Amateur Theatricals

Amateur Theatricals, from Commercial Photography of Today, 1914

Amateur Theatricals

This week has been an interesting one for sure. While I wish I could have gone to Chicago to blogwalk, car difficulties and mountains of snow have interfered. Instead, I’ve installed a new monitor and found out just how crappy my blog really looks.

The weird side effect of getting a new 20 inch monitor is that it has made me really appreciate my Powerbook. I hadn’t used it that much until now, since it just has a 12” screen and my eyesight is not as great as it once was. Because the new monitor makes it easy to operate both my PC and the Mac on the same screen, I’ve gotten a nasty case of Mac-love. The dual monitor set-up is really seamless and fun. Something tells me I’ll be learning how to use the Mac effectively a lot faster now that I can see what I’m doing.

I looked at my old test install of WordPress and thought about switching, but then I looked at the fragmented docs and decided I just don’t have time to take that on. Instead, I’ve done a test install of MT 3.14 and decided that I like it. It may be a while before I get a new version of the blog together, but now I’m motivated. I’d like to create a version that scales better on larger monitors.

Posts are likely to be sporadic for a while because I can’t stand looking at the 3.0 version of this Public Address anymore. tPA 4.0 is now in the works. I want a new blog to go with the new climate and new school. I meant to do that over the summer, but moving was too much of a pain. Amateur hour is open again: novice Mac user codes new blog templates—film at eleven.

Truth and Spirits

Sir David Brewster, seated at Lacock Abbey next to Talbot’s microscope, July 1842

Truth and Spirits

I’ve been researching Sir David Brewster for the last day or so. He’s most famous for inventing the kaleidoscope (and for naming it). However, what drew me to him was a citation in M.A. Root’s 1864 The Camera and the Pencil:

Thus, in the North British Review, of February, 1862, Sir David Brewster, the scientific luminary of Scotland, has a long essay on the heliographic art, wherein, among other kindred passages may be seen the following:—

“ . .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?”

Thus far the Scottish Savant. The reader will perceive, that he goes nearly the whole length of corroborating our views of the rank of heliography. And there can be little doubt that, when so short a distance remains between the goal and his present position, he will not long delay in traversing that distance. (422-424)

“The Scottish Savant” authored over a 1,000 articles and wrote the definitive book on stereo photography in 1856. I’ve got that book and the article cited here on the way, but in the mean time I did more snooping.

Who would have thought that such a staunch proclaimer of “absolute truth” in photography might be at least indirectly responsible for the spirit-photography craze in the mid-nineteenth century? It seems that his stereo manual provided the suggestion that if a person moved through the frame while an exposure was underway that the person would be registered as a “apparition” hovering in the visual field. Brewster spent a lot of time debunking “natural magic” and wrote a treatise on it; but he also provided a recipe book for spirit photographers. Most of the current literature seems to cite the origin of spirit photography as 1861, in the work of Mumford who was the subject of a major suit. Besides being interested in “absolute truth,” Brewster also pursued explanations of a variety of optical illusions that seem noticeably absent from the article that Root cites.

I get so sick of the naiveté of critics who seem to think that everyone in the nineteenth and early twentieth century thought of photographs as uncritically “real.” These people were not stupid. They were well aware of the limitations and trickery that were possible through images. Emphasis on the positivist aspects of the narrative ignores the distinctly critical posture adopted by nearly all of the major practitioners. They knew they were only making pictures, not truth—it’s just that their ebullience attenuates critical parts of the ongoing discussion.



I’m often surprised how much my perception of particular words is different from other people. They say things and proceed as if their meaning was clear to a “reasonable” person. Dave Weinberger’s post on medium and world is a case in point. Dave clarifies his point in a follow-up comment, and his response confirms how differently we think of the word “medium”:

Reductionists take a rich phenomenon and strip it of meaning. Viewing the Web as a medium does that. Thinking of it as a world does not…at least not as badly.

