The Miracle of Analogy
The following text emerges from Kaja Silverman’s forthcoming book The Miracle of Analogy (Stanford University Press, 2014). The opening section is drawn from the first chapter and the discussion of Niépce from chapter two. We thank Silverman for her generosity in allowing us to provide a preview of her book.–Editor’s note
We have grown accustomed to thinking of the camera as an aggressive device: an instrument for shooting, capturing and representing the world. Since most cameras require an operator, and it is usually a human hand that picks up the apparatus, points it in a particular direction, makes the necessary technical adjustments and clicks the camera button, we often transfer this power to our look. The standardization of this account of photography marked the beginning of a new chapter in the history of modern metaphysics—the history that began with the cogito, that seeks to establish man as the “relational center” of all that is, and whose “fundamental event” is “the conquest of the world as a picture.”1 It did so by fixing a problem that had emerged in the previous chapter: the problem posed by human perception. In order to replace the sky and earth with his mental representations, Descartes had to “call away all of [his] senses” and “efface even from [his] thoughts all of the images of corporeal things.”2 His camera-wielding successor could picture the world—or so he claimed—without closing his eyes.
When we challenge this account of photography, it is usually by appealing to the medium’s indexicality. Since an analogue photograph is the luminous trace of what was in front of the camera at the moment it was made, we argue, it attests to its referent’s reality, just as a footprint attests to the reality of the foot that formed it. The philosopher from whom we have inherited the concept of indexicality—Charles Sanders Peirce—uses it to describe both signs that are linked to an unfolding situation or event, and those that are linked to a prior situation or event. “I see a man with a rolling gait. This is a probable indication that he is a sailor,” he writes in “What Is a Sign?.” “I see a man with a rolling gait. This a probable indication that he is a sailor… A weathercock indicates the direction of the wind. A sun-dial or a clock indicates the time of day…[and] a tremendous thunderbolt indicates that something considerable happened, though we may not know precisely what the event was.”3
Discussions of photographic indexicality, though, always focus on the past; an analogue photograph is presumed to stand in for an absent referent—one that is no longer there.4 A photograph is “in no way a presence…,” Roland Barthes writes in “The Rhetoric of the Image,” an influential and widely-read essay from the mid-sixties, “its reality is that of the having-been-there.”5 Although Barthes associates the photographic image more with the future perfect than the past in Camera Lucida, he does not temper the image’s finality; looking at an 1865 photograph of a man awaiting execution, he “shudder[s]” over “a catastrophe which has already occurred.”6
This account of the photographic image has rendered it appealing to many artists and writers. For some, like Walter Benjamin and the young Hans Haacke, it seemed to give photography an evidentiary power—the power to expose what might otherwise escape justice.7 It has justly been said that [Atget] photographed [the empty streets of Paris] like scenes of crime,”8 Benjamin writes in Section VII of “The Work of Art,” “A crime scene, too, is deserted.” Others attribute a memorial value to the photographic image, engaging with its “pastness” in ways more melancholy than accusatory. For Ana Mendieta, W.G. Sebald, Tacita Dean and Eduardo Cadava, an analogue photograph is the umbilical cord connecting us to what we have loved and lost, to what is gone because we failed to save it, or to what might have been, but now will never be.
But although there have been pitched battles between those who champion the evidentiary value of the photographic image, and those who emphasize its constructedness, the former is only another way of overcoming doubt. If a photograph can prove “what was,” then it is the royal road to certainty—the means through which we know and judge the world. And if what we see when we look at a photographic image is unalterable, then there is only one thing that we can do: take “what is dead” or “going to die” into our “arms.”9 Indexicality wrings all of the futurity out of the photographic image, extinguishing our last principle of hope.10
Both of these accounts of the photographic image emerged early in the medium’s history. In a chilling passage in his 1859 essay, “The Stereoscope and the Stereograph,” Oliver Wendell Holmes not only characterizes the world as a picture, whose essence inheres in its photographic representability, but suggests that once this essence has been extracted, the world itself can be thrown away. “Form is henceforth divorced from matter,” this passage reads, “In fact matter as a visible object is of no great use any longer…Give us a few negatives of a thing worth seeing, taken from different points of view, and that is all we want of it. Pull it down or burn it up, if you please.”11 In 1857, Lady Eastlake declared that the medium’s “unerring records in the service of mechanics, engineering, geology, and natural history” to be “facts of the most sterling and stubborn kind,” and therefore “the sworn witness of everything presented to [its] view.”12 And in another passage in the same essay she writes that “every form that is traced by light is the impress of one moment, or one hour” in the “great passage of time” (65).
