morse and Daguerre were two facets of the same democratizing revolution, a revolution that was fast uniting the world in communication (Morse) and in image (Daguerre). For Douglass, this universalizing and democratizing revolution involved more than a breaking down of class divisions; it also meant attacking what we might call the optics of racism, that is, how white Europeans had come to see black Africans as a nearly separate species, a view which corrupted painted portraits: "Negroes can never have impartial portraits at the hands of white artists. It seems to us next to impossible for white men to take likenesses of black men, without most grossly exaggerating their distinctive features. And the reason is obvious. Artists, like all other white persons, have adopted a theory respecting the distinctive features of Negro physiognomy."

When Douglass complained about how white artists "take likenesses" of blacks, he meant painters, sculptors, and engravers--all artists except photographers, because in all other art forms, the artist's preconceived way of seeing necessarily intrudes upon the representation of the subject matter. In voicing this complaint, Douglass echoed a widely held notion about photography, one that persists to this day: that unlike other techniques in art, photography is a true mirror of nature whose method, because it relies on the nonpartisan effectiveness of rays of light rather than the hand of human beings, can present us with what Douglass calls "true pictures" of reality.

Many contemporary theorists would now question that assumption. They would claim that photography is more art than science by pointing to how the subject matter is arranged, how the lighting is manipulated, to what type of lens or printing-out paper is employed, even to the way the scene is composed and framed. All these factors play as much of a subjective role in producing and seeing the work of art as does the hand of the artist with a paint brush or a mallet and chisel. The photograph, then, is no more a "true picture" of reality than a cubist painting by Picasso.

But, at least for now, let us give Douglass the benefit of the doubt. After all, there is for most of us, in our pre-theoretical experience of photography, something of that experience of immediacy and revelation of reality that so astonished and inspired him, as well as so many other Americans, a century and a half ago.

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