January 7 is an outstanding day in the historical photographic calendar. On this date in 1839, members of the French Académie des Sciences were first shown photographs; the invention of Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (1787–1851), a Romantic painter and printmaker.
Even now, the first time you see a daguerreotype, you will be astonished as the image emerges from reflections in the highly polished, silver-plated sheet of copper. It produces a facsimile of what is projected by the lens, the same size and exactly rendered in all its detail, only reversed laterally, a mirror image. It is not an enlargement and not a contact print. Pick up a lens, point it at a wall directly opposite a window and adjust the distance until you see an image form there. Now imagine lifting that bright, exquisite and ephemeral picture off the wall to float it upon brilliant silver where it slips and scintillates between negative and positive; that is a daguerreotype. Formidable!
Daguerre was famous for another spectacle, the Diorama, which he invented with Charles Marie Bouton (1781–1853), and first exhibited in Paris in July 1822 and in London in September 29, 1823. It was an illusionistic entertainment immensely popular with Parisians, but nothing could prepare the world for the revolution that was the daguerreotype.
The most frequently reproduced evidence of the effect of the arrival in French society of this new means of imaging is a “fantasy” by Theodore Maurisset (1803–1860) entitled La Daguerréotypomanie, a remarkable satirical lithograph dating from the end of 1839 or early 1840. It depicts an hysteria sweeping the land. A huge crowd, stretching into the far distance on a landscape that appears to have been swept clear of all else, clamours to admire or consume the latest innovations in the field of photography.
There is rejoicing…
…as the invention spreads across the world, transported to its furthest corners by steamer,…
…promising the heavens,…
…but bringing despair to traditional artists and engravers who are driven to renting gallows for their penniless departure to another world,…
…while people flock to have their portraits made, the poorer classes for the first time, attracted by the prospect of having an image in a mere 13 minutes that would have taken a miniaturist many hours, and cost far more than they could afford,…
….only to discover its shortcomings; long poses that were a trial for children,…
…and torture for any sitter.
To have to wait whilst one’s picture was being made was expected when one sat for an artist, or for the silhouettist or physniotypist and why should getting a daguerreotype done be any different? Nevertheless, in the interests of achieving sharper images, with no subject movement, and eventually to create cameras that could be hand-held, the race was on for any means to speed up exposures.
Currently on exhibition at Flowers Gallery‘s Flowers East site at 82 Kingsland Road, London E2 8DP, is Past Perfect by British documentary photographer Jason Larkin (*1979) which finishes on 13 January 2018.
Larkin would be throughly familiar with the story of Daguerre and his invention and the technology of the daguerreotype, and he no doubt has considered its relation to his own work; he is a ‘photographer’s photographer’ and enjoys the opportunity to make the medium he uses reflect on its own nature.
The diorama of Daguerre, and since, is “more vivid, more effective” than the original artefact, achieving an “illusion of absolute reality” claimed Umberto Eco in his essay Travels in Hyperreality as quoted in the Flowers Gallery press release. From 2010 to 2016 Larkin photographed dioramas in Havana, Israel, Hanoi and Cairo and others in the USA and the UK, each them intended to educate the viewer about national events, particularly military history with installations to scale, and audio-visual displays. They might disappoint the philosopher Eco because they deconstruct his “illusion of absolute reality”, but to be fair, Eco qualifies his evaluation;
…the American imagination demands the real thing and, to attain it, must fabricate the absolute fake; where the boundaries between game and illusion are blurred, the art museum is contaminated by the freak show, and falsehood is enjoyed in a situation of “fullness,” of horror vacui…
Now there can be no doubt that one of the most effective and least boring of didactic mechanisms is the diorama, the reduced-scale reproduction, the model, the crèche. And the museum is full of little crèches in glass cases, where the visiting children — and they are numerous — say, “Look, there’s Wall Street,” as an Italian child would say, “Look, there’s Bethlehem and the ox and the ass.” But, primarily, the diorama aims to establish itself as a substitute for reality, as something even more real. When it is flanked by a document (a parchment or an engraving), the little model is undoubtedly more real even than the engraving. Where there is no engraving, there is beside the diorama a colour photograph of the diorama that looks like a painting of the period, except that (naturally) the diorama is more effective, more vivid than the painting.