However, as we will see, both Holmes’s and Eastlake’s essays contain many passages that point in a different direction—that foreground the limits of human vision, that attribute the photographic image to the world, and that suggest that photography’s truth is disclosive, rather than evidentiary. Both authors also call it a “gift,” and identify us as the recipients of this gift. Finally, Lady Eastlake repeatedly characterizes the photographic image as an emerging image: one that approaches us from the future. And not only are these tropes ubiquitous in earlier descriptions of the photographic image, they also appear in seventeenth and eighteenth century descriptions of the camera obscura, and in late nineteenth and early twentieth century descriptions of painting, writing, and human perception, still attached to the photographic image. They seriously challenge the ways in which we conceptualize and periodize photography.
This book is a response to that challenge. Photography is—as I hope to demonstrate—radically anti-Cartesian. It shows us that there really is a world, that it wants to be seen by us, and that it exceeds our capacity to know it. Photography also shows us that the world is structured by analogy, and helps us find our place within it. When I say “analogy,” I do not mean sameness, symbolic equivalence, logical adequation, or even a rhetorical figure—like a metaphor or a simile—in which one term functions as the provisional placeholder for another. I am talking, rather, about the “vast similitude” that Walt Whitman describes in a famous passage from Leaves of Grass. “A vast similitude interlocks all/,” this passage reads, “All spheres, grown, ungrown, small, large, suns, moons, planets,/All distances of place however wide, /All distances of time, all inanimate forms, /All souls, all bodies though they be ever so different, or in different worlds,/All gaseous, watery, vegetable, mineral processes, the fishes, the brutes,/All nations, colors, barbarisms, civilizations, languages,/All identities that have existed or may exist on this globe, or any globe,/All lives and deaths, all of the past, present, future….”13
I quoted this passage in its entirety because it anticipates everything I have to say about analogy. Each of us is connected through similarities that are neither of our making or our choosing to countless other beings. We cannot extricate ourselves from these relationships, because there is no such thing as an individual; the smallest unit of Being is two interlocking terms. There is also nowhere else to go. Analogy runs through everything-that-is like a shuttle through a loom, weaving its threads into the All, or what I call the “world.” But this does not mean that there is no dissent. Analogies contain difference as well as similarity—sometimes in small proportions, but sometimes in such large proportions that they seem at risk of falling apart. The world is also an untotalizable totality, because it is in a constant state of transformation. Since analogy prevents similar things from collapsing into, and disparate things from going their separate ways, it is ontologically democratizing. Everything matters.
Since we refuse to acknowledge most of the analogies that link us to others, our ontological equality seldom translates into social equality, and might therefore seem irrelevant. However, these analogies destabilize all of our hierarchies, and undermine all of our antitheses. The world also sends us constant reminders that there is another kind of relationality. These reminders are photographs—either literally, or by other means. Photography is able to disclose the world, show us that it is structured by analogy, and help us assume our place within it because it, too, is analogical. A negative analogizes its referent, the positive prints that are generated from it, and all of its digital offspring. It also moves through time, in search of other “kin.” We are no more the authors of these analogies than we are of those that define us; the photographic image is an ontological calling card—the vehicle through which the world presents itself to us, and reveals us to ourselves.
