Photography and Dissemination | Geoffrey Batchen | Sunday, 23.09.2012

“Form is henceforth divorced from matter.”

My first post considered photography in the context of its dissemination within consumer capitalism, a context that, I suggested, secured the medium’s presence within modern culture even while dissipating its identity, thereby making possible the very thing it also makes impossible. This contradictory character, in Benjamin’s view a key aspect of the political economy of capitalism and therefore of photography too, is embodied in every aspect of the photographic experience.In my earlier post I spoke of “a disconnection of the photographic image from photography itself, blurring any firm distinction of form and substance.” It is striking, in the literature on photography, how we tend to look through a photograph as if the photograph itself isn’t there, as if a photograph is nothing but its image. In Camera Lucida, for example, Barthes provides a moving rendition of the indexicality of the photograph, telling us that “a sort of umbilical cord links the body of the photographed thing to my gaze.” But he’s in fact talking about images he has seen in photo-mechanically illustrated magazines like Nouvel observateur. He’s talking, in other words, about reproductions of photographs that are themselves reverse-toned reproductions from a negative, the only thing in this equation originally touched by Barthes’s “carnal medium” of light. And yet almost no-one thinks of a negative when confronted with the word ‘photograph’ (look at all those published rhapsodies about photography’s indexicality and see if any of them refer to a negative). We are all, it seems, quite happy to see through the act of reproduction as if it is invisible, or as if this act is indeed what constitutes photography, is what photography is.
Nicéphore Niépce, Man Leading a Horse, c. 1825(ink on paper imprint from heliographic plate)
Proposition: the photographic image comes into being only as a consequence of reproduction. We could take this aphorism quite literally, tracing a history for photography that made reproduction its central narrative. We might note, for example, that the photographic experiments of Claude and Nicéphore Niépce were initiated by a grant offered by the French government to improve the reproductive capacities of lithography. In keeping with this inducement, the earliest extant photographs made by the Niépce brothers are light-induced copies of engravings (not the camera-made heliographic plate currently at the University of Texas in Austin). In similar fashion, as soon as the invention of the daguerréotype was announced, numerous pioneers sought to transform such photographs into engraved plates capable of allowing multiple ink-on-paper copies of their images to be printed from them (these pioneers included Josef von Berres in Vienna, Alfred Donné and Hippolyte Fizeau in Paris, and William Grove in London). The desire for such a capability was in keeping with an art market that already valued the “engraving rights” to an image over its substance (in the 1840s the copyright to a painting was often worth twice the cost of the actual painting, so lucrative was the market in engraved reproductions). This is the context in which early photographic studios distributed examples of their work in the form of wood and steel engraved images, reproduced in the illustrated press. In other words, from the beginning (and how often do we depend on that phrase in our arguments?) the photographic image was divided from the photograph itself.
The American cultural commentator Oliver Wendell Holmes recognized some of the consequences of this displacement in an essay about stereography he published in 1859, describing it as “the divorce of form and substance” (in effect, he describes the separation of the image from its referent, making “form,” among other things, cheaper and therefore more easily turned into a commodity).
Form is henceforth divorced from matter. In fact, matter as a visible object is of no great use any longer, except as the mould on which form is shaped. Give us a few negatives of a thing worth seeing, taken from different points of view, and that is all we want of it. Pull it down or burn it up, if you please…. Matter in large masses must always be fixed and dear; form is cheap and transportable…. Every conceivable object of Nature and Art will soon scale off its surface for us…. The consequence of this will soon be such an enormous collection of forms that they will have to be classified and arranged in vast libraries, as books are now.

As others have suggested, the scenario imagined by Holmes is remarkably prescient, ably describing the digital culture in which all now live. But the important thing to note here is that he is in fact describing the situation in the nineteenth century, the situation in which photography found itself from the outset—the situation that photography embodies as a medium. I therefore find myself coming back to the question that motivates this series of posts: when are we going to write a history for photography that can address and acknowledge this kind of complexity?