This essay discusses nineteenth-century photographs by Niépce, Saxton and Lippmann, made with processes that render the images literally difficult to see. It argues that these images impose protocols of fully embodied seeing upon viewers. Their difficulty of viewing slows down what is otherwise immediate and automatic, rendering that process accessible to analysis. By attending to the experience of seeing, we necessarily engage directly with the images as objects, privileging the viewer’s and the object’s materiality while de-emphasizing the photograph’s indexicality. These image-objects embody a photography that refuses to operate within traditional categories of representation and invites material, embodied, experiential approaches. Contemporary photographers’ return to these archaic processes emphasizes their materiality’s call for an embodied viewing. In this essay John Dewey’s description of art as transactional process incorporating viewer as well as artwork provides a useful model for such engagement, and offers an opportunity to satisfy James Elkins’ call for genuine discussion of materiality of works of art.
Keywords: photography, daguerreotype, heliograph, Lippmann plate, Nicéphore Niépce, Joseph Saxton, Gabriel Lippmann, embodied viewing; photographic objects, art as experience, vision, materiality, John Dewey, James Elkins
Full text: OAJ_issue7_Handy_02 (PDF 3.6 MB)
Ellen Handy is an Associate Professor of Art History at The City College of New York, and curator of the College’s Art Collection. She previously held curatorial posts at the International Center of Photography in New York and the Harry Ransom Center of the University of Texas. As both curator and historian of photography, questions of the materiality of images have been central to her work. She is presently writing a book entitled Histories of Photography.