Any questions regarding photographic representation are inseparable from complex issues of historiography and theory, in particular the ways in which the discourse of photography has been produced and elaborated in different historical and cultural contexts. Asking after the ontology of the photographwhat is a photograph? what is exceptional, unique about it?—is only another way of relearning how and why the history of photography has been written. In other words, it is a re-engagement with the study of the “terrifying archive” we call the history of photography. This ensemble of ontology, function, discourse, and event becomes apparent when one considers how a photograph is created and how it becomes visible and intelligible. Perhaps the meaning of photography is not singular, but a multiplicity of uses and functions? It is for this reason, among others, that when one considers the history of photography it is necessary to be cognizant that one is addressing complex theoretical questions about representation: signs and objects, events and narratives, life and politics. Because of its seeming simplicity-a photograph is supposedly a simple mimetic duplication or copy of a pre-existing reality, whether an object, person, or scene-photography is too often misread. But throughout the contentious and contradictory history of photography these misreadings of the

relation between the photographic image and its putative referent-this relation is often called “the thing itself”—have proven productive. The desire to see in the photographic image “the thing itself” without intervention, mediation, or artifice was a primary aspect of its feverish discourse in the first decades of the nineteenth century. William Henry Fox Talbot, one of the inventors of photography, composed the first photography book in 1844 entitled The Pencil of Nature.2 It is interesting to note the Latin motto Talbot chose for the title page: “Joyous it is to cross mountain ridges where there are no wheel ruts and earlier comers, and follow the gentle slope to Castalia.” (Castalia, on the slope of Mt. Parnassus, is a spring dedicated to the Muses, a font of wisdom and knowledge.) In addition, his “Notice to the reader” gives us the following: “The plates of the present work are impressed by the agency of Light alone, without any aid whatever from the artist’s pencil. They are sun-pictures themselves, and not, as some persons have imagined, engravings in imitation.” Talbot repeatedly claimed that his invention-the first truly negative-positive process that forms the basis of analogue photography-presented images “impressed by Nature’s hand,” that is, “an Art of so great singularity, which employs processes entirely new.” Thus the uniqueness, he claims, for his invention: no “wheel ruts and earlier comers” but only untrammeled, new territory. The ambition to “spontaneously” reproduce the image of nature appearing in the camera obscura that we read in Talbot, and Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre as well, evinces the desire to fix and retain an image that was conceived as given rather than to create or construct a representation. This willful attempt to deny the photograph and, by extension, the photographer, any creative role is, however, not to downplay its cultural and historical importance. What had already taken shape, well before 1844, is the very structure of photographic discourse. This includes the understanding that its “invention” was the result of pre-existing obsessions and inventions. These supposedly automatic, unmediated reproductions of “Nature herself” were included in the publication along with reproductions of paintings and images of buildings in Oxford, England, both of which represented what Talbot called “important applications of the photographic Art.” It is certain that one “application” or use Talbot imagined for his “calotypes” (ironically, from kalos, the Greek word for beauty that connotes being beyond use) was as a research tool and memory aid for historians and travelers. If we juxtapose Talbot’s Plate I. Part of Queen’s College, Oxford from The Pencil of Nature and Benjamin Brecknell Turner’s Hawkhurst Church, Kent, or A Photographic Truth (1852-4), we see the “origin” of both automaticity and contingency (framing, the out-of-field) at once. In the former, Talbot is intent on demonstrating an “application” of his calotype process. In morning light, he aimed his rudimentary camera at an old section of the college, one showing, in his words, “marks of the injuries of time.” Surface damage to the stone façade is visible. At the end of the narrow street, the Church of St. Peter’s, one of the oldest structures in Oxford,

Figure 1.1 William Henry Fox Talbot, Plate I. Part of Queen’s College, Oxford from The Pencil of Nature (1844)

Figure 1.2 Benjamin Brecknell Turner, Hawkhurst Church, Kent (1852-4)

is just visible. But also notice how the chimney stack on the right side of the photograph draws the eye only because of its darkness. The arbitrariness of the photograph’s frame and its technical recording of light and dark on the chemically-treated paper displace the whole, the “thing itself.” Instead, we have to imagine the whole building, re-frame it, supplement this view with others. Moreover, we have to decide what is or is not an insignificant detail (the dark chimney) as well as navigate the complex relations between what is within the frame and the out-of-field. Inadvertently, perhaps, Talbot’s first plate from The Pencil of Nature presents nothing like nature writing herself, but only a partial view, one that must be deciphered and interpreted. Talbot’s calotype renders suspect, in advance, Turner’s “photographic truth,” which claims to avoid the transfigurations of translation. If nature can reproduce herself (as in the church’s reflection in the pond water), then what of the third remove, the bizarre photographic image that is the reflection of a reflection? Does the “thing itself” simply precede our perceptions of it, let alone our attempts to record those perceptions, or is it not caught up-made visible-in the play of representations themselves? Claiming that this new invention is an art that automatically and faithfully duplicates nature (or reality itself), one useful for scholarship and industry, helped generate one of the earliest, brilliant, and most productive misreadings of the discourse that comes to be called the “history of photography.” It was given by the nineteenth-century French poet Charles Baudelaire in his famously heated response to the public’s obsession with the photographic image in “The Modern Public and Photography” (1859). Here Baudelaire focuses on the profanation of art (understood as imagination, soul, creativity) by the public’s overvaluing reproductions of “external reality” such as photography. With some very well-known lines Baudelaire ridicules the emerging French middle-class of the Second Empire (1852-70) by dismissively characterizing their equation of art with naturalism (art as the mimetic representation of nature or the natural taken as a given) as well as their narcissism:

In these deplorable times, a new industry [photography] has developed, which has helped in no small way to confirm fools in their faith…An avenging God has heard the prayers of this multitude; Daguerre [one of the inventors of modern photography] was his messiah. And then they said to themselves: “Since photography provides us with every desirable guarantee of exactitude” (they believe that, poor madmen!) “art is photography.” From that moment onwards, our loathsome society rushed, like Narcissus, to contemplate its trivial image on the metallic plate. A form of lunacy, an extraordinary fanaticism, took hold of these new sunworshippers. Strange abominations manifested themselves.3