Daguerre, Christian Prometheus
Twenty years after the revelation of the daguerreotype, Daguerre was deified twice over. It was 1859, the year in which photography, finally admitted to exhibition alongside the annual Salon of painting and sculpture, should have become “the equal of the fine arts.” Two perfectly dissimilar characterizations emerged in this double sacralization. The first is well known, provided by Charles Baudelaire in the second chapter of his Salon of 1859: Daguerre was the messiah of a “vengeful God,” driving “our squalid society [to rush], Narcissus to a man, to gaze at its trivial image on a scrap of metal.”1 But an entirely different Daguerre appears in a review by Philippe Burty, who would later prove to be one of the shrewdest critics of impressionism.2 Far from being hungry for vengeance, this Daguerre was a benevolent figure, giving all of humanity the happiness to which it aspired: “Man has bent to his will one of the forces of nature. … If mythology still reigned, we would divinize this Prometheus who dethroned sunlight and made it work like an obedient slave.”3
So who was Daguerre? The person who precipitated the fall of man into foul narcissism? Or the person who, by giving men mastery of divine light, offered them a path toward ultimate redemption? For his part, Daguerre seemed to be quite conscious of renewing Prometheus’s ancient feat, drawing upon it with evident pride. According to Nicéphore Nièpce, the optician Charles Chevalier described how Daguerre burst into his shop one day exclaiming: “I’ve captured fleeting light and imprisoned it! I made the sun paint pictures for me!”4 Daguerre thus differentiated himself from the “new sun-worshippers” stigmatized by Baudelaire. His cry was not one of worship: it was the victory cry of someone who had transgressed the natural order to seize a superhuman power. In combat with the sun as a natural force, he fought for mastery of its luminous energy and won. Not only had he made the sun paint him pictures, but he had also managed to stop the continual degradation of those pictures by solar light. It was this Promethean character of Daguerre’s achievement that Jules Janin immediately emphasized in L’Artiste:
Note that man remains the master even of the light that he employs. … It is no small point of our admiration that once the sun or the light makes the work, the sun or the light can do nothing more. This fragile coating over which the least ray had such power a moment before can now be exposed in broad daylight; it is as durable and imperishable as a metal engraving. It would be impossible to command more imperiously; it is like saying to the light: You will go no further.5
A dual strength in the face of divine power, Daguerre’s Prometheism consisted as much in the theft of divine light as in the limit that it imposed on its destructive effects. But what exactly did it offer, this light that he had ripped from the sky to give to men and then taught them to master? The answer given by his contemporaries was unequivocal: once enslaved by men in their sublunar world, light conferred on them the attributes of a god. This god was singular, combining the traits of the two Daguerres sketched by Baudelaire and Burty.
These two figures of the Titan and the messiah suggest two distinct modes of photography’s inscription in history. If Daguerre was a new Prometheus, then photography was inscribed in a history of technique that the Greeks launched with the theft of fire. That history is well known. It has been written and re-written ever since François Arago’s announcement of Daguerre’s invention to the Chamber of Deputies on July 3rd, 1839, an invention that France, Arago affirmed, wished “to freely bestow on the entire world.” In this history photography is a process that suddenly allowed every man to accomplish scientific and artistic tasks that, Arago said, would otherwise have demanded “decades and legions of draftsmen. With the Daguerreotype, a single man could carry out this massive chore.”6 In this history Daguerre is the person who gave everyone the chance of rising to the rank of Titan by saving them labor and time.
