Photography and Smoke

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While there are a number of feature films in which photography or photographers play a part (Rear Window, The Year of Living Dangerously, The Eyes Of Laura Mars and Salvador, for example) those which explore the nature of the medium itself are rare.  Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966) considers photography as part of the fashion scene, but then sees photographer Thomas (David Hemmings) accidentally photographing a murder—photography becomes the inadvertent witness to events not even seen by the photographer.  Jocelyn’s Moore’s Proof (1991) sees Hugo Weaving playing a blind photographer, who uses a camera as his eyes, to make images which for him constitute ‘proof’ that the visible world is as he perceives it to be through his other senses.  In Wayne Wang’s film Smoke (1995) photography is a literal capture device, capable of incarcerating the subject as well as the photographer.

Auggie Wren (Harvey Keitel) owns the ‘Brooklyn Cigar Company’, a small business selling cigarettes and cigars at the corner of Third Street and Seventh Avenue, New York.  His friends, regulars who frequent his shop, know Wren as a shop-owner, but they do not know of his secret—he is a photographer.  How he came to own his camera is the basis of a story the he tells to a regular customer, Paul Benjamin (William Hurt).[1]

Benjamin is a writer, and arrives at the shop late one evening to find Wren locking up.  He hopes to purchase a box of his favourite Schimmelpenninck miniature cigars and Wren re-opens the shop for him.  After the transaction and some small-talk Benjamin notices a camera, a Canon 35mm SLR, amid the smoking products and paraphernalia on the counter.

BENJAMIN:  Looks like someone forgot a camera.
WREN:  Yeah, I did.
BENJAMIN:  It’s yours?
WREN:  It’s mine alright.  I’ve owned that little sucker for a long time.
BENJAMIN:  I didn’t know you took pictures.
WREN:  I guess you could call it a hobby.  It only takes five minutes a day to do it but I do it every day, rain or shine, sleet or snow.  Like the postman.
BENJAMIN:  So you’re not just some guy who pushes coins across the counter?
WREN:  Well, that’s what people see, but that ain’t necessarily what I am.

Cut to album of black and white photographs.  A page of 4—all showing the outside of the Brooklyn Cigar Company, the shop owned by WREN

BENJAMIN:  (leafing through the album) They’re all the same.
WREN:  That’s right.  More than four thousand pictures of the corner of Third Street and Seventh Avenue at eight o’clock in the morning, four thousand straight days in all kinds of weather.  That’s why I can never take a vacation.  I got to be in my spot every morning at the same time … every morning in the same spot at the same time.
BENJAMIN:  I’ve never seen anything like this.
WREN:  That’s my project.  What you’d call my life’s work.
BENJAMIN:  It’s amazing.  I’m not sure I get it though.  I mean … What was it that gave you the ideas to do this … project?
WREN:  I don’t know, it just came to me.  It’s my corner after all.  I mean, it’s just one little part of the world but things take place there, too, just like everywhere else.  It’s a record of my little spot.
BENJAMIN:  It’s kind of overwhelming.

BENJAMIN leafs through the album, flicking fast.

WREN:  You’ll never get it if you don’t slow down, my friend.
BENJAMIN:  What do you mean?
WREN:  Well. You’re going too fast.  You’re hardly even looking at the pictures.
BENJAMIN:  But … they’re all the same.
WREN:  They’re all the same, but each one is different from every other one.  You’ve got your bright mornings; your fog mornings; you’ve got your summer light and your autumn light; you’ve got your week days and your weekends; you’ve got your people in overcoats and galoshes and you’ve got your people in t-shirts and shorts.  Sometimes same people, sometimes different ones.  Sometimes different ones become the same, and the same ones disappear.  The earth revolves around the sun and every day the light from the sun hits the earth from a different angle.
BENJAMIN:  Slow down, huh?
WREN:  That’s what I recommend.  You know it: tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.  Time keeps its petty pace.

BENJAMIN leafs slowly, recognises a face: his wife, who was shot and killed in a bank hold-up a few years earlier.

BENJAMIN:  Oh, Jesus! Look!  It’s Ellen …
WREN:  Yeah, it’s her alright.  She’s in quite a few from that year.  Must’ve been on her way to work.
BENJAMIN:  It’s Ellen.  Look at her.  Look at my sweet darling.  (He breaks down and cries.)

