The introduction discusses the shortcomings of the three categories into which we have slotted the photographic image: representation, index, and mechanical copy. It shows that the first leads to a Cartesian account of photography, that caters to our will-to-power; that the second anchors the photographic image in the past, and associates it with absence and loss; and that the third promotes the belief that photography is about "sameness," and that capitalism can be defeated through its own operations—rationalization, consumption, disillusionment. It argues that the photographic image is actually an analogy, and it offers a preliminary definition of this term.
This chapter argues that the user of the room-sized camera obscura attributed its images to the world, and imputed an aesthetic value to them. They were self-portraits, drawn with the pencil of nature, and he was their receiver. When the camera obscura was transformed into a portable box, into which he could peer, and equipped with lenses and mirrors that rectified its inversions and reversals, the device's user began thinking of it as a tool, with which to "take views." This narrative began anew when Louis Mandé Daguerre and Henry Fox Talbot unveiled their rival processes. Photography's early practitioners and viewers attributed its images to the world, emphasized their aesthetic properties, conceptualized them as self-portraits, and thought of themselves as receivers. Industrialization fostered the illusion that photographic event begins with the human eye, and transformed the camera into a device for "taking pictures."
This chapter argues that early photographs were as labile as the camera obscura's image-stream. Because they required such long exposures, they emerged slowly, through the gradual accumulation of luminous traces, and they often vanished, blackened, or continued to change after they were chemically "fixed." Early photographs also changed in tandem with the world, revealing that it, too, is constantly evolving. After the photographic image was chemically stabilized, it no longer changed internally, but it continued to develop in other ways: through the memories and associations it triggered in the viewer's psyche, through trans-historical and cross-medium analogies, and through the "reproduction process."
This chapter theorizes the developmental impulse in photography through Jeff Wall's notion of "liquid intelligence," and the human drive to master the world through his notion of "dry" or "optical intelligence." The human drive to master the world motivated the search for "fixative" agents. It also led to repeated attempts to equate photography with the camera, and to subordinate the camera to the human look. These goals proved surprisingly elusive; only after half a century of technological innovation did the verb "to receive" fall into disuse, and three other verbs—"to take," "to capture," and "to shoot"—become standard usage. Chapter 3 traces the journey leading from the former to the latter.
This chapter argues that photography does more than disclose the world to us. It also shows us that we are linked to each other through the most binding of analogies: the one called "chiasmus." Chiasmus is the most binding of analogies because it stitches the seer to what is seen, the toucher to what is touched, and visibility to tactility. Photography reveals these reversible and reciprocal relationships to us through the inversion and lateral reversal of the camera obscura's image-stream, the positive print's reversal of the reversal through which its negative was made, the chromatic variety of Fox Talbot's prints, the two-way street leading from the space of the viewer to that of the stereoscopic image, cinema's shot/reverse shot formation, and the cross-temporal practices of some contemporary artists.
After the industrialization of the chemical medium, photography went elsewhere. Chapter 5 discusses three instantiations of this "photography by other means": Freudian psychoanalysis, Proust's In Search of Lost Time, and the opening sequence in Chantal Akerman's The Captive. The tropes that were associated with the camera obscura and early photographs resurface in Freud's account of the psyche, and Proust's account of art-making. Both writers conceptualize the psyche as a receptive surface on which perceptual images are traced, identify the world as the source of those images, maintain that many of them never become conscious, and compare those that do not to undeveloped negatives. Both also liken the process through which unconscious images become conscious to photographic development, and Proust's narrator compares his relationship to Albertine to the relationship between a negative and a positive print. Akerman carries this project further in The Captive, her filmic adaptation of Proust's story.
This chapter argues that the most famous passages in Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of it Technological Reproducibility" come from "Little History of Photography," which privileges similarity rather than sameness, and reprises and expands upon the tropes associated with the camera obscura and early photography. Benjamin arrives at this account of photography while gazing at three nineteenth century photographs, and ruminating on a series of passages from Der Geist Meines Vaters, Max Dauthendey's memoir about his father. These passages all turn on the look—the male look, the female look, and the look that the figures in early photographs direct at the viewer. These passages inspire an astonishing claim: the claim that during the long exposures of early portrait photography, the sitter "grew" into the "picture," allowing the figures who appear in them both to solicit and to return the viewer's gaze.