3. Still Searching: “the dark, repressed side”
Published: 01.10.2012
in the series Geoffrey Batchen
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My previous post briefly mentioned the negative as one crucial component of the identity of many photographs. It is, nevertheless, an aspect of that identity often ignored by histories of photography, where negatives are rarely reproduced or discussed at any length. Negatives, it seems, are truly the repressed, dark side of photography’s history. True, there is a conference (could it be the first?) on the negative being planned for Munich in February. But my interest is not in reviving the study of the negative as an object unto itself (although photographers in the nineteenth century did often exhibit their negatives, to display their technical prowess) but in pursuing the consequences of the reproductive economy that photographic negatives represent.

Talbot’s conception of a negative-positive system of photography (first demonstrated in his photogenic drawing process, but made foundational in his subsequent calotype process) allowed many positive prints to be created from a single matrix. This significantly changed the character of the photographic experience. It of course allowed photographs to have multiple physical manifestations, so that they are no longer confined, as with daguerreotypes, to the original exposure (as Benjamin said, “to ask for the authentic print makes no sense”), and can thus be in many different places at the same time. With the introduction of enlargers in the 1880s, it also allowed photographs to be reduced or enlarged, so that the same photographic image could come in many different sizes and formats.

The introduction of the negative divided the photograph from itself, but it also divided the act of photographing. One person could make an exposure while another might develop the resulting negative, with yet another responsible for making positive prints from that negative. Sometimes a number of people take on that last responsibility, with many years passing between exposure and print. Consider, for example, those gelatin silver prints owned by some museums that were made in 1976 by Claudine Sudre from original paper calotype negatives made in about 1845 by French photographer Hippolyte Bayard. Although this temporal gap is unusually long, the practice of making restrikes (to adopt a term from print-making) is not. The negative has allowed many photographers to make their own restrikes, and to thereby retrospectively recast their early careers, according to contemporary taste. I have written, in an essay published in Each Wild Idea, about how both Stieglitz and Max Dupain, Australia’s most celebrated twentieth-century photographer, went back through their back-catalogues of negatives and printed images that they never thought much about until many years after they had been exposed. Even now, Dupain’s most famous photograph, The sunbaker, is dated by Australian museums at 1937, even though it was first printed only in 1974. (Why do we privilege the date of exposure over the date a photograph is made manifest and put in the public sphere?) More recently, we have seen, for example in the 2003 Diane Arbus survey exhibition, curators deciding to print and exhibit work never printed by the artist—a practice I consider both unethical and an historical distortion. John Szarkowski even exhibited work by Garry Winogrand, albeit only in projected form, that the artist himself had never seen, even in negative form. Despite all this, printing is a practice that doesn’t attract much discussion (except from collectors and dealers).

Indeed, we historians seldom think about the labor of printing, except of course when it goes badly wrong—as in the famous example of Robert Capa's 1944 negatives from the beaches of Normandy being overheated and almost destroyed by a darkroom technician. Note that Capa, as with many other photographers, from Talbot to Cartier-Bresson to Gursky, did not print his own photographs (he didn’t even develop his own negatives). That work was done by others. Richard Avedon, to take another example, had his negatives printed by two studio assistants, Ruedi Hofmann and David Liittschwager (I name them precisely because such workers are usually anonymous). When handing over his negatives, he would ask those assistants to "make the person more gentle" or "give the face more tension." These were qualities (some would call them artistic qualities) apparently available within the range of decisions made during the printing process (decisions of course supervised by Avedon, even if performed by others). This would seem to suggest that printers are collaborators, not simply technicians, and should be regarded as part-authors of the photograph they have worked on (as are cinematographers in movie credits). Nevertheless, as I’ve already suggested, printers are usually given little or no visibility by historians or curators and the act, or even the art, of printing is almost never acknowledged or discussed at any length.

John Loengard, Negative for Ronald Fischer, beekeeper, held by Richard Avedon, in New York City May, 5, 1994 © John Loengard

In most exhibitions of photographs, for example, each image is presented as a singular act of personal expression, and therefore as artistic rather than capitalist in aspiration. Beholden to a masterpiece-driven form of narrative long since discredited in the academy, these kinds of exhibitions consistently suppress evidence of the economics of photographic practice (such as the collective labor that makes multiple reproduction possible), seeking to foster the illusion that art transcends such brute realities. The end result is surely a deeply conservative view of both past and present, denying viewers the possibility of an informed engagement with their own cultural history, as well as with the actual practice of photography.