The most classic way of responding to an analogy that ones does not want to acknowledge is either to treat its similarity as “sameness,” or its difference as “otherness.” Most of us have done this so often that we are no longer able to perceive either quality when it falls below a certain level. In the last chapter of Flesh of My Flesh, I argued that Gerhard Richter renews our capacity to apprehend small differences as differences by making paintings that analogize photographs, and that he includes photography in these analogies because there is something inherently photographic about this kind of relationship. The analogies that link one print of a negative to all of the other prints of the same negative also turn on variations so slight that we have a hard time seeing them, and many photographs are startlingly “like” their referents.
I address this sort of analogy here as well, but I am more concerned with analogies in which there is an overwhelming amount of difference, and that are held together though reversible reversals, or what Merleau-Ponty calls “chiasmus.” This is also a quintessentially photographic kind of analogy. Photography models it for us through the inversion and lateral reversal of the camera obscura’s image-stream, the positive print’s reversal of the reversal through which its negative was made, the two-way street leading from the space of the viewer to that of the stereoscopic image, cinema’s shot/reverse shot formation, and the cross-temporal practices of some contemporary artists. I say “model” because we, too, are bound to each other through reversible reversals, and because it is there, and only there, that the promise of social happiness can still be glimpsed.
Not only is the photographic image an analogy, rather than a representation or an index, analogy is also the fluid in which the so-called “medium” of photography develops—and often in unexpected directions. This process does not begin when we decide that it should, or end when we command it to. Photography develops, rather, with us, and in response to us. It assumes historically-legible forms, and when we divest them of their saving power, generally by imputing them to ourselves, it goes elsewhere. The earliest of these forms was the pinhole camera, which was more “found” than invented. It morphed into the optical camera obscura, was reborn as chemical photography, migrated into literature and painting, and lives on in a digital form. It will not end until we do.
As we have already seen [earlier in chapter 2], Daguerre was not interested in reproduction; his photographs were “one of a kind.” Although Fox Talbot invented the process that allowed multiple positive prints to be made from a negative, that was not what drew him to photography either. He was slow to deploy it, and when he finally began to “reverse” his “reversed” images, as he called them, he did so by placing a sheet of sensitized paper directly on the negative, and exposing it to light. Since this procedure had to be repeated every time he wanted a positive print, and nothing about it was standardized, the resulting images are far from identical and he defends their differences in The Pencil of Nature.14
The only one of the three figures I have discussed in this chapter who thought of photography as a primarily reproductive medium was Niépce. He tried to use it to copy engravings, to “take” what he saw when he looked out of his study window, and—finally–to make prints of View from a Window. The first of these attempts led to a few recognizable images, the second to one that is barely legible, and the third to nothing at all. Niépce attributed his inability to reproduce View from a Window to the “metallic reflection” of the pewter plate, and thought that he would be able to “obtain a vigorous picture” from a glass plate, but history suggests otherwise.15 In the years since Niépce removed the photograph from the camera obscura, and washed it with lavender and white petroleum, there have been numerous attempts to reproduce it, none of which has succeeded.