But if, like Baudelaire, one saw in Daguerre the messiah of a vengeful God, then photography was inscribed in the history of theology. While this captive light conferred properly titanesque abilities, it also endowed all of humanity with the essential attributes of a Christian God. With Daguerre’s invention God was no longer the only all-seeing, all-knowing being in the universe, the only one who, Pierre Lombard said, with as much fear as respect, “knew the number of flies, mosquitoes, gnats, and fish.”7 Photography suddenly made men see and understand that which neither the eye nor the human conscience had ever perceived. One of the first daguerreotypists describes people “counting, on these new images, roof tiles and chimney bricks”; they “marveled at the mortar preserved between each brick.”8 Delacroix was frightened in the face of this new infinite, which came to torment his conscience. He wrote that “if the eye had the perfection of a magnifying glass, photography would be intolerable: we would see in it every leaf on a tree, every tile on a roof, and on those tiles moss, insects, etc.”9 Not only would photography make men see and know everything, but it would also give them divine omnipresence in the form of ubiquity. Finally, man acquired omnipotence through the enslaved light that was recreating every aspect of the world, since “omnipotence first realizes, proves itself in creation.”10
The fact that this new divine power descended from heaven, nineteen hundred years after the Incarnation, was effected by the mediation of a machine rather than the will of God made some guardians of the Christian faith fear that the invention itself was the devil’s work. Recall this article from a Leipzig newspaper from 1839, cited by Walter Benjamin in his “Little History of Photography”:
To try to capture fleeting mirror images is not just an impossible undertaking, as has been established after thorough German investigation; the very wish to do such a thing is blasphemous. Man is made in the image of God, and God’s image cannot be captured by any machine of human devising. The utmost the artist may venture, borne on the wings of divine inspiration, is to reproduce man’s God-given features without the help of any machine, in the moment of highest dedication, at the higher bidding of his genius.11
That is the end of the passage cited by Benjamin, who quickly dismisses what he calls “a ludicrous stereotype”: “Here,” he writes, “we have the philistine notion of ‘art’ in all its overweening obtuseness, a stranger to all technical considerations, which feels that its end is nigh with the alarming appearance of the new technology.”12 If Walter Benjamin was right to read here the fear of technique, what follows this “farcical schema” also deserves some attention:
But to make a machine that wants to replace genius, that would like to produce man according to its own calculations, is tantamount to putting an end to all of Creation. A man who undertakes such a presumptuous thing must think himself cleverer than the Creator of the universe.
True, God has so far been tolerant as far as his own creation of the mirror is concerned, toy of the Devil though it may be. … However, no mirror, neither one of glass nor one of quicksilver, has so far received permission from God to retain people’s faces. Never has God allowed this Devil’s artifact … to score that kind of triumph, and to control that likeness of God, the human face. … Nevertheless one must clearly understand how vain and unchristian humanity would be, losing its salvation, if everyone could make their mirror image by the dozen. … A terrible vanity would spread like an epidemic, because if every face could expose and admire itself for pennies, that would produce men who are godless, superficial, and vain.13
We could judge this text from 1839 idiotic, but that would not change the fact that Baudelaire repeated its arguments twenty years later. In addition to the same denunciation of the narcissism of the masses understood as the work of the Devil or a vengeful God, neither this text nor Baudelaire’s Salon of 1859 could forgive photography for replacing genius with a machine, divine inspiration with automatism, God’s presence in man with a godless device or, in Baudelaire’s words, a machine without imagination, the “queen of the faculties” that he deemed the creative and governing force of the world. For Baudelaire, and for the journalist in 1839, the photographic machine was worse than the negation of man’s interior life, worse than the postulate that humanity had become a stranger to itself: it signified no less than the complete dechristianization and disenchantment of the world.
But Baudelaire, who never neglected humanity’s “double nature,” did not just decry Daguerre and his modern public. In his criticism of the same Salon of 1859 he indicts that part of himself that drove him, despite his horror, to have his portrait drawn, and that linked him to those painters who called themselves realists but whom he preferred to stigmatize as positivists. He attacks painters who say: “I want to represent things as they are, or rather as they would be if I didn’t exist.” “The universe without man,” as he puts it, with the same terror as if he had written “the sky empty of God.” To this ideal of pure positivism he opposes that of the imaginative painter, the other side of himself, proclaiming: “I want to illuminate things with my spirit and project the reflection onto other spirits.”14
Baudelaire’s criticism adopts the same rhetoric with which all artists threatened by the new machine were trying to defend themselves. To physical light, operating automatically, they opposed the light of the spirit, guiding their hand in a work that would illuminate the world. Obviously what terrorized Baudelaire as much as the priest of the Leipziger Anzeiger, and with them most artists, was that photography made possible not so much nature without man but nature without them, without priests or artists, without divinely inspired men, which is to say without mediators between God and men. They understood that they were becoming suddenly obsolete because light no longer passed through them, and that the photographic machine ultimately signified the end of the pontifex, the builder of bridges between man and heaven. Constantin-François Volney, in Ruins, or Meditations on the Revolutions of Empires, had imagined this dialogue between “a large and small group of men”:
PRIESTS.—Our dear brethren! our children! God has ordained us to govern you.
PEOPLE.—Show us your credentials from God!
PRIESTS.—You must have faith; reason leads astray.
PEOPLE.—Do you govern without reason?
PRIESTS.—Would you live without gods or kings?
PEOPLE.—We would live without oppressors.
PRIESTS.—You must have mediators, intercessors.
PEOPLE.— Mediators with God and with the king! courtiers and priests, your services are too expensive: we will henceforth manage our own affairs.