Dave thoughtfully supplies his definition of medium: “A medium is something through which a message travels from A to B. The communication succeeds if the message arrives at B unaltered.” That is the Shannon-Weaver model, but it isn’t the sort of thing that I think of as a medium. The idea of media as the bearer of “signals” hasn’t really gone very far in communication theory. When I think of a medium, the first thing I think of the stuff in Petri-dishes that grows cultures. Not to get all Kripke about it, but the second thing I think about is water. All sorts of stuff can be dissolved in it. Often, when stuff dissolves, it changes chemically as a result of what it is dissolved in. While it can be precipitated out, it is seldom unchanged after experiencing transmittal through a medium. Water, however, can be purified back to its original state. The web remains unchanged regardless of what is dissolved in it; in this sense, I think the metaphor is apt. In our “world,” water is water. In other worlds, this is not necessarily the case. A compound labeled “water” might be composed of nitrogen there.

There is a third sense of “medium” that seems closer to what Weinberger recommends: mediums are people who channel spirit energy to make long-dead spirits appear. All this talk of the web bringing something into being is reminiscent of that. In my mind, the word “medium” isn’t reductive in the slightest. To call it the web a “world” conjures visions of strange denizens swimming a great ocean of being. Is this really apt? Poetic, yes, but accurate—no.

Though it is decidedly unpopular, I really feel that the web is a technology. It is neither a medium in any conventional sense, nor a “world.” It contains media, to be sure—both the mainstream and countercultural currents can be easily found. But they are not what the web is. Messages do not travel across it unchanged; they are constrained by both technical and social limitations. Technologies have several levels of function which often occur simultaneously. To call the web a technology is not to reduce it; actually, it complicates things. Technologies are not static like the normal notion of a medium. They are not holistically constituted like the notion of “worlds.” They exist purely as an interaction with the world, an amplification of it that bridges distance and time. To call the web a technology is not to suggest that it can be reduced to the wires and circuits that form it.

The hazards of leaning too hard on technology to explain human actions is well demonstrated by the failures of art history as suggested by Friedrich von Blowhard:

Another thematic definition of Modern Art might be that of art that responded to the impacts of the reproductive and distributive technologies of the Second Industrial Revolution—photography, the cinema, the phonograph, the high-speed press, mass advertising, etc. This is perhaps the most logical thematic definition in general use, but it makes me scratch my head a bit. I’m not aware of the art of any other period being explained quite so literally by contemporary technological innovation. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t recall much discussion suggesting that medieval art was the obvious result of the revolutionary application of water- and wind-power during the period between 1000 and 1350. Or that Renaissance art was the obvious outcome of the period’s advances in optics, leading to the mass manufacture of eyeglasses in Florence and Venice during the mid-1400s. Generally, such technological explanations are considered, well, rather reductionist (at least when advanced by David Hockney) but appear to be accepted without much demur in the case of Modern Art.

Ultimately, I think the “world” problems Weinberger wants answers to are not so much a problem of figuring out what brave new world we’ve entered, but rather a matter a figuring out how our preexistent world is amplified or attenuated by technology. Technology does change things, but it is not an explanation—especially when social factors are involved. It would be ludicrous to speak of a new “photographic” world, for example, with the proliferation of imaging technology. Images have been around for a bit longer—at least as long as communication has been around. I don’t think that photography is a medium or a world—I think it is a technology—just like writing. Admitting that doesn’t explain much, but at least it avoids consulting any sort of seer into new worlds to divine an answer.

Mediums have a questionable heritage. However, I agree with McLuhan that the medium is the massage. Media are technologies which extend our senses as well as comforting us with conventions we are used to. They do not create worlds—mostly, imagination does that.

Spirits under the cloth

Logo of the E.H. Anthony Company (1870)

“Even adult persons had the most absurd ideas about it,” we are told by the son of a popular photographer in 1840, “some believed that my father wanted to collect the sunlight for the purpose of making gold; others imagined that healing powers emanated from the camera which might cure certain diseases . . .One day an invalid, a paralyzed cripple, was taken to our garden gate in his bath chair . . .he said he was prepared to sit still for hours and days, hoping that the lens of the camera, which collects the light, would be able to cure him and restore him to the use of his limbs”

. . .“That particular summer being hot and dry, there were some that suggested that the confounded camera brought about the drought by attracting too many sun rays. . .”

