Skip to main content

Oliver Wendell Holmes and the absent prophecy of photography

"If a man had handed a metallic speculum to Democritus of Abdera, and told him to look at his face in it while his heart was beating thirty or forty times, promising that one of the films his face was shedding should stick there, so that neither he, nor it, nor anybody should forget what manner of man he was, the Laughing Philosopher would probably have vindicated his claim to his title by an explosion that would have astonished the speaker.

This is just what the Daguerreotype has done. It has fixed the most fleeting of our illusions, that which the apostle and the philosopher and the poet have alike used as the type of instability and unreality. The photograph has completed the triumph, by making a sheet of paper reflect images like a mirror and hold them as a picture.

This triumph of human ingenuity is the most audacious, remote, improbable, incredible,--the one that would seem least likely to be regained, if all traces of it were lost, of all the discoveries man has made. It has become such an everyday matter with us, that we forget its miraculous nature, as we forget that of the sun itself, to which we owe the creations of our new art. Yet in all the prophecies of dreaming enthusiasts, in all the random guesses of the future conquests over matter, we do not remember any prediction of such an inconceivable wonder, as our neighbor round the corner, or the proprietor of the small house on wheels, standing on the village common, will furnish any of us for the most painfully slender remuneration. No Century of Inventions includes this among its possibilities. Nothing but the vision of a Laputan, who passed his days in extracting sunbeams out of cucumbers, could have reached such a height of delirium as to rave about the time when a man should paint his miniature by looking at a blank tablet, and a multitudinous wilderness of forest foliage or an endless Babel of roofs and spires stamp itself, in a moment, so faithfully and so minutely, that one may creep over the surface of the picture with his microscope and find every leaf perfect, or read the letters of distant signs, and see what was the play at the "Variétés" or the "Victoria," on the evening of the day when it was taken, just as he would sweep the real view with a spy-glass to explore all that it contains."

Oliver Wendell Holmes

The Stereoscope and the Stereograph
The Atlantic Monthly 3 (June 1859), pp. 738-48.

source: http://www.yale.edu/amstud/inforev/stereo.html

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Group f/64 Manifesto (1932)

Ansel Adams by Dorothea Lange



Group f/64 Manifesto
The name of this Group is derived from a diaphragm number of the photographic lens. It signifies to a large extent the qualities of clearness and definition of the photographic image which is an important element in the work of members of this Group.
The chief object of the Group is to present in frequent shows what it considers the best contemporary photography of the West; in addition to the showing of the work of its members, it will include prints from other photographers who evidence tendencies in their work similar to that of the Group.
Group f/64 is not pretending to cover the entire of photography or to indicate through its selection of members any deprecating opinion of the photographers who are not included in its shows. There are great number of serious workers in photography whose style and technique does not relate to the metier of the Group.
Group f/64 limits its members and invitational names to those workers who are strivin…

Alexander Gardner (1821-1882)

Alexander Gardner
The home of a Rebel Sharpshooter, Gettysburg
(1863)









Alexander Gardner Dead Confederate sharpshooter at the foot of Round Top.  Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, July 1863. Alexander Gardner.
Richmond, Virginia. "Ruins of Gallego Mills." April 1865






The Lincoln Conspirators, 1865











Alexander Gardner, Lincoln 1865



The Daguerreotype portrait: the aesthetics of the real

The notion of what we may call an “artless art” was applied at different times, and with different intentions, to photography and the Daguerreotype. The image produced “directly” by nature, bypassing the intervention of the hand of the artist, was the object of amazement at first, and praised for its astounding fidelity of detail: an “art form” therefore that “no painter could ever match”. 
The popularization of the daguerreotype as the 19th century progressed, brought about by technical improvements allowing for the mass production of images and specially, for the first time, the mass production of portraits, produced also as a counter-current, a kind of  “over familiarity” with the daguerreotype portrait. And with it, a relative weariness about the repetitious, the unstudied, the narrowly documentary and "vulgar" or commonplace qualities (issues only partially explained by inherent  limitations of the Daguerreotype technique for portraiture, such as exposure time requiremen…