So why is the negative a repressed aspect of the history of photography? Perhaps it is because printing and the labor it entails are an unwelcome reminder of the act of reproduction at the heart of photography’s existence; that is, of photography’s lack of singularity, of its capacity to exist in multiple copies, and therefore its propensity to involve multiple authorships and divided ownership. Negatives and the multiple prints made from them are the unwelcome evidence, in other words, of the instability of photography’s existence in general.

22 comment(s)
Witold Kanicki
Posted 02.10.2012 at 13:11

Dear Geoffrey,

I find your questions about the negative crucial for the contemporary history of photography.
In my opinion recent histories of photography nearly always starts from the invention of the positive. The negative is described rather as pre-photographic phenomena. If Gernsheim was wandering why photography was invented so late, even if all components were known before, it is important to remember, that besides camera obscura and chemical process, there was a third step to be discovered. This third step is the inversion of the negative, which is obvious for us, but difficult barrier for the scientist from the 18th and beginning of 19th century. According to Josef Maria Eder, Schultze was searching for “Lichtträger”, but found only “the bearer of the dark”. Even such a great mind as Samuel Morse could not imagine what can he do with this dark phenomena. In the letter quoted by you in “Burning with desire” he wrote: “but finding that light produced dark, and dark light, I presumed the production of a true image to be impracticable, and gave up the attempt.” So the history of photography, and photography itself starts from the illusion of positive in the daguerreotype, and the negative-positive process discovered by Talbot. In this sense photography equals positive. Since that moment negative is – as you wrote –pushed aside, and became the dark side of the history. Morover, the negative is a part of the occult process of darkroom, hidden from world and from the eyes of people.
The history of photography is parallel to the Western Culture itself. If we can say that the Western culture is oculo-centric, light-centric, it is in the consequence positive-centric, with all appreciation of realism, light and all the notions attributed to the light and the positive polar (God, Man, Good, Day, Sun, White race, Hot, dry, etc.). That is why, negative, as part of this black/dark side of the world is pushed aside, as e.g. the Women was pushed aside before. The contemporary focus on the negative came from the same interest of “difference”. As contemporary humanistic researchers writes new histories, from the post-colonial, or feminist perspective, also the history of photography should be written again, this time starting from and concentrating on this dark and forgotten part.
ps. I will be grateful for any information about this Munich conference.

Geoff Batchen
Posted 09.10.2012 at 01:39

Hi Witold,

I've been trying to find out more about this conference for you, without much success. All I know is that it has been proposed for the Deutsches Museum in Munich for February 22-23, 2013.

I agree with you that the binary character of photography encompasses the metaphysics that characterises Western thinking as a whole. An investigation of the negative would, for example, force us to confront the way race has been articulated within photographic discourse, and indeed within photography itself. As early as February 14, 1839, John Herschel, the man who would coin the word ‘photography’ and propose what we now call sodium thiosulfate as a fixer, observed in a diary entry that in a photographic negative “fair women are transformed into negresses." The daguerreotype, being both a negative and positive, with each aspect revealed momentarily as the image is moved in the hand of the observer, makes this racial reversal a permanent feature of each of its portraits. Anxieties related to this reversal have been reiterated in various forms throughout photography’s history.


Witold Kanicki
Posted 15.10.2012 at 21:58

Dear Geoffrey,
Thank you for your efforts in finding the information. If there is no serious information about this conference that means that it is not noteworthy.

I have never read Herschel’s notebook, but after your quotation I will try to find it. I found many opposite comparisons in literature, e.g. in Nabokov’s “Ada or Ardor” where the author writes about “negative skin” of black woman. Interesting inversion of race could be found in Rodchenko “Syphilis” photomontages to Mayakovsky poem. In this poem the horrible situation of black people in colonialism is described. To illustrate it Rodchenko used his wife portrait in negative, showing as well that the problem of economic polarity is global.


Geoff Batchen
Posted 17.10.2012 at 01:50

You might also have a look at Tanya Sheehan, ‘Comical Conflations: Racial Identity and the Science of Photography,’ Photography and Culture, 4: 2 (July 2011), 133-156.