. . .“My father used to tell us, that many children seem to have believed that he called up a spirit under his black cloth . . .and when he reappeared from under it, with his hair standing on end, they thought he had been wrestling with the mystic spirit underneath the cover. They fled with terrified screams every time he reappeared.” (Max Dauthendey on his father K. Dauthenday.)

[Cited in Lucia Moholy, A Hundred Years of Photography (1939), 32-33]



James reminded me that my about page still said that I was in Arkansas. I looked out the window and checked, and it seems that I’m not anymore. So I fixed it. It deserves a more complete update, but I made another major change as well. I added a different research interest, which has just sort of snuck up on me.

I never thought I’d admit that I was interested in the rhetoric of science. Science just displaced composition theory, which was never really my strong suit anyway. I’m still interested in comp theory because I have to confront it each time I enter the classroom; but it isn’t an overriding interest because I can’t stand the idea of “researching” my students. They are people to me, not “subjects.” The admission that I’m a science geek comes much harder—but it has a long history.

When I was a kid, I used to read Popular Science in the bathtub. I tried to talk my father into a chemistry set, a microscope, and all that stuff. But he just kept saying “wait until you get into high school, they have all that stuff.” When I got to high school, I went through all the science stuff like a whirlwind in my first two years. Then I got bored. Music, poetry, photography and girls intervened. I haven’t really looked back until now. I suppose I can blame my high school photography teacher, Chris Burnett.

I tried to get into photography right away, but the class was always full. Photography was taught by a chemistry teacher until the year I got in. He stepped down, and a former chair of the English department, Chris Burnett, took over. This solved several problems for me at once. He was the sort of teacher who really didn’t care exactly what you learned in his class, as long as it was something. My writing scores were so low that it was hard for me to get into literature classes; Chris agreed to do independent studies in William Blake and Milton with me while I was taking his photography classes. He also turned me on to Kurt Vonnegut and Tom Robbins. I learned a lot more than photography in his classes.

The second year in, I became a tutor in his classes. I taught photography while Chris taught several kids in the class such basic things as the alphabet. Photography, since it had a reputation as an easy class, attracted people who were neatly progressing through high school as functional illiterates. He did his best to change things, and as I think about it now, he was going through many changes while he was teaching those years. He was recently divorced, and struggling to find out what he wanted in life. He left teaching the year I graduated. He completed an M.F.A. at Cal State Bakersfield, and the last I heard he never returned to teaching. He made his living building houses instead.

I thought about him when I dropped out of Community College. He showed me just how complicated life really was—and how no matter how hard you tried it wasn’t always possible to change things. I thought about all the people he tried to reach who spent their time in the halls sniffing glue, and thought to myself there had to be something more productive than that. Teaching tore him up, but I suspect he was a little damaged before hand. I think that’s probably why I haven’t tried teaching before now. It can rip your heart out. But he helped me, probably more than he could ever know.

Learning photography from a literature person rather than a scientist forever skewed the way that I look at things, I suppose. But as I research the early history of the medium I find that most of the photographic educators were scientists rather than humanists; their peculiar brand of humanism comes filtered through a different kind of consciousness. They were looking for a different kind of truth from what I am accustomed to. And nobody talks about the scientists much. It is the humanist/art people who have dictated what has gone down in the history books of photography. The scientists only get glancing mention, if they are mentioned at all. It seems a strange omission, but it is understandable that the alchemy of photography be given precedence over the chemistry.

I will never forget what Chris used to say when students asked how photography “worked” as he slipped the paper into the developer under the safelights—“It’s magic,” he would always say.



I keep thinking about something that Chris Sullivan wrote: “I know the only way ‘anything’ can be photographed is with Language.”

