Photography and Dissemination | Geoffrey Batchen | Monday, 01.10.2012

Still Searching: “the dark, repressed side”

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.