David Campany
Posted 04.10.2012 at 00:40

The repressed will always return but sometimes it's just too late...

The negative need not be the founding singularity. If the subject matter allows (i.e. if it’s not moving) many photographers make two or more identical exposures and turn them into two or more identical 'original' negatives. This is usually insurance against damage (or in the case of Walker Evans in 1936, so that he could appear to be handing his work over to the Farm Security Administration while also keeping it for himself!). So the photographic procedure may even begin with a radical plurality...

Is the negative any more of a founding repression for photography than the written score is for a piece of performed/recorded music? But both are less seen, and when they are they require quite a degree of expertise to assess their reproductive - performative - expressive - disseminative potential. I don't know but I'm guessing that this expertise is as much the reason for the less than public nature of negatives as any 'repression'.

Was it Ansel Adams who said the negative was the score and the print was the performance? The other day I saw a first edition of Adams’ book ‘The Negative’. I love the fact that the cover image was actually printed in negative. Subsequent editions have a regular positive image on the cover, which looks kind of silly with the words ‘The Negative’ typeset above. But maybe is sold better.


Geoff Batchen
Posted 05.10.2012 at 00:51

"The photographic procedure may even begin with a radical plurality." I like that! Claudet used to shoot his customers in 1841 with two daguerreotype cameras placed side by side, thus ensuring he always had two variants of any portrait (this habit also facilitated his later adoption of stereoscopy). If one was going to write a history of music (as opposed to a history of composition) then surely one would have to address the fact that the same composition is always performed slightly differently--that difference is at the heart of the experience of music. My argument is not that we need to exhibit negatives in every exhibition but that we need to acknowledge the economy of reproduction that the negative introduced into photographic culture. Let me give you an example. In 2007 a magnificent exhibition of British calotypes was toured around, the end result of years of painstaking research. A negative was included on the wall in each gallery. But nowhere did this exhibition show us multiple prints from the same negative, even though it was precisely this capability that distinguished the calotype system from its competitors. Indeed, it was the difficulty printers had in producing reliable and consistent positive prints from calotype negatives that ensured the continued dominance of the daguerreotype in the market place. In other words, by not showing us multiple prints, by not addressing itself to the key role of the negative, this exhibition told us almost nothing about the calotype as a specific form of photography. At the least, it presented a complete distortion of its history. But it had to make this kind of repression, not because we viewers lack the technical expertise to appreciate a good negative, but because art museums want to focus on photography as an art of singular expressions rather than as an economy of reproductions. This is the problem we face.

David Campany
Posted 05.10.2012 at 13:31

I notice how many exhibitions now include mass produced printed matter these days: magazines, journals, books. It seems to be accepted that it is insufficient and misleading to show fashion photography, photojournalism or documentary as individually framed prints. This does seem to be one very welcome way in which the museum moves beyond singularity to address the reproductive/disseminative nature of photography and its culture.

Jörg Scheller
Posted 06.10.2012 at 14:50

Indeed, the number of exhibitions dedicated to the full range of image production and image aesthetics is growing (cf. my post below). I welcome this development with open arms while at the same time, I am already wondering (the usual paranoia prevalent in the humanities, I know...) if there hasn't emerged a new clichéd paradigm, namely the tendency toward "full disclosure". Media stars are no longer "discovered", they are developed and educated publicly. Politics are expected to be "transparent", economy is expected to be "transparent". Even in porn movies, "making ofs" are now commonly included, thus de-mystifying the genre. It seems as if everything must now be portrayed as something "in the making", everything must be defined as part of a larger network, embedded and influenced, triggered and related, contingent and manipulated, embraced and included, etc. That's great, for sure, but new myths and truisms are emerging, maybe comparable to the deconstructivist movement which started as a critical call for plurality and was transformed into a method among methods at our universities...