Language models are tremendously unpopular among critics of visual images. Part of it is the privilege afforded the “mute” image, which is seen as a sort of talisman that a conjurer can manipulate to coax a voice of a culture or significance long past. In this view, images do not speak but are rather ventriloquized in a delusional way (as the voice of their long dead creator—either the machine operator or “nature’s pencil”). The critic casts asides these illusions and in a booming narrator’s voice bellows out what the image really says. Though contemporary critics try to deny language has a part in the construction of images, they can only speak of these “things” with language.

An image isn’t a “thing” without language. At that moment it is severed from its connection with the world; it becomes language in a nascent state. But it is not a romantic language filled with an intrinsic map of the “world” or culture— it is a clue, a detection. I’ve been thinking a lot about the three currents in photography as an “invention” identified by Patrick Maynard—photography was designed to detect, to depict, and to be reproducible. The emphasis, post Benjamin, has been on reproduction. Criticism also tends to focus on the function of depiction by conflating it with representation. Photography’s function as a detector is largely ignored.

Chris wrote about Winogrand, whose most famous quote is “I photograph to see what things look like when photographed.” Those thousands of rolls of film were like miles of scribbles from a seismometer. Who knows what “data” Winogrand was looking for in them, or if he was able to detect the phenomena he was looking for. Destroying their latency as traces was a bold move; trying to read their language is even more risky.

I keep thinking of images in terms of analogous loan words which get shaped to match the tongue of the interpreter. They become depictions, if successful. Otherwise, they are just guttural grunts of a savage that puzzle us.


Seeing and Believing

The distortions apparent in this Jacques Henri Lartigue photograph stem from two things. First, the design of the vertical traveling slit shutter exposes the top of the frame before the bottom, causing the top of the wheel to be exposed before the bottom. Second, Lartigue was apparently panning the camera to track the motion at a rate slightly faster than the car was actually going—so the wheel appears to stretch behind the car. The spectators were stationary, and appear to lean backward due to the change in camera position during the exposure. Photographic evidence like this, read without any understanding of the camera’s mechanisms, tend to produce some pretty strange conclusions regarding motion.

I am impressed by the strength of the conviction that the top of a wheel moves faster than the bottom in some late 19th and early 20th century accounts. Lartigue’s visual trick doesn’t appear to be that unique. Though Martin Aldur doesn’t assert that such a view is “true,” he does assume that it is accurate:

I remember seeing a photograph of a racing motor car taken with a shutter that was not sufficiently rapid for such a subject—thereby approaching more nearly the condition of human sight—which showed these two causes at work, for the spokes and rims of the wheels were distinct and exact where the tyre touched the road, but blurred and pulled forward at the top where they were advancing more rapidly.

The duty of the spokes, which are the legs of the machine, is to thrust the axle forward, just as the foot and leg thrust the horse forward. We are so inclined to watch the horse as it gallops that we think of it as swinging its legs to and fro past the indistinct landscape; we do not see the hoof stationary upon the ground propelling the creature forwards. Yet this is what actually occurs, and affects our impressions, so that as man or animal runs or leaps, fights or dances, a tail, a sword, a piece of drapery, a foot, a hand will sometimes seem to hover or lag behind, and make the limb appear too long, so that the artist in his truth to his impression will be led insensibly to see and use such accurate “inaccuracies” upon which the exact effect depends—inaccuracies as true as that colour is modified by the colour that is placed against it, or that a white flagstaff, which looks light against a house, looks darker and thinner where it comes against the evening sky above it, and must be so painted to give the effect, although we know it to be actually of the same tone throughout its length. And so it is not only for the pattern of the picture that the leg which is too long in Rubens, the limb which is “deformed” in Degas are right, but also in truth to the natural appearance for those who can see.

An artist to whom such changes are always evident will necessarily introduce them into his work, either so subtly as to pass unperceived by most people or so frankly as to shock and distract some spectators.

From “The Representation of Movement in Art” by Martin Aldur The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol. 23, No. 124 (Jul., 1913), 204-207.