Traveling and Explanation
One recurrent theme in arguments for the utility of photography in the early nineteenth century is that it might provide a substitute for travel. Traveling abroad, taking “the grand tour,” was considered a major part of a person’s education. Marcus Aurelius Root’s The Heliographic Art from 1864 asserts that the photograph might bring such travel within the reach of even the poorest of citizens. However, the poignancy of Oliver Wendell Holmes appreciation in The Stereoscope and the Sterograph makes more sense now that I find out from Louis Menad’s The Metaphysical Club that he was an asthma sufferer who found travel painful.
Oh, infinite volumes of poems that I treasure in this small library of glass and pasteboard! I creep over the vast features of Rameses, on the face of his rockhewn Nubian temple; I scale the huge mountain-crystal that calls itself the Pyramid of Cheops. I pace the length of the three Titanic stones of the wall of Baalbec,–mightiest masses of quarried rock that man has lifted into the air; and then I dive into some mass of foliage with my microscope, and trace the veinings of a leaf so delicately wrought in the painting not made with hands, that I can almost see its down and the green aphis that sucks its juices. I look into the eyes of the caged tiger, and on the scaly train of the crocodile, stretched on the sands of the river that has mirrored a hundred dynasties. I stroll through Rhenish vineyards, I sit under Roman arches, I walk the streets of once buried cities, I look into the chasms of Alpine glaciers, and on the rush of wasteful cataracts. I pass, in a moment, from the banks of the Charles to the ford of the Jordan, and leave my outward frame in the arm-chair at my table, while in spirit I am looking down upon Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives.
“Give me the full tide of life at Charing Cross,” said Dr. Johnson. Here is Charing Cross, but without the full tide of life. A perpetual stream of figures leaves no definite shapes upon the picture. But on one side of this stereoscopic doublet a little London “gent” is leaning pensively against a post; on the other side he is seen sitting at the foot of the next post;–what is the matter with the little “gent ?”
For some reason, I keep getting drawn back to this essay. I’ve written about it before. This time around though, I keep thinking about the juxtaposition of Holme’s desire to know the story behind the picture, and his early assertion that technology needs no “rhetorical flourish”:
It is therefore hardly necessary to waste any considerable amount of rhetoric upon wonders that are so thoroughly appreciated. When human art says to each one of us, I will give you ears that can hear a whisper in New Orleans, and legs that can walk six hundred miles in a day, and if, in consequence of any defect of rail or carriage, you should be so injured that your own very insignificant walking members must be taken off, I can make the surgeon’s visit a pleasant dream for you, on awakening from which you will ask when he is coming to do that which he has done already,–what is the use of poetical or rhetorical amplification? But this other invention of the mirror with a memory and especially that application of it which has given us the wonders of the stereoscope, is not so easily, completely, universally recognized in all the immensity of its applications and suggestions.
Apparently, photography is an exception to the rule that instruments require no explanation. Photography’s significance, and photographs themselves, always seem to beg for explanations.