Jörg Scheller
Posted 05.10.2012 at 14:48

Once again, I would like to place Geoffrey's inspiring thoughts within a broader cultural and historical context. Concerning the “suppression” of the “evidence of the economics of photographic practice”, I am wondering if our discussion on photography, reproduction, the negative, and economic paradigms, could be regarded as a “reproduction” of an elder discussion in art history; a discussion which, metaphorically speaking, would form the “negative” of our “positive” discourse. It is common knowledge that traditional art history delighted in developing grands récits, singling out auratic individuals (the “genius”) and auratic artworks (the “masterpiece”). Raffael's Renaissance Madonnas, David's Classicist Heroes, Picasso's Modern Innovations etc. The prosaic economic dimension and the “reproductive economy” of the art system, which had its first heyday already in the 15th century, played a minor role in the quest for new art masters, new biographical details, new national characteristics, new evalutions, periodizations and rankings. The embeddedness of art in the overall economic conditions and economic logics was more or less neglected and only recently new degree programmes such as “art market studies” have emerged.
It could be argued that the issues we have discussed so far with regards to photography have been anticipated by the development of visual art since early modern times. Albrecht Dürer, for instance, only rose to international fame because of the reproductions made from his graphical oeuvre. And comparable with the “many years passing between exposure and print” that Geoffrey has mentioned, Dürer used to produce paintings or engravings on the basis of drawings he had executed many years ago. Hence, notwithstanding the different ontological status and the different origination of drawings/cuts on the one hand (the "disegno", according to Vasari a sort of "materialized idea"), and the photographic negative on the other hand side, we find many analogies between traditional art history and the history of photography if we take into account what could be termed “image pragmatics” rather than focussing only on technological ruptures – traditional image use and image economy transcend the emergence of new media and technologies. The principle of “score” and “performance” mentioned by David could be considered as a common ground or a common denominator for the dialectics of painting–print/engraving, negative-positive, etc.
A final remark concerning Geoffrey's last paragraph: “So why is the negative a repressed aspect of the history of photography? Perhaps it is because printing and the labor it entails are an unwelcome reminder of the act of reproduction at the heart of photography’s existence; that is, of photography’s lack of singularity, of its capacity to exist in multiple copies, and therefore its propensity to involve multiple authorships and divided ownership.” I think there is reason for optimism. In the contemporary art world, I increasingly often encounter approaches aimed at understanding image practices from the beginning to the end, leaving behind the predilection for the singular, manifest work of art. Probably this is one of the impact the growing field of “Bildwissenschaften” and “Visual Studies” have had on the art system in the last years. A good example is George-Didi Huberman's exhibition “Atlas”, inspired by Aby Warburg's methodological innovations in the early 20th century. In this exhibition, Didi-Huberman succeeded in exploring the manifold processes of research and improvisation which precede the actual artwork. Hence the exhibition focussed on the pre-production of art, on sketch– and notebooks, photographs, diagrams, collections of materials, that is, on the uncertain and unstable preconditions of artistic theory & practice which are usually neglected in museum and gallery exhibitions. I don't remember if also negatives were included in the exhibition, but from a methodological point of view, the exhibition came close to the critical demands expressed in the posts by Geoffrey and Witold – the “dark zones” of artistic practice were brought to light.

Geoff Batchen
Posted 12.10.2012 at 02:52

Yes, the relationship of negative to positive bears some historical relationship to that of an engraved or carved matrix and a print, and thus to a long-established economy of multiple reproductions from a unique original. But we should not forget a significant difference too, the fact that the dependence of much photography on a negative allows for the possibility of enlargement and reduction, as well as for the transference of a photographic image into a variety of formats and media. Stieglitz's celebrated The Steerage, for example, was first given positive manifestation as a photogravure (ie. as a reproduction) in 1911 in Camera Work but was subsequently published again as a larger-scale photogravure on both vellum and Japanese paper and exhibited as a gelatin silver print. But this is a very common story for photographers, even if not one often told by photo-historians.

Peter Burleigh
Posted 09.10.2012 at 00:43

In addition to issues of reception that are raised, this discussion also seems to stem from having to conciliate the received notion that photography is mimetic and (perhaps should) produce(s) images that closely emulate the conditions of visual perception that we normally operate under. In other words, a positive image is taken to be more like how we expect the world around us to appear to us. Of course, Talbot’s party trick with the image of lace does more than relativize this episteme of likeness for likeness; it indicates that a likeness can substitute the thing itself. To fully underwrite the simulacrum discourse, any staging in the process of photography as an image making system has to be obscured, since the moments in this flow, as Geoffrey suggests, undermine the conception of singularity, and I would also argue the immediacy of the image.

