I recall Aristotle’s De Anima in Geoffrey Batchen’s article about his thrift store locket. A commercial photographic material, the locket was once deemed lacking in “intellectual and aesthetic qualities beyond sentimental kitsch,” thus making it unfit for purposes of official history (33). The invisibility of such low-cultural objects to institutional analysis nonetheless paved the way for their subsequent rediscovery as materials that can provide a truer sense of historical lives. Aristotle sets humans apart from other animals in his capacity to blink and close his eyes; to choose not to see, and therefore, reflect. In the same manner, the locket substitutes for the function of the eyelid and lends a rhythm to the closing and opening of the photographic object; becoming a metaphor for the early ways in which humans dealt with hypervisibility. Historical blindness was our reaction to phenomena that threaten to supplant our capacity to remember. What Teridman would refer to as a “memory crisis” of the 19th century is rooted in a period of alienation, of which the photograph is the “embodiment and reproduction” (Batchen, 43).
The materiality of the photographic object has been defined by the fact that our eyes needed to shift or draw back in order that we may see. Batchen argues that we don’t often see the photograph for what it is as we focus on the image and “look through the photograph as if it simply isn’t there” (40).
Susan Sontag writes of our need “to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs [as] an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted.” (On Photography 1973, 24). Elizabeth Edwards and Janice Hart similarly touch on how photographs came to be seen as objects that allow a unique access to social reality with its materiality as a formative element in the understanding of “photographs as social images” (15).
Karl Marx points out in The Capital that commodity fetishism is a process whereby the material process of producing consumer goods is suppressed. The disavowal of labor’s role in the production of value applies to photographs (Terdiman 1993, 12; Batchen, 43). The commodity fetish inherent in the photograph is the flip side of the memory crisis mentioned above. Consider the reification of memory in photographs that are seen as consumer goods. In the case of photos by Clareton Watkins, Elizabeth Hutchinson recounts how Americans became consumers and tourists of reality and how photos became interpreters of nature regardless of the artist’s intention and the specific design of the images (59).
In the same manner that the locket shelters the photograph, museums “played a dual social function of discovering and assuring the archive of photography” by rendering what is acceptable and visible in our repository of material history (Willumson, 74). The irony is that once museums rediscover previously unnoticed artefacts such as lockets and stereoviews, their values become “assured” for the market and therefore reverted back to the status of commodity. Williumson contends that the movement and shifting from private to public, from commercial commodity to a confined social meaning and back to commodity on the art market, marks the photo-object (65,74).
That Clareton Watkins, the greatest American photographer, became dispossessed of his own work in his later life cannot be a more poetic illustration of commodity fetishization (Willumson, 72). His works were once thought to be magical and divine; able to impart in the viewer a sense of destiny for greatness and exploration (Hutchinson, 54). But official art history has for the most part ignored him because of the incidental popularity of his photographs as tourist souvenirs. Just as quickly as his legendary status was resurrected in museums in the 1930s, his photos were relegated as commodities once again, only this time in auction houses. The artist who opened America’s eyes to see the vastness and beauty of nature was later committed to a mental institution and fell blind just as a new century that left less and less room for reflection was dawning.