Desiring Dualisms

Having decisively abandoned empirical explanation in favor of poetic metaphor, Talbot finds himself speaking of the new medium as a quite peculiar articulation of temporal and spatial coordinates. Photography is a process in which “position” is “occupied” for a “single instant” where “fleeting” time is “arrested” in the “space of a single minute.” It would seem he is able to describe the identity of photography only by harnessing together a whole series of unresolved binaries: “art” and “shadows,” the “natural” and “magic,” the “momentary” and the “for ever,” the “fleeting” and the “fettered,” the “fixed” and that which is “capable of change.” Photography for Talbot is the uneasy maintenance of binary relationships; it is the desire to represent an impossible conjunction of transience and fixity. More than that, the photograph is an emblematic something/sometime, a “space of a single minute” in which space becomes time, and time space. (Each Wild Idea 11)

The dualities listed by Batchen are all easily to reduced to space and time except “art” and “shadows,” and “natural” and “magic.” The latter examples are worse than superfluous, they are misleading. Art and shadows is not a binary, but a desire—the latest innovation in the art of Talbot’s time was chiaroscuro. Natural and magic is not a binary either—“Natural Magic” was an obsession of many scientists, including Talbot’s friend Sir David Brewster.

Brewster’s book on natural magic sought to explain the scientific principles behind the magical amusements that were all the rage. But this is not to say that Batchen’s observation of a certain binarism as an essential quality of the “spirit of the age” is erroneous—far from it.

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Philosophical Instruments

Where Niépce and Daguerre both take pictures from their windows, Talbot makes an image of his window. He tells us that photography is about framing, and then shows us nothing but that frame; he suggests that photography offers a window on the world, but then shows us nothing but that window. As Derrida suggests,, “The time for reflection is also a chance for turning back on the very conditions of reflection, in all senses of that word, as if with the help of a new optical device one could finally see sight, one could not only view the natural landscape, the city, the bridge and the abyss, but could view viewing.” This then, is no ordinary picture. It is rather what Talbot elsewhere called a “Philosophical Window.” (Each Wild Idea 10)

Geoffrey Batchen’s reading of Talbot’s “Oriel Window” seems intuitively correct, but for the wrong reasons. The use of optical devices for “self-reflection” (not self in the sense of individual ego, but rather in the sense of a self-meditating device) is not limited to photography. Derrida’s essay cited here is not concerned with photography but with relationship between seeing and knowing. In its full context, the observation about sight is followed by one about hearing: “As if through an acoustical device, one could hear hearing, in other words, seize the inaudible in a sort of poetic telephony” (Derrida, “The Principle of Reason: The University in the Eyes of its Pupils,” Diacritics 13:3). The “bridge and the abyss” refers both to a perception of the sublime, and the fact that Cornell university installed a guard rail on a bridge to keep students from leaping off it into the abyss, committing suicide.

Batchen localizes the “optical device” to photography; Derrida and Talbot do not. The Talbot quotation regarding the “Philosophical Window” is footnoted thusly:

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Hello Dolley

Brady’s famous Daguerreotype of Dolley Madison.
Scratched and damaged, yet still an invaluable link with America’s past.

from James D. Horan, Timothy O’Sullivan: America’s Forgotten Photographer, 1966

. . .The want of absolute truth manifest in the finest portraits, is thought to be compensated by an ideal beauty, which, if not perpetuating the sitter’s happiest expression, at least suppresses the main defects in his features. Youth is given to age; to the pallid cheek color; brightness to the ordinary eye; and new and fashionable drapery to complete the picture.

The heliographer has none of these advantages in his favor. His work may, and often does disfigure, but it never flatters the human countenance. If, however, an instantaneous process is employed, and a minute portrait is taken with a small lens, or a large one at a remote distance, and is subsequently enlarged to life-size, we shall have absolute truth in the portrait. And who would not prefer an absolutely true portrait of Demosthenes or Cicero, of Paul or Luther, of Milton or of Newton, to the finest representations of them which time may have spared?

Sir David Brewster, quoted in M.A. Root’s The Camera and the Pencil, 1864

Somehow, judging from the wonderful Dolley Madison Project, I suspect that the absolute truth of Brady’s portrait doesn’t quite align with the popular conceptions of Dolley Madison.


from Sir David Brewster, The Kaleidoscope—Its History, Theory, and Construction with its Application to the Fine and Useful Arts, 1858

Rational Recreations and Philosophical Instruments

At first, I found it odd that the kaleidoscope is grouped, along with telescopes, microscopes and the camera obscura, in the class of philosophical instruments. David Brewster, who invented and named of the kaleidoscope in 1816, was also deeply fascinated with photography and natural magic. Magic tricks such as ventriloquism were part of forms of entertainment termed “rational recreations” in the eighteenth century. But calling a “toy” a philosophical instrument seemed to be a stretch. The term instrument implies some sort of utility. I was curious what its inventor had to say. Brewster suggested that the kaleidoscope could be a boon to the decorative arts:

In the decoration of public halls and galleries, there is no species of ornament more appropriate than those which consist in the combination of single figures, or of groups of heads, which are either directly or metaphorically associated with the history of the object of the institution. Regular historical paintings on the ceiling of a room are quite incompatible with the symmetrical character of a public gallery. If they are well executed, they can never be seen to advantage, and therefore their individual effect is lost, while, from their very nature, they cannot possibly produce that general effect as ornament which good taste imperiously requires. In employing regularly combined groups of figures, there is sufficient scope given to the powers of the artist, while systematic arrangement of his work prevents it from interfering with the general character of the place which it is to embellish. (142)

Symmetry was the defining characteristic of beauty for Brewster; this neoclassical conception puts Brewster at odds with the romantic spirit of wildness. His early experiments with mirrors and polarized light produced interesting effects, but they were flawed in respect to symmetry. His design of 1814, though promising, did not satisfy his ideal. Rational, for Brewster, carried the connotations of regular and repeatable. However, Brewster’s discovery of the power of repetition seems almost like a neo-classical Warhol:

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