Better still is to overcome any such recognisable episodes in the popular imagination, so as to retain photography’s natural transparency as an image maker: no place more so than in filmic worlds which negotiate conceptions of photography: two examples in this short plea serve to illustrate: take the psychotic voyeurism of the photographer in Antonioni’s Blow Up; or revisit the magical darkroom scenario of the appearance of a positive print in a developing tray in countless movies. Neither of these imaginations of the photographic though relate to the negative as such. But they do demonstrate a dependence on it in terms of cause (exposure of film) and effect (positive print) but not on the notion of the singularity which is more than monadic, carrying information and being an object—an image—itself. In the latter example, it is a witness to what it pictures (mimetic representation), in the former, it is a witness to itself (medium of that mimetic message). This Janus-like nature, is not so different from the woodcut block, but is categorically different from painting—the dominant and royal mode of image making up to the appearance of photography. My contention is, much like Jörg’s, that within an economy of painting this essential difference has to be at the very least suppressed. Though I see it differently from him not as economic competition but rather as a matter of ontological challenge. So what is made visible, what is representative of the medium is precisely not its destabilizing essence, but its inconsequential and banal similarity to painting. Obscuring the negative immunizes the danger of photography as an event which might undo painting. Making photography only about positive images emasculates the difference that Vilém Flusser recognised in photography as the first virtual medium. Once this is established as the epistemological habit of the discourse that surrounds photography, then it sticks.

An anti-photography or non-photography might undo the “positivity” that adheres and return examination to the negative (even if that particular mode of image-being will soon dissipate). A recovery of this kind would demonstrate the object nature of photography as much as its image side, and show it is intrinsically much more than an inferior hinge to the positively visualized, having particular and concrete properties in itself which operate outside the strictly visible. That would be an interesting place to visit.

Geoff Batchen
Posted 17.10.2012 at 01:58

Peter, sounds like you'd be a good person to undertake that visiting. A quick note on your reference to Talbot's lace pictures. His 'party trick' had a serious philosophical edge to it. He tells us that it doesn't matter whether he shows us a negative or a positive print of the lace, because, as he says, the object is "only to exhibit the pattern with accuracy." In other words, he is highlighting the fact that photography certifies only a 'truth to presence', not a 'truth to appearance'; ie. the photograph tells us that something was there before the camera but not necessarily what it looked like. So this is a more complex mimesis than one might think.

Eugenie Shinkle
Posted 10.10.2012 at 23:23

I want to pick up on David’s suggestion that the invisibility of the negative is due in part to the lack of a vocabulary or a system with which to read it. This suggests that the negative also presents something more prosaic than an ontological challenge. Consider something as basic as formal analysis. Line, shape, colour, mass … the relations between these elements are not just ‘reversed’ in the negative but profoundly reconfigured. Technically speaking, the negative may be the inversion of the positive print, but as a representation it is something much more arcane and difficult. Reading a negative properly, seeing it in terms of the eventual positive, is a bit of a dark art. Think of the respect we reserve for those rare darkroom technicians who can make a perfect, or near-perfect print, without needing to fall back on test strips and guesswork.

But I wonder about the point of reading a negative at all. What’s to be gained by trying? If we wish to encounter the negative as Peter identifies it – as a form with its own concrete properties beyond the strictly visible – it becomes clear that it can’t simply be accommodated into existing photographic discourse, and needs to be encountered on its own terms.

And I wonder about the negative as the inverse of the photograph, and about the binarism – however dark and beautiful – that Witold invokes. It might be more useful to borrow from Derrida, and to conceive of the negative’s relationship to the print as parergonal: ‘a parergon comes against, beside, and in addition to the work done, the fact, the work, but it does not fall to one side, it touches and cooperates within the operation, from a certain outside.’ If we think of the relationship between the two in terms of a touch (metaphorical in any instance other than that of a contact print but productive nonetheless) and a co-operation, it brings us a bit closer, perhaps, to the sort of interesting place that Peter envisions … a place that is not necessarily that of the ‘non photograph’, but which admits the concrete properties of the negative, as well as its alchemical appeal (the parergon also refers to the exceptional, the strange, the extraordinary) and allows us to think of the negative as a form (?) which defines the photographic through the very act of effacing itself (‘melting away at the moment it deploys its greatest energy’).