And the little group said: All is lost, the multitude is enlightened.15
Photography was like the symptom of a new Reformation, but even more implacable than Luther’s because it demanded not the renunciation of the image but rather an image purified of its intermediaries, an image that would finally allow free, immediate communication between man and the divine.
Like any reformation, this one gave the dying new life. Heliography offered men a new alliance: it traded slabs of stone inscribed by the hand of God with metal plates inscribed by the sun. This is why photography is essentially Christian, in Feuerbach’s sense of “the image is the essence of religion.” But by repeating the replacement of the word of God by His image, photography did not confer the deposit to a caste of mediators but to a simple machine. The God who was once brought low by his Incarnation, that mystery that the icon was made to repeat in order to certify the coming of Christ the Redeemer, it was as if Daguerre had now rendered His Ascension impossible, constraining Him to remain among men.
In this sense the invention of photography was a revolutionary re-appropriation of a universal God long since confiscated by mediators. But this also signified another theology of light, or at least the absorption of divine light by reason and calculation. “All is lost, the multitude is enlightened.” Light was no longer the vertical link through which God communed with an elect few, divinely possessed and inspired, but rather an infinity of horizontal links between men, all equally and naturally photosensitive.
When a monument honoring Daguerre was erected in his birthplace in 1883 (fig. 1), Étienne Carjat, one of the photographers for whom Baudelaire had posed, read a very republican poem titled “The Art of the Poor” (“L’Art du pauvre”):
Before you, sublime inventor,
Art, disdainful of the proletariat,
Hogged by the painter and the sculptor,
Belonged to the greats of the earth.
All: dukes, popes, kings, emperors,
Devourers of money, heroes of war,
Fought over marble and paint:
Now the poor man has Daguerre!16
Images had only ever been divinely transmissible. And for that reason, whether they were icons “not made by the hand of man” (acheiropoïète) in the Orient, or created by a special elect possessed with “the fire of genius” in the Occident, they had only ever been the mediators’ images. By becoming the product of a mechanical transmission of natural light, the image became an image of all, by all. Before Daguerre, the image was speculative and conveyed a message; after him, it became practical, knowing nothing of the thing in itself and sensitive only to phenomena. Before Daguerre, Christian images focused on man’s “interior” in which God was present. After Daguerre, Christianity’s strategy was to focus on the space men shared and that separated them from heaven.
But this calculating Christianity did not stop being Christian. On the contrary, Providence is calculation and foresight. As Alexandre Kojève has observed, all modern science is Christian in origin, because only the dogma of Incarnation, of a body at once earthly and divine, could lead men to discover ideal relations in perceptual phenomena.17 And this is why, contrary to what frightened part of Baudelaire and the priests stigmatizing a machine that “would like to produce man according to its own calculations,” photography was not opposed to Christianity at all. It reinvigorated it in the very process of its dissolution.
Daguerre’s Europe was in the throes of an intense re-christianization in which the dissolved relations of a dying religion now found themselves re-inscribed in matter, brought from their magical or spiritual primitive state to a new state of technical concreteness. Just two years after Daguerre’s invention was made public, Ludwig Feurbach published The Essence of Christianity, which spelled out this passage from the imaginary to tangible reality, interior to exterior:
I do nothing more to religion—and to speculative philosophy and theology also—than to open its eyes, or rather to turn its gaze from the internal towards the external, i.e., I change the object as it is in the imagination into the object as it is in reality.18
But two years later he ends the preface to the book’s second edition by recalling what he saw as “the historical (dis)solution of Christianity”:
[I] have shown that Christianity has in fact long vanished, not only from the Reason but from the life of mankind, that it is nothing more than a fixed idea, in flagrant contradiction with our Fire and Life Assurance companies, our railroads and steam-carriages, our picture and sculpture galleries, our military and industrial schools, our theaters and scientific museums.19
Feuerbach did not want to understand that Christianity was in fact reforming and developing toward, and perhaps even completing, our insurance companies, railroads and steam-carriages, because he did not want to accept that technique could positively manifest the predicates of God. Because he did not understand or want to understand, as Marinetti would say later on, that trains, bridges, and tunnels are divine, as are films and wireless radio, shotguns and cannons.20 Feuerbach did not want to acknowledge that Progress, in which he placed all his faith, was just another name for a secularized divine Providence.