Whether they be convincing as realist representations or not, each of these dioramas simplifies the event or place that their makers want remembered, making it ‘more real’ by compressing time into one moment and turning the prosaic into symbol, much as do photographs. By exposing illusion and encompassing both these displays and parts of their surrounds in his frame, Larkin encapsulates the iconic and the mundane in a way that forces an ironic relation of one to the other.
Waiting published by Photoworks in 2015 is from a series he produced in Johannesburg about which he says;
I was struck by the ever-present reality of people waiting. Inactive yet expectant, this condition becomes a visual echo of the predicament that many South Africans can find themselves in. Though many wait alone, the amount of people waiting becomes a collective, city-wide experience.
One once would see thousands of pedestrians in this city, more than in most. I remember twenty years ago waking in my Johannesburg hotel room the morning after the long flight from Melbourne; it was early, perhaps 5:30 am, but already in front of my window the verge of the virtually car-less freeway was thronging with people walking to work. Now, in most cases, these people wait, for public transport, for a lift, or for a friend.
Larkin accounts for his technique in photographing these individuals seeking shelter from the harsh summer sun by positioning themselves in the shade, however scant;
Figures here occupy ephemeral spaces of respite created by the surrounding urban environment. These shadows remove the individuals’ identities, leaving only the subtlety of posture and the details of place.
Where the daguerreotypist’s subject had to pose patiently for many seconds for their portrait, Larkin’s wait even though his camera records them in a fraction of a second. They will move only as the shadow in which they shelter moves. Their ‘shadow pictures’, though exposed for the sun, are the very opposite of Henry Fox Talbot’s ‘sun pictures’, and they are ‘anti-portraits’; faces cannot be distinguished, and the subjects may find they have no identity and therefore none of the conventional satisfaction in the result. Though Larkin’s premise for this project seems simple, its simplicity is brilliant.
The daguerreotype itself had to wait.
It did not manifest as suddenly as the French government’s announcement might have led the world to believe. Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (1765–1833) had been working since the 1820s on the problem of recording a permanent image from the lens of the camera obscura using only light and chemistry and had actually achieved real results as early as 1826, though it required exposure times of hours or days.
Daguerre, who had been working along the same lines, formed a partnership with Niépce in 1829, but by the time Niépce died in 1833, the partners had yet to come up with a commercially viable process. It was in 1838 that Daguerre was confidently able to show examples to potential investors amongst selected artists and scientists.
Astronomer François Arago (1786-1853), astonished at the quality of a daguerreotype of the moon, championed Daguerre’s invention in both the Académie des Sciences and the Chambre des Députés, securing the inventor a lifetime pension in exchange for the rights to his process, though he wisely retained the patent on the equipment necessary to practice the new art.
Thus it was that on January 7 François Arago announced the discovery at the Académie des Sciences in Paris, though he did not credit the work of Niépce, an oversight corrected in the following days by Francis (Franz) Bauer (1758 – 1840) to whom Niépce had shown his work. Ironically, on 8 January 1839, Daguerre’s diorama in Paris was destroyed by fire at the same time as he was showing his photographic discoveries to Samuel F.B. Morse.
On August 19, 1839, a joint session of the Académie des Sciences and the Académie des Beaux-Arts was taken through the revolutionary process.
Outside an eager gaggle of spectators and reporters crowded the courtyard. The detail of the images was magical, even more excitingly like life than a diorama; journalist Hippolyte Gaucheraud (†1874) in The Literary Gazette; and Journal of the Belles Lettres, Arts, Sciences on Saturday, 12 January 1839, had scooped other journalists with his description of a microscope image of a dead spider in which he enthused:
You could study its anatomy with or without a magnifying glass, as in nature; [there is] not a filament, not a duct, as tenuous as might be, that you cannot follow and examine.
One hundred and seventy-nine years later do we feel ourselves inured to the wonders of the photograph?