In 1827, Niépce went to England to visit Claude, who was gravely ill, and he took View from a Window with him. While he was there, he met Francis Bauer, a well-known botanical draughtsman, who encouraged him to write a memoir about his discovery for presentation to the Royal Society. Niépce wrote the memoir, but he was so secretive about his process that nothing came of it.16 He left View from a Window with Bauer when he returned to France, and after Bauer’s death it passed through several other hands. It was publicly exhibited in 1885 and 1898, and then passed into obscurity.17
Helmut and Alison Gernsheim spent six years trying to track down View from a Window, and in 1952 they finally found what they were looking for, in a large trunk in England. When he first saw the photograph, Gernsheim recounts in his most comprehensive account of this discovery,18 he thought that he was looking at a mirror in an Empire frame. He went to the window, and angled the plate in various directions, and eventually the image came into view. Astonishingly, given that Gernsheim wrote this essay more than half a century after the industrialization of photography, he attributes its appearance to the courtyard, rather than Niépce’s action, or his own intervention. He also suggests that this self-disclosure happened gradually; the “entire courtyard scene unfolded itself in front of my eyes,” he observes (my emphasis).19
Gernsheim persuaded the owner of the heliograph to donate it to his extensive photography collection, and immediately tried to photograph it, but all that appeared in the resulting images was his camera. He then asked Scotland Yard to help him reproduce it, reasoning that since its photographers were “so expert in detecting invisible spots, scratches, hair, and fingerprints where the eye can see nothing at all,” making a copy of a “clearly recognizable image” should be “easy game.” When Britain’s famous detective agency declined to put its public services to private uses, he turned first to the Times, where the project was deemed to be “impossible,” and then to the National Gallery, whose highly skilled photographers tried, but failed, to reproduce View from a Window. Finally, thinking that the “giants of the photographic industry” would feel “in honor bound to produce a result,” Gernsheim approached the Research Laboratory of the Eastman Kodak Company in Harrow, and the director agreed to try. But although the Eastman Kodak technicians worked on the project for three weeks, Gernsheim found the resulting photograph a “gross distortion of the original,” and prohibited its publication until 1977.20
As we can see from the first institution to which he first turned for help—Scotland Yard—Gernsheim imputed an evidentiary value to the photographic image. He believed that a photograph of View from a Window would document this “important document,” and he approached the heliograph itself in the same way. “Though Niépce’s estate, Gras, was altered to some extent by later owners, the tower (pigeon house) on the left of the photograph still stands, and is in fact on the left when looking out of the window of Niépce’s attic workroom,” he writes in The History of Photography, “a proof that a prism was used when taking the photograph. These two facts make it quite certain that the view cannot have been taken before 1826” (59). This passage recalls those in which Niépce tried to align his photographs with what he saw when he looked out of his workroom window.
In 1963, Gernsheim gave View from a Window to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin, and in June 2002, the Center sent it to the Getty Conservation Institute to be examined and reproduced. The Institute’s technicians adopted an even more forensic approach to the photograph. They spent “a day and a half with the original heliograph in their photographic studios in order to record photographically and digitally all aspects of the plate.” They also documented it “under all manner of scientific lights, including ultraviolet spectra,” and “produced new color film and digital/electronic copies of the plate, in an attempt to reveal more of the unretouched image while still providing a sense of the complex physical state of the photograph.”21 But the digital images that are displayed on the Harry Ransom Center website are no more revealing of the “unretouched image” than the Kodak photograph is. And the curators seem to understand this, because they are constantly changing these images.
Gernsheim and the Getty technicians attribute the heliograph’s unreproducibility to Niépce’s underexposure of the original plate. This explanation, however, is unnecessary, because there is no blame to apportion. The Kodak photograph and all of the images that have appeared on the John Ransom website Center website are not “bad copies,” or even “representations of representations”22; they are, rather, some of the analogies through which the heliograph has continued to self-develop. This creative evolution began with a non-photographic image, and gained momentum through another unholy alliance: a “manipulated” photograph of an over-painted photograph.
When Gernsheim realized that he would have to surrender the heliograph to a “research laboratory” in order to have it reproduced, he decided to make a drawing of it in the same scale, so that he would have a record of the “crucial document” if something happened to it. We do not usually attribute evidentiary value to a drawing, and this one warrants no exception. Instead of an elusive image hidden in the illusionistic depths of a shiny pewter plate, it is a legible sketch on a flat sheet of non-reflective paper. It also privileges line over mass, and reverses the photograph’s tonal values. But this does not mean that the heliograph and the drawing are two separate images. The shapes in the drawing echo those in the heliograph, and the heliograph also resembles the drawing in some surprising ways. View from a Window would be as useless in a court of law as the drawing; it corresponded with the ceaselessly-changing scene outside Niépce’s window on the day it was made, rather than to it. It was also drawn with a ”pencil”: the pencil of light. These are aspects of the photograph that we would not see without Gernsheim’s drawing. View from a Window reasserts itself as heliograph—a gift from the world to us—in an astonishing way: through an image drawn with a human hand.