End of scene.

This exchange tells us much about the nature of photography: its power to transform, to captivate, to illuminate, to remember, to imprison.

In Benjamin’s eyes—and Benjamin is a writer and therefore an artist, too, a published novelist—the act of photography raises Wren’s status from that of a shop keeper, a small businessman, into the realms of art.  Just owning the camera is enough: Benjamin arrives at his conclusion before seeing any of Wren’s photographs.  Ownership of the camera confers a status of the ‘other’, of a power which transforms Wren, making him instantly more interesting without requiring him to do anything else.

Once Benjamin looks at the photographs he is captivated, not only by the repetition but by Wren’s insistence that the apparent sameness is superficial; that there is a depth to the images which remains unseen and misunderstood if we do not linger over them, to engage with them and ‘get to know’ them.  Listening to Wren’s explanation of the nuanced differences we, the viewers, become captivated by the images, too.  But more importantly, we are gripped by the idea that interesting things can happen in our little corner of the world, as well.  All it needs is for us to look, and to see.

The place that Wren photographed is a local corner, important to him because it is where his business is.  Taking his photographs he becomes a part of the corner, and his subjects stop taking any notice of the photographer.  His invisibility is what lends a truth to the images; not a ‘scientific’ truth but a subjective truth of an acute observer engaged with the world that he knows.  By becoming invisible himself he is able to make the mundane visible.  One is reminded of Henri Cartier-Bresson, who painted his silver Leica black and who refused to allow his own photograph to be published because he wished to remain anonymous on the streets of Paris, to be able to take photographs unseen by those at whom he was looking.  And so it is, often, with photography—the photographer becomes invisible, an unseen stalker on city streets.

Unbeknown to Benjamin when he sits down to look at the photographs is that he has a personal interest in the images, in the likeness of his wife who is lost to him in reality but is still there, trapped in the black-and-white pictures the Wren has placed so carefully in albums.

But in an ironic twist, just as the camera captures the images of the people in the street—has captured Benjamin’s wife, now dead—Wren is also captured.  In the process of recording the people who pass by his lens he is ensnared: his habit has become an obsession.  He now must record the scene at 8.00 a.m. each day, must ‘…be in my spot every morning at the same time … every morning in the same spot at the same time.’  There is no reason for this other than one of his own making.  Now, however, he finds that he can now no even have a holiday because there would be no one to take the photograph.

Like the subjects of his photographs Wren is himself imprisoned by his obsession, and the longer he pursues it the harder it is for him to break free.

Smoke CompositeSome of Auggie Wren’s images from ‘Smoke’, 1995.  (Still Photographer K.C. Bailey.)

Text © Stuart Peel 2013


[1] The film is based on a short story, ‘Auggie Wren’s Christmas Story’, by American writer Paul Auster, and the character of Benjamin is based on Auster himself.  The original short story was published in the New York Times at Christmas 1990, and is related in the film by Harvey Keitel.  The complete short story can be downloaded from http://www.xtec.cat/~dsanz4/materiales/auggie_wren.pdf

Photography, Democracy and History

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Ever since its invention, the importance of photography and the place that it occupies in society has been argued over.  The first to comment on the power of photography was the painter, Paul Delaroche, who was present on 19th August 1839 when Jacques-Louis-Mandé Daguerre gave the first public demonstration of his invention.  Seeing the shiny metal plate which bore a likeness more accurate than any artist could hope to accomplish, Delaroche exclaimed, ‘From today, painting is dead!’

Well, not quite.  But since that day many people have been impressed with the power of the photographic image.  Two hundred years ago no one had seen a photograph.  Today they are ubiquitous.  It is impossible to put a figure on the number that have ever been made, but it is estimated that more than 350 billion photographs are now taken each year.  Each day around 300 million are uploaded to Facebook.  And these numbers are increasing.

People take photographs everywhere, of everything.  They take photographs of events that are significant and trivial.  They take photographs of other people and themselves, their dogs and cats, houses cars and children.  They take photographs of places they have been to, of cities and forests and beaches and valleys, and they collect photographs of places they want to visit.  They take them at the top of mountains, at the bottom of oceans, in aeroplanes and jumping out of them, in the garden, in the kitchen, in the bathroom and the bedroom.  They take photographs in situations that they would never want strangers or their friends to see them in.  But they take them all the same.  When asked, ‘What would you would save if your house was burning?’ the family photograph album is high on most people’s list.  So what is so special about this cultural object?

