The Birth of the Idea of Photography

The Birth of the Idea of Photography
by François Brunet; translated by Shane B. Lillis

The MIT Press & RIC BOOKS (Ryerson Image Centre Books) Toronto, Canada, 2019
First published as Le naissance de l’idée de photographie, 2000
304 pp., illus. 50 col. Trade, $34.95
ISBN: 9780262043267.

Reviewed by
Stephen Petersen
November 2020

When Andy Warhol was asked about his photographic work in a 1985 interview, he gave a characteristically self-effacing answer. “Anyone,” he said, “can take a good picture. Anyone can take a picture.” Made in the context of the “point-and-shoot” camera revolution of the 1980s, Warhol’s comments reflect the notion that photography is a quintessentially popular art, available to all. As with many of Warhol’s seemingly commonplace pronouncements, however, this one begs a number of questions. What does it mean that “anyone” can take a (good) picture? How does this speak to our understanding of photography as a medium? These same questions animate François Brunet’s rich study of photography’s 1st century. Indeed, argues Brunet, the paradox of an art that anybody can do is formative to the very concept of photography, starting with its public announcement in 1839, and leading into the modern era of the snapshot, on the one hand, and fine-art photography on the other.

As suggested by his title, Brunet’s subject is not so much photography as medium as it is photography as discursive entity or cultural object. Whereas historians typically look at the convergence of pre-existing factors (aesthetic, scientific, technological) that led almost inevitably to the invention of photography between the mid-1820s and the late 1830s, Brunet insists that the idea of photography followed—rather than preceded—its invention. For Brunet the idea of photography, first articulated in François Arago’s 1839 announcement of the Daguerreotype process before the French Academy and developed through the successive social and technical evolution of the medium, can be summarized as, “art without art, hence art for all” (p. xiii). Because the photographic image formed as it were naturally, through a physical and chemical process, it was within the reach of everyone. As Brunet knows, this idea is both naïve and idealistic: naïve, insofar as an elaborate and culturally determined set of techniques made the “natural” image possible, and idealistic insofar as producing photographs was out of reach for all but a few specialist professionals (and dedicated amateurs) for most of the 19th century. Despite its paradoxes, this Utopian notion of photography as democratic art form within everyone’s grasp would persist and, in effect, ultimately be realized in a later cultural context.

The book is organized around two “moments” in the history of photography: the “Daguerre moment” marking the public announcement of photography in 1839, and the “Kodak moment” a half-century later. Both of these moments involve an array of currents and countercurrents that Brunet fleshes out through detailed structural analysis, looking less at the specific technical innovations than at the broad cultural shifts brought about under the name of photography.

In January 1839, Arago, a mathematician, scientist, and politician, announced the Daguerretype process invented by Nicéphore Niépce, a scientist and inventor and Louis Daguerre, an artist and showman, before the Académie des Sciences. Over the ensuing months an arrangement was made so that the French state purchased and made public the specifics of the invention, which was often termed a “discovery,” i.e. a natural fact that could, therefore, not practically be patented or licensed. A central paradox emerges, namely that this technical and historical process is given an “atechnical and ahistorical definition … as natural image,” effacing its cultural basis (p. 21). Arago argued that the “discovery” would find myriad applications. He lauded the consummate exactitude, efficiency, and ease afforded by the technique, which would benefit “everyone.”

The “Daguerre law,” authorizing the purchase and public dissemination of the technique by the French State and articulating its potential usefulness, is critical to the formulation of the idea of photography as Brunet sees it, constituting “the birth record of a logical and political entity, photography, understood in its generality” (p. 114). Whereas the Daguerreotype—a unique image on a silver-coated copper plate developed in mercury vapors—was a specific invention, the larger significance of the moment was the articulation of photography as a generic idea. While making a Daguerreotype was a technologically complex task, photography as an idea paradoxically signified “a new order of representation from which know-how is axiomatically excluded” (p. 87). Brunet points to the “contradiction between the complexity or opacity of the operations and the ideological theme of universal access to photography,” noting the consistent way Arago effaces the technical and material exigencies of the Daguerreotype technique in favor of a mythology that everyone can do it (p. 112). Politically, this notion of an art for all resonated with egalitarian ideals. “The idea of photography was thus assigned a republican valence” (p. 115).

