Discussion: Photography

During the course of the nineteenth century, new mechanical methods of capturing images, such as the Daguerrotype and the stereoscope, played upon emerging scientific notions of vision and created easily reproducable replicas of reality. In the conceptual world as well as in the media themselves, surface forms are divorced from material substance, leaving only the surface phenomena. Time and space are thus subverted to create the illusion of a space during a specific moment in time. In this system, an artificial 'reality' can be endlessly reproduced. Eschewing older ideas regarding objectivity and vision, these new media and the ideologies that produced them were to have an important impact on nineteenth century culture.

Optical media that emerged in the nineteenth century relied on a general backdrop that treated visual phenomena in a novel manner. Vision could be objectified and classified; the eye itself could be understood in a scientific manner. "A key object of study in the empirical sciences then was subjective vision, a vision that had been taken out of the incorporeal relations of the camera obscura and relocated in the human body. It is a shift signaled by the passage from the geometrical optics of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to physiological optics, which dominated both scientific and philosophical discussion of vision in the nineteenth century" (Crary 16). In the nineteenth century, vision is reduced to a function of light and time, which can, in theory, be reproduced. "One [could] conceive of sensory perception as cut from any external referent... [and] as observation is increasingly tied to the body in the early nineteenth century, temporality and vision become inseparable" (Crary 98).

These understandings underlie the various forms of nineteenth century visual entertainment, such as the phenakistiscope, zootrope, stereoscope, and photograph. Scientific reproduction as well as issues of time and space were consistently referred to in documents of the evolving media. Trailblazers in these fields were able to rework the mechanisms of vision in machine form through a scientific understanding of vision. Talbot, a pioneer in photography, theorizes that "light, where it exists, can exert an action, and, in certain circumstances, does exert one sufficient to cause changes in material bodies. Suppose, then, such an action could be exerted on the paper..." (Trachtenburg 29). Thus photography remains rooted in the scientific objectification of the eye. Holmes' stereoscope is also based on the ways in which the body can observe; the stereoscope can artificially "contrive some way of making these pictures run together as we have seen our two views of a natural object do, [and] we shall get the sense of solidity that natural objects give us" (Trachtenburg 76). Time and space are seen as important components of the reproduction of visual information; photographs were improved as the time to take them decreased and they thus more closely approximated human vision, and the position of the body or camera in space became an important factor, particularly with the stereoscope.

A result of these innovations is that observation itself becomes increasingly abstract and mechanized as the images correspond less and less to any actual space. This was especially true of the stereoscope, which presented viewers with a full visual reality. "The stereoscope as a means of representation was inherently obscene, in the most literal sense. It shattered the scenic relationship between viewer and object that was intrinsic to the fundamentally theatrical setup of the camera obscura" (Crary 127). Form could be endlessly and effortlessly produced, shattering its relation to the underlying substance. "Form is henceforth divorced from matter. In fact, matter as a visible object is of no great use any longer, except as the mold on which form is shaped. Give us a few negatives of a thing worth seeing, taken from different points of view, and that is all we want of it... Every conceivable object of Nature and Art will soon scale off its surface for us. Men will hunt all curious, beautiful, grand objects, as they hunt the cattle in South America, for their skins, and leave the carcasses as of little worth" (Tractenburg 80-81). Physical substance is divested of its outward signs through photographic appropriation, and thus loses any meaningfulness it once had.

The advent of technologies of reproduction is a significant event in the nineteenth century with great significance for its society. Born out of the objectification of vision, these technologies were able to separate observation of a place or event from the environment in which it occurred, allowing many to share vision through easily reproducable "skins". This fundamental alienation of observer from time and space was to change the position of the nineteenth century observer from all who had come before.

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