Before the invention of the photograph, earls, barons, countesses, queens and kings could own a likeness of their grandparents.  These formal portraits would be hung in the baronial hall, and it would be explained to the up-and-coming lord of the manor who these people were in the pictures: grandfathers and uncles, aunties and great-grandmothers, builders and defenders of the empire.  Growing up surrounded by long-dead family was, for many years, a measure of one’s family, of one’s ‘breeding’, of one’s ‘class’.  No one but the powerful and very wealthy had access to their past in this way because a painted portrait was beyond those who even had good incomes.  It required a family fortune and a family mansion, often with a title and land.

With the invention of photography, however, a visit to a portraitist was within the means of even families with a modest income.  Early daguerreotype images needed long exposure times and this precluded their effective use as a medium for making portraits.  Within a few years, however, changes to the technology had reduced exposures to a few seconds.  Portrait studios quickly developed, and became instant attractions.  Dressed in their finest clothes, husbands, wives and children could stare into the lens of a camera made of wood, brass and leather, their likeness captured in metallic silver on a glass plate.  Framed pictures began appearing in hallways and sitting rooms, on mantelpieces and pianos.

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But the real change came with the introduction of the roll-film camera.  Invented by the Eastman Company, the first ‘Brownie’ was released in 1888.  It came loaded with enough film to take 100 pictures.  The initial cost of the camera was $25.00 and it cost a further $10.00 to have the film processed, the images printed and the camera re-loaded with film.  In 1890 the average wage in the U.S. was less than $10.00 a week, so it was not cheap, but as wages went up the price of cameras came down.  By 1900 the Brownie was selling for $1.00 and it wasn’t long before most households either owned a camera themselves or knew someone who did.  The Kodak Company’s motto was ‘You push the button, we do the rest’, and a growing proportion of the world did just that.  Birthdays, Christmas celebrations, weddings and graduations were recorded.  Houses, streets, new cars, shops, buildings.   Soldiers leaving to fight had photographs taken before they left and they took cameras with them when they travelled overseas.  They brought home photographs of their comrades and the exotic places that they had visited.  Images were no longer formal portraits of an entire company and titled ‘Men of the 4th Light Infantry at Dieppe’, but ‘George and Robert on a camel’, and ‘Me and Frank on leave in Paris’.

One of the most important elements of any photograph is that, by its nature, it is imbued with a sense of the past.  What a photograph shows may be selective and may not be the ‘absolute truth’, but they cannot exist without a world-out-there.  And with this simple invention—a small, portable box containing a roll of light sensitive cellulose—came something far greater: the democratisation of history.

Text © Stuart Peel 2013

Photographer’s Block

I went out the other day intent on taking photographs.  I had no agenda to pursue, no ‘event’ to cover, nothing in particular that I ‘wanted’ to photograph.  It was a weekday, so there was a bonus of not being ‘at work’ when most other people were.  I had my camera bag packed and batteries charged.

I drove to South Mole, a rocky headland constructed as a breakwater to protect the harbour in Fremantle, and one of my favourite places to take a few pictures.  Even if nothing interesting is happening in the harbour, there is always the sea, the sky, the horizon and the often changing weather.  But some days you realise, quite early on, that things are just not going to go the way you had hoped.  As I drove up to the entrance of the Mole, the steel and mesh gate that is always open was padlocked, and a sign attached.  The port authority apologised for any inconvenience, it said, but the Mole was to be closed for two weeks for repair work.