The New Christianity of Saint-Simon and his disciples that wanted to extract “the golden age from the past in order to enrich future generations” increasingly took hold in Europe. All that was needed to make this messianic period happen, they said, was to make every new and publicly useful invention that emerged out of the joint efforts of artist and savant materialize immediately, with the help of industry men who proved themselves capable of “putting all ideas into production.”21 It was in this precise conjunction of industry and religion, a conjunction both romantic and social, that Daguerre could be made into a Christian Prometheus, the incarnation of a heroism of technique in the service of a new Christianity. This practical Christianity ultimately replaced the cult of images provided by Providence with the cult of techniques of production provided by Progress. Photography materialized this displacement so abruptly that it was immediately articulated in the clearest terms by Janin, in one of the first articles devoted to the new process: “We live in a singular epoch; we no longer dream of producing anything by ourselves; rather, we seek with unmatched perseverance the means to have things reproduced for us and in our place.”22
What such a remark makes clear is also what is most striking about Daguerre’s invention: that the photographic process bears in itself a politics of the image that would considerably facilitate the propagation of Christian universalism. It is important to remember that Christianity is first and foremost a religion of human salvation by the image. Early on, the Greek fathers of the Church defined Christ as “the first icon of the invisible God” (John of Damascus).23 The new alliance forged with God was an alliance of all men with an image, and no longer one of a people with a written Law. Based in Incarnation, the cult of images found its justification there: just as the divine word was made flesh for the salvation of all, every image of Christ renewed his universal message after his death. In this way the propagation of Christianity is historically bound up with the propagation of its images—images that the Greek fathers considered “not made by human hands,” that is, devoid of interpretation, so as to further guarantee their authenticity and universal weight.
In this expansion, the medium of the image took the place of Christ Mediator and prolonged in space and time the redemptive action of he who said: “While I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (John, 9:5). But it was not until much later that one knew how to make images in which human interpretation was not dogmatically reduced (as in the icon), but automatically curbed. It was precisely the moment when, in the history of the West, divine light seemed as if absorbed and entirely dissolved in the natural light of the world (echoing the romantic affirmation of the divinity of landscape), that the means to conserve and reproduce its imprint—automatically and without the hand of man—was invented.
Nevertheless, it would take the Church more than a century after Daguerre’s invention to recognize that the “means of social communication,” which is to say the media, far from being still in conflict with what it called the “unique Mediator,” could bring, on the contrary, “an important contribution … to the extension and consolidation of God’s kingdom.” The Second Vatican Council (1962–65) re-established the Church’s “inherent right” over all media:
The Catholic Church, since it was founded by Christ our Lord to bear salvation to all men … , considers it one of its duties to announce the Good News of salvation also with the help of the media of social communication and to instruct men in their proper use.
It is, therefore, an inherent right of the Church to have at its disposal and to employ any of these media insofar as they are necessary or useful for the instruction of Christians and all its efforts for the welfare of souls.24
What the Church found in all media, but especially in photography, was a means to affirm its universal vocation. This process was driven by a politics of the image: a politics of infinite expansion proper to all forms of universalism.
Photography’s universalism resided first in its very technique. When Janin called this sun writing or heliography “universal engraving,” he meant that the concept of universality, after being displaced from the sun to the light that belonged, like electricity, to the “universal fluids,” applied itself from that point on to this technique that allowed, at least virtually, the conservation and reproduction of the imprint of everything that had been touched by the natural light of the world.
It was, more precisely, the automaticity of photography’s technique that affirmed its universal vocation. This automatic process, Daguerre insisted, “demanded no special knowledge.” This meant that any man with such a machine was transformed into an “automatic mediator” of the light of the world, without needing any divine inspiration.
Finally, photography was assigned from the moment of its birth (notably by Arago) the conquest of the world by automatic reproduction. The very first albums titled Excursions daguerriennes, which gathered views of more or less distant countries taken by “automatic mediators” sent in haste, testify to this immediate appropriation of the world by converting it into images. Each photograph or “prise de vue” was like a baptism that would soon spare nothing and no one under the sun. Little by little, photography constructed its Church on a global scale, building one great visible body and thereby accomplishing the very mission of Christianity according to Vatican II: “Christ, the one Mediator, established and continually sustains here on earth His holy Church … as an entity with visible delineation, … [serving the growth] of the body.”25
It is thus at the moment of its (dis)solution, when all the appointed mediators saw their legitimacy attacked, that Christianity regenerated itself through an alliance with the process of universal engraving, renewing its promise of salvation not in this world but in a world beyond prepared by the image. For the more the visible body of this new Church grew, the more the world itself became invisible under the salvific power of its automatic reproduction.
Translated by Bridget Alsdorf
An early version of this article was presented on 6 February 1996 as part of a series of lectures on “Questions de photographie,” Société française de photographie / Université Paris-VIII. It first appeared in French in Études photographiques, no. 2 (May 1997).