From Image to Print
I managed to get Photography and the Book, a lecture by Beaumont Newhall printed in a limited edition of 2000 on interlibrary loan. My hat is off to Gary Saretzky for alerting me to it in his articles on Edwin Rosskam for Photo Review.I’ve got issues with Newhall, due to his close association with Ansel Adams and the myopic nature of his History of Photography but that doesn’t keep this particular lecture from being incredibly informative. From the first page, it has me rewriting some of my efforts. The connection between photography and printing is even stronger than I first thought. While Humphry Davy’s failed experiments were a clue— Davy and Wedgwood were looking for a way to avoid employing engravers— I had not thought about Niépce before.
A quick search turned up an incredible site on Nicéphore Niépce. The material there helps me in putting together a revised timeline with fewer gaps. But before I do that, I feel the need to return to the hopes and desires of the people involved. The aspirations of Thomas Wedgwood and Sir Humphry Davy are clear from the title of their 1802 Journal of the Royal Institution of Great Britain article, “An Account of a Method of Copying Paintings Upon Glass, and of Making Profiles, by the Agency of Light Upon Nitrate of Silver.” Thinking about that title, usually abbreviated simply “An Account of a Method,” makes me realize how much the disparity between nineteenth century photography and the twentieth is exaggerated— the contexts are not really that different. Looking at it closely, method (agent) is privileged over the desired result (action).
First, photography is a method of copying— in Davy and Wedgwood’s case, of copying paintings. This legacy, brought to fruition by Henry Fox-Talbot, is subtly shifted into copying nature. Casting this into another light, Davy and Wedgwood were interested in reproducing texts (logos) whereas Talbot was interested in evidence of a different sort— nature— mirroring the search for authority common to most eighteenth century praxis.
The problematic nature of authority involved in any practice of copying is deeply explored in the writings and art of William Blake— a crisis exacerbated by the low artistic station of engravers. The conventions of captioning for engravings reflect this. Long into the nineteenth century, it was the painter (or inventor) of an image whose name appeared first in the visual field, on the left, whereas the engraver (sculptor) was placed in the lower right-hand corner. Mechanical reproduction of original works would remove the need for the second caption, and the interference of an intermediary on the “truth” of the image. The search was for a more direct route for authority in copying, whether of nature or art.
The second consideration, “of Making Profiles,” is a more commercial one. Given the limitations in detail and slow speed of light-sensitive materials, they might be a possible technological improvement on a rising commercial art practice of the day— making silhouettes. I had already been thinking about the rise of the daguerreotype and the death of commercial miniature painting in the early nineteenth century— but I had not thought of the poor man’s miniature— the silhouette. These had long been produced through the mechanical help of the pantograph. Davy and Wedgwood’s declaration foretells an interesting confluence: the satisfaction of the popular appetite for images through technological means. The appetite for representations of people as both a commercial endeavor and as scientific evidence for theories wishing to join internal states with external appearance was rising during the late eighteenth century.
Thanks to Newhall’s assertion (echoed in a more recent essay by Michel Frizot in A New History of Photography) that Niépce was alone among the early pioneers of photography in connecting photography with engraving, I just had to think about Davy again. I think they are wrong— reproducibility may have taken a back-seat with the rise of Daguerre, but the concern was prominent in many early experimenters. The goal, at least initially, was a direct route between the eye and paper— a mechanical means of reproduction.