Kelley Wilder
Posted 11.10.2012 at 12:25

Dear Geoffrey and others,

What an interesting post, thank you for considering negatives, as they form such an important part of the history of photography, but as you say are rarely discussed. As a partial answer to the question of why they, and the people employed to work on them, are ignored, both you and others hint at a methodological problem with how we have prosecuted photographic history for some time. I’d like to take a minute to consider what it might mean for doing photographic history.

In bringing up multiples, and pointing out the failure of institutions to recognize anything but the ‘unique’ image, you clearly show the incompatibility of art historical methods that privilege the authored, the known (and/or valuable), and most of all, the unique (the ‘original’). As both you and I know, this doesn’t cover a lot of photohistorical ground if we restrict ourselves to photographs (or parts of the photographic practice) that qualify in all or indeed any of these three categories. For the last twenty years, scholars have started branching out, looking for ways to solve the problems of a very limited scope of photographic history by employing anthropology, history of science, science and technology studies, social geography and other methods to approach photographs that are not likely to ever find themselves in an art museum or gallery. This, it seems to me is where the scholarship lies that will answer your question about who is working on photographic practices and indeed, ‘even’ photographic negatives. It also goes a long way toward the question posed by Shinkle in this blog – what is to be gained by paying attention to negatives?

In some fields, like science, the photographic ‘negative’ has the same if not more currency than any second exposure (normally called a ‘positive’) made from it. In these cases it is easy to see that the initial impression (to invoke 19th century terms) is what counts, being less mediated than follow-on reversals. Henri Becquerel, when he published his photographs in 1903, published photolithographic copies of the negatives, not the positives. Clearly it doesn’t answer your question about how people approach the reproducibility of photographs, but it does show that the negative in other fields does not always carry the stigma it does in the arts. It could of course be the case that the extremely abstract and often lensless nature of science photographs nullify this antipathy for the negative. In that case could it be the unpalatable nature of negatives as pictorial objects that sits at the base of the discomfort with negatives in exhibition spaces and in mainstream photographic history study?

What do we gain by addressing negatives? Well, no more and no less than a peek at photographic practices and a rounded history based on something other than the worry over the ‘original’. We get new methods for dealing with photographic objects of all different sorts, not just their images.

Geoff Batchen
Posted 17.10.2012 at 02:02

I'm enjoying all these comments about the negative. But let me just emphasise again that my main aim is to encourage an examination of the relationship between negative and positive; ie. an examination of photography's reproducibility and its consequences. Isolating and examining negatives is a step in that direction, but only a step.

Posted 12.10.2012 at 15:18

Thank you for shining light on the negative and a differentiating view on the distinct steps that reproduction entails. I'm reading the comments with much interest and would like to add some thoughts and questions.

The negative has come a long way. From being for a short time the default mode of photography, with technological advances it has shrunk and has now the status of a special effects filter on a smartphone. As a material document, it is indeed repressed in mainstream photography. Nevertheless, the negative is fascinating because of its immediacy and yet radical difference.

I regularly teach photography to primary school children and find it interesting to observe that they are what I like to call 'negative blind', at least in the beginning. That means, that after they have learnt to make photograms or built a pinhole camera and processed the first postcard sized paper negatives, they are thrilled to be producing photographs. There is nothing lacking for them, the negative is the photograph. Only after beeing told to contact print and make a negative, they 'see' the negative. In many cases, the pupils don't bother to invert the negatives, or if they do, many still prefer the look of the camera negative or give it equal value in their display. I wonder wether that observation echoes the birth of photography.
To me, it underlines the issues I have with A. Adams much repeated dictum of the negative as the score and the positive as the performance. There needs to be no automatism from negative to positive, the former can be an end in itself, and already is a, in some cases spectacular, performance. The workflow can stop there, the so-called positive is another negative, another performance. The score might be, whatever comes before the photograph, the more or less controlled reality, whether it's 2 or 3 dimensional,

I believe that the negative lies at the heart of photography, even the term photography implies as much, given that light marks a translucent or bright substrate. Subsequent inversions cover this up, but cannot undo this fact. Could it be, that this explains the melancholy associated with photography?