It was not until Arago’s initial announcement that other researchers into light-sensitive chemicals and optical apparatus, notably William Henry Fox Talbot and John Herschel in England, “experienced the ‘idea of photography’” and brought their own investigations to a new level of perfection. Talbot’s Calotype technique, involving a paper negative and positive print, “fashioned an ‘English’ invention of photography” alongside the French, and in many ways in tension with it (p. 30).

The very public nature of the Daguerreotype contrasts with the rather more––private Calotype—private in the sense of individual and aristocratic, as well as in the sense of personal and subjective. Talbot’s technique remained largely proprietary, whereas Daguerre’s was freely available (except in England where Daguerre had taken a patent). Talbot frequently photographed his own possessions and his property. But his photography also was private in the sense that it reflected a personal vision, what would later become enshrined in the modernist notion of the “photographer’s eye.” As such it laid the basis for fine-art photography. Brunet contrasts Arago’s “institutional formulation” with Talbot’s “subjectivist translation” of photography (p. 17). Daguerre’s technique lent itself to commerce, Talbot’s to amusement or play, establishing a sort of structural opposition within what Brunet calls a “shared culture,” characterized by, among other things, colonialist adventure (pp. 163-164).

In a historical irony, the Daguerreotype technique would reach its apotheosis not in France but in the United States, where love of new technologies converged with the peculiarly American mix of populism and individualism. Professional portrait operations flourished and the technique came to define mid-19th century visual culture. Central to its appeal was the idea that photography, and the minutely detailed Daguerreotype in particular, was a uniquely direct, immediate, and truthful form of representation. As Ralph Waldo Emerson phrased it: “Tis certain that the Daguerreotype is the true Republican style of painting. The artist stands aside and lets you paint yourself” (p. 216). As construed by the American public, photography was at once non-elitist and individualist, which for Brunet reflects the two poles of the medium in Europe, the public Daguerreotype and the private Calotype. It offered a “synthesis of equality and uniqueness, and thus, in a certain way, of the French and English processes ….” (p. 224). As direct transcriptions of the individual, photographs were perceived to be authentic in a way that other images were not.

Photography remained, for much of the 19th century, divided between producers, who were almost exclusively professionals with “esoteric” skills, and consumers, whose avid appetite for gazing at photographic images fueled the rise of the stereograph and carte-de-visite formats. The wet-collodion process that supplanted both the Daguerreotype and the Calotype in the 1850s afforded virtually endless high-quality reproductions but required extensive skill and cumbersome materials to produce. The highly technical process on the one hand, and the ubiquitous presence of the results on the other, combined to obscure the artistry involved in making photographs. “Figures of evidence” characterized by exactness and mimesis, photographs existed outside of discourse as if natural facts, autonomous images, painted by the sun.

The second historical “moment” in Brunet’s analysis occurred at the end of the 1880’s with the introduction of George Eastman’s Kodak system, which offered “photography without effort, without technique, and therefore open to practically everyone” (p. 230). At once a “great transformation,” it in essence realized the idea, articulated by Arago a half-century before, that photography would offer something that “everyone will be able to use.”

Brunet notes that the Kodak Revolution was uncannily anticipated in 1866 by French photographer Léon Vidal, who presciently hoped for a way to put the means of making photographs in the hands of non-specialists: “It is our wish that photography, which is of such help in every branch of knowledge, should become the domain of everyone; that everyone should have a share of its benefits, that one should use the lens like a pencil, like a [quill] pen that one could buy, fully sharpened, and that one only need dip into an ink that is sold ready for use. The easy reproductions of images of nature outside would be, like any art of writing, one of the powerful auxiliaries of thought” (p. 241).

