Fotograf Magazine

Photography: An Ontological Calling Card

Until 2002, the View from the Window in Le Gras was considered to be the world’s oldest preserved photograph. It affects us not only with its special (aesthetic) strength, but also makes us uncertain about our understanding of the photo as such. Nicéphore Niépce created this work in 1826 or 1827 by capturing a scene with a camera obscura and exposing it for eight hours using a lithographic plate with a light-sensitive coating. It is therefore not a reproducible record, or even a representation of anything (of the artist or of his intent), but rather an experiment monitoring the effects and duration of light itself. Niépce called his work heliography, or ‘sun drawing’. The image he captured is not intended to imitate human sight, it is not concentrated on any (photo) equipment – it creates an analogy of the world. It is specifically by using this analogical method that Kaja Silverman attempts to reinterpret not just the creation of this one photo and Niépce’s efforts, but also the entire tradition of this particular medium. In her book The Miracle of Analogy[1], the first in her ambitious two-volume History of Photography, she indirectly opposes the attempt to understand a photo using the maker’s intent, or the role the photograph plays as a symbol (index) in relation to recorded reality. Instead, she presents an existential concept of a photograph understood as a reversal (world-negative-positive) or a ‘revelation’ of our world. She primarily bases her work on Walter Benjamin’s classical differentiation between early and industrial photographs. The former truly reveal a presence, just from the perspective of the actual photography process itself, when the portrayed subjects had to remain absolutely still during the long exposure time. Conversely, commercial photography takes this ‘aura’ away from images and also stereotypes photographs. Both Benjamin and Silverman illustrate this industrial use of photographs using a shot of Franz Kafka as a child, wearing a tight suit, where this snapshot’s only saving grace is Kafka’s ‘extremely sad expression’. As compared to this representative photograph, both authors elevate the pre-industrial use of photos, which, according to Benjamin, radiate their presence – their aura. Silverman takes this concept further, defining photography as an ‘ontological calling card’ that connects us with reality.

                The individual chapters of the book address specific analogies evoked by photography: 1) the camera obscura and techniques in the sense of poiesis (Heidegger); 2. the first photograph in relation to reality; 3) the development of (photo) equipment, which corresponds with photography as an ‘ontological calling card’; 4) the intertwining or the reversal of the medium – to see and to be seen (Merleau-Ponty); 5. the relationship between photography, psychoanalysis, and time (Proust); and lastly, 6) the analogies between early and industrial photography (Benjamin). Silverman supplements her analyses using examples from contemporary art, such as the work Googlegram: Niépce by Joan Fontcuberta, which updates the aforementioned View from the Window by using a collage within the context of digital photography. However, she completely overlooks current theories, including those she is indirectly opposing. As a result, the author successfully raises the issues associated with understanding a photo on the basis of the photographer’s intent, and she presents just as successful an argument against the belief that the camera plays a key and also aggressive role. Conversely, she proposes that photography should be understood as an analogy with our world. Photos are not a representation, somewhat reflecting the absence of a subject, but they do have the ability to reveal reality and bind us to it. Nevertheless, her reinterpretation of the understanding of the medium of photography does not directly confront other theories or the non-artistic, representational use of photographs. As a result, the entire book may be viewed as tending to be more conservative – not as a completely new reinterpretation, but as a return to the early days of photography and how it is reflected in its transformation within the industrial and digital context. Rather than a reinterpretation of the medium as a whole, it explains other interpretations and development, which correspond to the specifically defined concept.     

The end of the book discusses John Dugdale’s photograph Death Mask of John Keats (1999), which is also used on the book’s cover. She elaborates on a number of analogies: between Keats and his mask; between the image and its creator, who is also present in the image; the analogy hidden in the representation of both faces; and finally an analogy between the photograph and the world. The photographer himself, nearly blind at the time the photo was made, does not view the photograph as being an extension of his sight, but instead compares his body to photo paper – like a photograph he feels ‘the light falling on his body’. He is developing a sensitivity towards the world, the metaphor for which, or more precisely, its analogy, is photography. In a way comparable to John Dugdale, with her book Kaja Silverman draws us into the space between an image and reality. This movement does not involve the process of recording something, nor does it bring the past into the present (Barthes’ concept of ‘this was’), but, quite to the contrary, it draws attention to the present, in which we do not present reality but are just revealing it.

[1] SILVERMAN, Kaja. The Miracle of Analogy or The History of Photography. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2015. ISBN 978-080-4793-995.

Václav Janoščík