Reading American Photographs (Alan Trachtenberg, 1989)

ALAN TRACHTENBERG. Reading American Photographs: Images as History, Mathew Brady to Walker Evans. New York: Hill and Wang. 1989. Pp. xxi, 326

Trachtenberg’s book begins with a good reminder that the concept of indexical images existed well before the invention of the first publicly available photograph in the mid-19th century. The fascination for projected images was as ancient as Aristotle but when the ability to fix those images onto a plate was finally invented independently by Niepce and Daguerre, it still inspired fear and awe. Only a generation after, the photograph reputedly modified civic behaviour. The book asserts that the intimately-sized portrait photograph or “memorial images” assured “harmony in the home” and “strengthened social feelings.”(32)

I found Nathaniel Hawthorne’s response to the daguerreotype in House of Green Gables (1851) to be compelling: The “floating image developed in fumes and toned in gold” was described in the short story as having made a “continually shifting apparition.” It was illuminating to know that short fiction was a parallel innovation that helped people understand the strange alchemical character of original daguerreotypes. That the image “flickered” in the short story was explained as a result of the “highly polished mirror-like plate it lay upon (or within).” (23). Trachtenberg uses Hawthorne’s text not only to revisit technical explanations but also the historical “suspicion” over “the apparitional image” as a not uncommon in the early career of photography in America, which he calls, “a moment of shudder and refusal.” (23)

Another persuasive and somewhat comical assertion was that daguerreotypes were conflictingly described as “preternatural” and “cadaverous-looking specimens”. The French largely saw the process fit only for artistic still lifes but the Americans saw in it the potential for dignified portraiture and other capitalistic enterprises. (24)

These arguments suggest that the photograph was treated as a quasi-magical form of representation. Contemporary responses to the photographic novelties focused not on obscuring their tricks but in their hyperrealistic transparency. As expressed by Hawthorne’s Holgrave, it was an instrument that was able to reveal something beyond appearances. This notion had a practical impact on criminology. Just as the Americans revelled in having their portraits taken and codified their poses and attire to show social status, the NYPD’s “Rogues’ Gallery” in 1846  took the alienating effects that result from the conditions in which the photograph was created as a method of social control and a punitive measure; fully convinced that photography made men “ultimately known for what they are.” (29)

Many notions persist from the time which defined photography as a “permanent mirror” that Lewis Gaylord Clark said in 1839 “would only flatter the beautiful sitter.”  What particularly struck me was that despite our increased sophistication, the hypnotic speed at which photography seems to outpace society’s understanding of its role only grew exponentially.

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