This notion of a casual, spontaneous, individual practice of photography would be enabled by certain technical innovations seized upon by Eastman, above all the box camera with gelatin roll-film that could hold a hundred latent images for later processing and printing. But the success of the Kodak had more to do with Eastman’s relentless marketing campaign and his vision of the Kodak as an integral part of middle-class life. “More a system than a device, more a service than a system, more a concept and a word than a service, the Kodak was perhaps above all an image, one aimed at the wealthy but more broadly at non-photographers, readers of the popular illustrated magazines in which Eastman published his ads” (p. 253). As a business model the Kodak sought to tap into the bulk of photography’s consumers, turning them into its producers. The result was a new cultural landscape characterized by the proliferation of personal photography. “[Eastman’s] ambition precipitated a social and cultural revolution of vast proportions: the transformation of photography into a mass practice and its refoundation as an instrument of ordinary, everyday memory and fantasy” (p. 255). The photographic image thus became integral to all aspects of human life; private imagery became, ironically, a form of public participation. “‘You press the button—we do the rest’ became a formula for sociability, politics, and even American values” (p. 259). Kodak truly represented “photography for everyone.”

Emerging alongside the seemingly mindless ease of the Kodak Revolution and in reaction to it, Alfred Stieglitz’s Pictorialism was characterized by self-conscious artistry and complexity of technique. The “logic of distinction” between high and low uses of the medium became one of the “structuring principles” of photography at the end of the 19th century, centered on the “division between artistic or serious practice and ritual or ludic practice” (p. 266). For Brunet, popularizing trends have their corresponding de-popularizing movements.

Throughout, Brunet’s nuanced argument teases out the links between seemingly diametrical oppositions: Daguerreotype and Calotype, Kodak and Stieglitz. Taking the full measure of the “idea” of the medium requires accounting for such apparent contradictions. Put another way, the Daguerre moment is also the Talbot moment; the Kodak moment is, for different (but not entirely different) reasons, also the Stieglitz moment, even though Stieglitz defined his practice in opposition to the Kodak.

Along with the Kodak and Stieglitz’s Pictorialism, the 1890s saw the development of pragmatist philosopher Charles Saunders Peirce’s theory of the sign, in which photography is famously used as a central example. For Peirce, the “photographic example” illustrates his distinction between icon (based on visual resemblance) and index (based on physical trace) as two types of reference (the photograph is, somewhat uniquely, both). Still, photographs themselves are hardly seen as meaningful. The point for Brunet is that photographs were still not viewed as cultural objects; instead they seemed to remain quasi-natural, artless: “… in Peirce’s texts, photography and the photographic image occur sometimes as metaphors and more frequently—in semiotic theory—as examples, but never as themes of investigation” (p. 343). Peirce, nonetheless, points the way to a new understanding of photographs as potential subjects of analysis within an expanded discourse of images. Along with the proliferation of the Kodak and the rise of photography as an independent fine art, the incipient understanding of photographs as cultural objects sets the stage for the privileged place of the photographic image in the 20th century.

Brunet ends his genealogical analysis of the “theoretical object photography” with Steiglitz’s well-known series of cloud photographs, the “Equivalents,” begun in 1922. They are at once a continuation of Stieglitz’s self-consciously aesthetic photography, and a departure from it. Famed for his expressive photographic portraits, Stieglitz had been accused by a critic of achieving his results by his hypnotic power over his sitters. In response, he began to turn his camera toward the clouds, framing quasi-abstract compositions. These, he argued, required no special access, no privileged influence; views of the sky were available to anyone. In this most esoteric and rarefied photographic practice, Brunet sees reinstated the core “idea of photography,” and indeed the republican values ascribed to the medium from its initial publication: “At the very heart of the cut that establishes the photographic gaze as a creative act, there remains an imprint of the disavowal of a photographer who designates this gaze as an ordinary human ability” (p. 363). If this brings us back to the received notion that “Anyone can take a good picture” (as Warhol would later put it), Brunet’s study succeeds in tracing the complex genealogy of this idea from Arago through Eastman, Stieglitz, and, by implication, beyond. He shows how photographic modernism constituted a sort of rebirth of the idea of photography, concluding that “… the transformation of photography during the Kodak moment precipitated a cultural, institutional, and philosophical change: once an invention, photography became a sign” (p. 364). The notion of photography as an “art without art” remained a constant, yet was constantly changing.