Another question I have asked numerous painters is, whether there were any painters pre-photography, who painted negatives as an end in itself?


Geoff Batchen
Posted 17.10.2012 at 02:04

That's interesting, about children being 'negative blind', at least initially. Talbot seems to have been the same way, leaving most of his earliest pictures in that reversed form, even after proving that it was possible to produce positive prints from them.

Caro Boulton
Posted 14.10.2012 at 15:21

I’d like to return to the analogy between the musical score and the negative and develop this idea a bit further. Both score and negative embody the original intention of the composer/photographer. However, the musical score is the first step in an intentional and open collaboration with others. It is true that there are specific skills required to interpret both a score and a negative but there are often specific skills required for anything and in music, this expertise is openly admired; the conductor’s name is credited on both performances and recordings; orchestra and soloists too. The score is visible at the performance and musical scores are readily available to buy. Geoff Batchen points out that the same composition is necessarily and always performed differently and this difference is at the heart of the experience of music. Moreover, it is a celebrated part. The choice, when deciding to buy a recording of a specific composition, is based on the interpretation of a specific conductor/musicians. And that’s all fine – the composer is credited for the composition as are conductor and musicians for interpretation and musical talent. Authorship and ownership of different aspects of the whole here cause no conflict or problem. Lack of singularity is not an issue either as there is no such thing as an ‘original’ in music. Recordings of music are mechanically and commercially produced and add into the mix recording directors and technicians who are not necessarily named but not denied either. So what is different about the collaboration between a photographer, a darkroom technician and a printer?

In her post Kelly Wilder makes clear that in scientific fields the negative is recognized and ‘has the same if not more currency’ than the positive print so clearly there is nothing intrinsically ‘bad’ about the negative as such. So, are we are back to the arts? But we can see from the musical analogy that similar issues surrounding the negative need not cause problems. As Peter Burleigh says, the problem appears to originate within the gallery where historically the ‘unique’ and ‘original’ are prized above all else.

Metaphorical and metaphysical aspects of the ‘dark’ side of photography have been discussed in this most interesting discussion. However, I question if there is yet another reason too, a more pragmatic aspect to the ‘dark’ side of photography, which has not yet been mentioned. Photography’s singularity is that it provides an unmediated view of whatever is in front of the lens. But of course the photographic print isn’t unmediated and photography from the outset has been besmirched by episodes of trickery and fakery: from spirit photography through to ‘photoshopped’ images. Any suggestion of the possibility of fakery is anathema in the gallery and doesn’t help either in any of the other areas where the veracity of a image is important such as scientific, forensic, documentary and archival fields. Could it be that one reason among the others discussed, why mention of the negative and the darkroom is silenced or spoken about in hushed tones, if at all, is because this is where this dark side of photography occurs if and when it does?

Geoff Batchen
Posted 17.10.2012 at 02:07

Not just "if and when it does", because of course it always occurs. Photography only comes into being as a consequence of such trickery, being dependent on chemical manipulations and calculations. As Steichen once pronounced, every photograph is a fake in that respect.

Nadja Lenz
Posted 15.12.2012 at 11:23

Here is are some information about the munich conference:
(Registration deadline: Feb 8, 2013)


Kind regards, Nadja

Daniel Palmer
Posted 04.01.2013 at 08:37

Thanks Geoffrey, what a fabulous post and rich discussion. Regrettably I've only just been able to return to this conversation... but like others find your thoughts around "the economy of reproduction" and the negative-positive process so fascinating that I still want to respond.

I've always found it telling that libraries sometimes collect negatives but art galleries rarely do. A couple of other thoughts that occur to me:
- nobody has mentioned slide film - where the negative is (the) positive?
- digital capture I think complicates the negative-positive process even further, with multiple file formats (RAW, etc), 'virtual' copies in software like Lightroom, HDR, and so on… (even my iPhone now captures multiple versions of the 'same' scene, the second a layered multiple exposure). Again, as David Campany puts it, radical plurality at the start!

Geoff Batchen
Posted 07.01.2013 at 02:08

The art market is a very flexible beast and some museums and collectors are now buying negatives (Hans Kraus Jr., for example, exhibits and sells paper negatives in his gallery in New York). You might also have a look at this recent story about Chinese snapshot negatives: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jan/04/negative-collection-camera-film-china.

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