When the Kodak technicians failed to produce a satisfactory copy of View from a Window, Gernsheim had nowhere else to go, so he and his wife spent nearly two days applying pointillist water-color dots to one of their prints, so as to make it more representative of the heliograph. When he photographed this over-painted photograph, he “held back the sky, the roof of the barn, and a few other features that were bright in the original, not black.” Gernsheim was keenly aware of the differences between the heliograph and this image. His photograph of the over-painted photograph is “a more uniform and clearly defined image” than the Kodak print, he writes in “The 150th Anniversary of Photography,” but its “pointillistic effect” is “completely alien” to Niépce’s medium,” which is “as smooth as a mirror.” However, he nevertheless called it the “rare original” in his 1952 account of his study, and mandated that it be the heliograph’s primary representative for twenty-five years.
Much later, after this “ruse” was discovered, Gernsheim responded to his critics in the following way: “Because it became known that that I had touched up Kodak’s reproduction some people ignorant of the original plate, misconstrued my intention, believing I had been trying to improve on Niépce, whereas I had merely been trying to improve upon Kodak, to restore Niépce.” The word “intention” figures prominently here; it is, indeed, the pivot on which his defense turns. Gernsheim’s detractors imputed the wrong intention to him, he argues, and when they realize that he was merely trying to reassert Niépce’s intention, they will exonerate him. But not only can we never fully know what anyone else intends, we can never fully know what we intend. Gernsheim was also contending with another intentionality, and one that militated against a return to the ”original”: the photograph’s own impulsion toward a further self-development. This impulsion was the driving force behind through the many transformations to which Gernsheim subjected View from a Window. I say “many” because the drawing and the over-painted photograph weren’t the only analogies generated by Gernsheim. The entire process began with a mental image or group of images, and when Gernsheim touched up the photograph, he analogized this analogy. The over-painted photograph is–as Barbara Brown discreetly puts it–“his approximation of how he felt the original should appear in reproduction.”23
Even now, it is to this image that most of us turn when we want to look at View from a Window, and for good reason. Like the heliograph, it evolved slowly, through the gradual accumulation of marks. In the former case, as in the latter case, there was also no necessary end-point to this evolution. Finally, although the heliograph’s “image layer” was long assumed to consist of a solid coat of bitumen, the Getty’s “XRF analysis” showed that it is actually a random pattern of bitumen “microdots.”24 Since Gernsheim died long before the Getty analyzed the heliograph, he never knew about these microdots, but they surfaced through his dots of watercolor paint, like an image in a developing bath.
In spring 2013, an “interactive” version of View from a Window appeared on the John Ransom Center’s website. It is a digital composite of two other images: Gernsheim’s drawing, and the most frequently exhibited of the Center’s “high tech” photographs of the heliograph. The former is superimposed on the latter, and used to divide it into identifiable segments. If one clicks on a segment, as one is invited to do, its outlines light up with an orange glow, and the pertinent information appears to the left of the image (e.g., “bakehouse roof, no longer standing”). This is a continuation of the forensic project begun by Niépe, and renewed by Gernsheim and the Getty technicians. But once again another intentionality also makes itself felt. Although the two images that are composited together echo each other, they do not merge. Some of the lines of the superimposed diagram extend beyond or cut into the shadowy shapes of the underlying buildings. These discrepancies prevent the image that they both inhabit from forming a seamless whole. The “interactive” version of View from a Window is consequently manifestly analogical, and it links chemical photography to digital photography, as well as drawing.
A 2005 work by Joan Fontcuberta—Googlegram: Niépce—is another installment in this ongoing story, and the one with which I will conclude my own narrative.25 From a distance, Googlegram: Niépce looks like a blown-up, slightly colorized version of Gernsheim’s over-painted photograph. As one approaches the work, though, it begins to morph. First the image becomes less resolute, then it turns into an abstract picture, and eventually it dissolves into a vast mosaic of tiny jpegs. There are far more images here than our eyes could ever see, even if we were to spend the rest of our lives looking at them, making Googlegram: Niépce a powerful reminder of the limits of human vision, and the inexhaustibility of the perceptual world. The work also challenges our sovereignty in another important way: by exposing us to a multitude of other intentionalities.
