Fotograf Magazine

Inadvertent Images: A History of Photographic Apparitions

When, in his review of the original German edition of Geimer’s book
Bilder aus Versehen. Eine Geschichte fotografischer Erscheinungen
(2010), the young American Germanist Devin Fore wanted to identify the
most important theoretical source used for this publication, he unerringly
specified the work of Bruno Latour.1 Through applying Latour’s notion of
“hybrid actors”, Geimer was able to overcome previous interpretations,
such as those of Geoffrey Batchen and other theoreticians at the turn
of the 21st century, who, under the influence of Foucault, reduced
photography to a language of its own kind, and others, influenced by
Kittler, defined it as a material product of a technical apparatus. It was
only in this way that he did not have to interpret photography as a human
invention, or as the discovery of an existing natural process, but instead
he could always highlight the specific harmony existing between both of
these principles. Additionally, it allowed him to analyse phenomena that
had, until this point, been dismissed in the history of photography as
errors, unintentional images, or mere photographic apparitions. When,
however, in the first chapter the author analyses various images resulting
from light, which we are able to read about in scientific essays from the
early eighteenth century, his intentions were not to shift the origin of
photography to an earlier time, but rather to reveal the procedures that
were used to define the boundary between the history and the prehistory
of photography, and to respond to the question of how these procedures
have thus far been present in every photographic image.

In the book’s central chapters, Geimer looks at two case studies
presented by the neurologist Jules-Bernard Luys and the chemist Émil
David on the subject of experimental photography, and also to Secondo
Pia’s famous Shroud of Turin photographs. Then, in the conclusion, he
focuses on the relationship between the visible and the invisible and on
the “optical unconscious” of photography. Using the example of Luys’ and
David’s photographs, which aimed to capture otherwise unseen “vital fluid”
for the human eye, Geimer demonstrates the structural affinity between
scientific efforts to capture physical phenomena and the visual world of
spiritism. Subsequently, he uses the Shroud of Turin photographs to show
that, in this case, the photograph does not, in the strictest sense of the
word, reveal something that has thus far been invisible, but that it only
provided a new way of describing something that has always been visible.
In the next two chapters the author draws more general, epistemological
conclusions: scientific microphotographs, chronophotographs, x-rays,
and avant-garde photograms do not create a new reality, but rather they
reveal unknown and surprising aspects of things, regardless of whether
they stop a moving body in time, penetrate a body, or transform its outlines
into an abstract artistic form. This is another reason why, according to
Geimer, we can truly speak of the camera as an apparatus to which (using
Benjamin’s well-known formulation) as compared to the human eye, another
nature speaks in the form of “space interwoven with unconsciousness”.

On the occasion of this year’s publication of the English version
of the book and plans for a French version, it is fitting to ask – almost
ten years later – to what extent Fore’s prognosis has been fulfilled,
specifically that Latour’s interpretation will overcome the thus far more
established interpretations according to Foucault and Kittler. There is no
doubt that Latour’s work plays a significant role in the book, as Geimer
devotes key parts of the text to him: firstly, in the beginning, where he
uses Latour’s interpretations to re-evaluate the status of photography as
an invention or a discovery, then in his analysis of the second case study,
and lastly in the conclusion, when Geimer repeatedly cites Latour’s text,
according to which he determines that “the more instruments, the more
mediation, the better the grasp of reality”. Nonetheless, this overcoming
is not a simple matter, but – as the author himself points out – involves
a strategic supplement to existing interpretational approaches.
Latour’s effort to speak from a position from a position before a clearly
defined subject and object just happens to precisely correspond to
Kittler’s criticism of anthropocentrically focused theories, which interpret
the medium as an extension of the human body. This is why Geimer may
in fact cite both authors – Kittler and Latour – in the last paragraph of the
first chapter and claim that: “photography is constituted in the interplay
between conscious and unconscious, between cultural and natural
factors, and some of these factors existed long before the 19st century
and without genealogical or causal ties to their later application”2

Karel Císař

1 FORE, Devin. Wie konnte das nur passieren? Über Bilder aus Versehen. Eine Geschichte
fotografischer Erscheinungen von Peter Geimer. Texte zur Kunst. 2010, (80),
pp. 162–165.
2 GEIMER, Peter. Inadvertent images: A History of Photographic Apparitions. London:
The University of Chicago Press, 2018, p. 30.

GEIMER, Peter. Inadvertent Images A History of Photographic Apparitions. Chicago:
Chicago University Press, 2018. ISBN: 9780226471877.