Unreal Nature

November 12, 2014

Consumed and Thrown Away

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:51 am

… the ‘cult’ value of the picture was effectively abolished when photographs became so common as to be unremarkable; when they were items of passing interest with no residual value, to be consumed and thrown away.

… It was no longer a privilege to be pictured but the burden of a new class of the surveilled.

This is from the Introduction to The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories by John Tagg (1993):

… By 1842, exposure times had been reduced to between forty and twenty seconds, and portrait studios began to open everywhere. It is estimated that more than ninety percent of all daguerreotypes ever taken were portraits. In a ‘daguerreotypemania,’ the middling people flocked to have photographs made, soon outnumbering the factory owners, statesmen, scholars, and intellectuals amongst whom photographic portraiture was first established.

… The technical invention of flexible film and winder [in 1888] used in the Kodak was important enough, but its impact would have been as nothing if it had not coincided with an even more radical change in the conception of marketing photographic products. … Eastman decided to aim his sales promotion at a whole stratum of people who had never before taken a photograph. Eastman originated not only a camera but also a radical reconception of the boundaries of photographic practice …

… Instead of going to a professional portraitist, people without training or skill now took pictures of themselves and kept the intimate, informal or ill-composed results in family albums.

… This period in which photography underwent its second technical revolution — with dry plates, flexible film, faster lenses and handheld cameras — was also the time when the problem of reproducing photographs on an ordinary letter-set press was solved. This transformed the status of the photograph and thereby all the traditional forms of pictorial representation as dramatically as had the invention of the paper negative by Fox Talbot. With the introduction of half-tone plates in the 1880s, the entire economy of image production was recast. Unlike the photogravures and Woodburytypes which preceded them, half-tone plates at last enabled the economical and limitless reproduction of photographs in books, magazines, advertisements, and especially newspapers.

… just as the Kodak had transformed informal and family portraiture, so the illustrated papers ended the trade in reproductions of portraits of topical or celebrated public figures. No longer would it seem remarkable to possess an image of someone well-known or powerful. The era of throwaway images had begun.

What Walter Benjamin called the ‘cult’ value of the picture was effectively abolished when photographs became so common as to be unremarkable; when they were items of passing interest with no residual value, to be consumed and thrown away. This was to provoke a reaction among late nineteenth-century Pictorialists who sought, by recourse to special printing techniques imitating the effects of drawing or etching, to reinstate the ‘aura’ of the image and distinguish their work aesthetically from that of commercial and amateur photographers. But their efforts were of little avail. It was not that self-consciously artistic images like [Robert Demachy’s] Primavera contravened some essential truth of the medium, but that, in claiming the status of autonomous Art for their photography, the Pictorialists were a crew rowing out to join a sinking ship. As Walter Benjamin was to argue: ‘When the age of mechanical reproduction separated art from its base in cult, the semblance of its autonomy disappeared forever.’

It was not on the exalted heights of autonomous Art that photographic portraiture made its lasting place, but in a profane industry which furnished the cosier spaces of the bourgeois home. And not only there. Such photographs also found a place in files — in police stations, hospitals, school rooms and prisons — and in official papers of all kinds.While Pictorialists were blurring their outlines and smudging their tones, a more far-reaching pictorial revolution had taken place: the political axis of representation had been entirely reversed. It was no longer a privilege to be pictured but the burden of a new class of the surveilled.

My previous post from Tagg’s book is here.

-Julie

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