Two of these intentionalities are computational. Fontcuberta begins a Googlegram by locating an image that is “an icon of our time,” and that is linked to one or more words. He then conducts a Google image-search with this word or set of words, and reconstitutes the iconic image with the jpegs to which this search leads through a freeware photomosaic program.26 The search part of this process ignores both the visual qualities of the images it finds, and their affinities to each other; it is relentlessly linguistic. But it also treats words as classificatory units, rather than as sources of meaning, or one of the “houses” of Being. It is thus as impervious to the complexity of the words with which it searches as it is to the images it finds, and this leads to all kinds of errors, or what Fontcuberta calls “archive noise.”27 Although the photomosaic program is also relentlessly single-minded and indifferent to the images with which it works, its “logic” is visual, instead of verbal. It arranges the jpegs strictly according to their “chromatic value and density.”28
The iconic image that Fontcuberta refashions in Googlegram: Niépce is of course Gernsheim’s over-painted photograph, and he searched for its 10,000 jpegs with the words “photo” and “foto.” Since View from a Window is often called “the first photograph,” on the internet, as in the classroom, there is an unusually tight connection between it and the search words, but since every image on the internet is a digital photograph, the search also encompassed all of them. The photo-mosaic program forged similar links between the over-painted photograph and these digital photographs. Googlegram: Niépce is a photograph constructed out of 10,000 smaller photographs, found by searching with the words “photo” and “foto,” and assembled by a photo-mosaic program. There seems to be no room here for anything but these two meaningless and highly reiterative intentionalities, both of which scream “photography.”
But although a photo-mosaic promotes totality from a distance, it works against it up close, as do all mosaics, and Fontcuberta is interested in this double optic. He also believes that the “structure of mosaic”—which dates back to 3000 B.C.–can be found in all photography. Chemical photography is “an irregular mosaic of silver halogen molecules,” he writes, a printed image is a “mosaic of dots that inform the photomechanical frame,” and a digital photograph is “produced by the grey tint of pixels.”29 As we have already seen, the Getty technicians also found a mosaic when they analyzed View from a Window, and Gernsheim brought this mosaic to the surface with his pointillist dots. And not only is Googlegram: Niépce itself a mosaic, its 10,000 jpegs also render both the bitumen dots in Niépce’s photograph and the water-color dots in Gernsheim’s over-painted photograph hyper-visible.
The photo-mosaic program also adds something to the mosaic tradition: something that makes room for another kind of intentionality. In a conventional mosaic, Fontcuberta writes, each component is “a pure spot of color without meaning,” but in a photomosaic it is a photograph, “that still [has] a meaning by [itself].” This meaning isn’t the kind we mobilize by identifying what is “in” a photograph; it is, rather, the inexhaustible significance that every being should always have for us, and that the photographic image helps us to experience. The first time I came close enough to see the sea of faces in Googlegram: Niépce, I had this experience. I felt that they “expected” my arrival, and that there was a “secret agreement” between them and me. I also knew–with the kind of knowledge that bypasses all reason—that this agreement gave them a “claim” on me.30
Although Fontcuberta does not say so, the 10,000 jpegs that make up Googlegram: Niépce also have yet another kind of intentionality. When we conduct a Google image-search, the search engine looks for the images that have been most frequently linked to our search-word. These links, however, have been forged by other internet users, and reflect their predilections, antipathies, rivalries and desires, instead of our own. That is why we are so often frustrated by what the search finds. By running his Google image search through a photomosaic program that arranged the results according to chromatic value and intensity, Fontcuberta prevented himself from selecting the jpegs that he liked, and eliminating those that he found alien or irritating. He opened the door of his work to images that were tagged and uploaded by thousands of other users, and in which their affects were still lodged. He did so, I believe, because the human psyche is another of the places where the photographic image develops.