Damn and double damn.  I didn’t need to take any photos there, but I hadn’t made any contingency plans.  I turned the car around and headed back towards town.  I drove along the cappuccino strip, past all people sitting in the sun, drinking a coffee on their way to work, and I started to envy them.  They at least had something to do; some purpose.  My day was disappearing fast and I was starting to panic just a little.  I drove around the back streets of South Fremantle looking for inspiration.  Further south, the abandoned power station was bright in the morning sun, and I and drove along the access road.  It was once a graceful building, rectangular and low, with rows of small-paned windows stretching three stories from ground to roof.  From the inside these windows give the main hall the feeling of a post-apocalyptic Gothic cathedral, which is why the place is now popular with the graffiti artists.  I climbed out of the car, dragged myself up a dirt bank and stood next to the chain link and barbed wire fence, and looked at the junk and graffiti.  I have spent so much time there over the years I know it intimately, and couldn’t imagine anything else that I needed to photograph.  I turned the car around and headed further south to a coffee shop by the beach.  Usually quiet, on this morning—when everyone else was supposed to be at work–the carpark was half full and about a dozen pushbikes were bundled together by a tree.  Half-a dozen young mothers with one or two three and four years olds each crowded the outside tables.  Not even a coffee for me it seemed.

I drove back onto the main road, wandered past the vacant block where an old abattoir and meat packing factory used to be.  The acres that the factory covered had been sprayed with a green concoction designed to keep down the dust.  I’d photographed its destruction, but now there was nothing left.  I continued past market gardens, housing estates, small scale industry and factory units.  I drove on and only realised I was heading for home when I found myself turning into my own street.

What was the problem?  Why hadn’t I found anything to photograph?  I had the day to myself, the weather was perfect, but nothing seemed to work.  It occurred to me later, while I sipped coffee and stared at my back garden: the problem was habit.  I had stopped looking—really looking—at things.  I saw everything, to be sure, but I knew what it was and what it looked like before I really saw it.  It had been glanced, named categorised and filed without me actually looking at what was before me, today, now.

Most days when I head out to take photographs all is well.  Some days, however, nothing works.  It is on these days when the brain turns to auto-pilot and habit takes over.  But what usually happens on those days is that the habit isn’t noticed.  Everything goes along as normal.  If the gate on South Mole had been unlocked I would have walked out to the lighthouse, taken some photos of the container terminal, perhaps a ship coming into or leaving the port, some clouds on the horizon.  I would have gone home, uploaded the images to Lightroom, looked at them and thought, ‘Wasn’t much to photograph today’.  The habitual nature of what we do is blamed on other things—light, not much happening, too many people.  This probably happens more than we realise but it is usually overlooked unless another factor intervenes.  On this day it was a locked gate.

It wouldn’t be such a big deal if taking photographs was not so important.  I can’t explain why these images—digital or film—have such a hold on me and why I spend hours looking for them and looking at other similar images that other photographers have made.  I can’t explain why I get up before sunrise and stalk through empty streets with a camera, why I wander through vacant and sometimes dangerous places, around old factories and alleys strewn with the detritus of our capitalistic consumer society.  I have trouble articulating the pleasure that comes from making a record of the slow and inevitable decay of the structures, of the entropy of things returning to their original state.

But just because I can’t explain it does not make it less significant.  And so when the photographic opportunities don’t eventuate there is real and genuine sense of loss.  Every photograph missed is an opportunity that will never present itself again in quite the same way.

Text & Images © Stuart Peel 2012

Post-war restraint? Not likely!

A bright winter’s morning, and a fantastic opportunity to get some pictures of a deserted, local, suburban shopping centre. Not an abandoned shopping centre, but in Perth on a Sunday morning, with the exception of a bakery, all of the shops are closed, so they are certainly deserted. There is no intermediate stage in their weekly usage—the centre is either full, or it is empty. Sunday afternoon it is full; Sunday morning is empty. There are a few centres that host Sunday morning markets, but in most car parks all that you find is a broken down car or abandoned shopping trolleys.

Shopping centres are fascinatingly banal places. ‘Modern’ architecture that is really not that modern, that after only a few years will start to look depressing and dated. As paint fades and facades start to chip they begin to take on the appearance of last decades’ fashion. Which is, of course, precisely what they are, and exactly what I was intending to try and photograph.

But as Robbie Burns wrote, ‘The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men/Gang aft agley’.

Pulling into the car park the first thing I noticed—the only thing I noticed—was a fire-engine-red 1959 Cadillac convertible, sitting smack in the middle of the parking area, all by itself. A classic of space-age fins-and-chrome, bullet tail lights and an acre of bonnet and boot, it was a perfectly restored monster. It is easy to forget how big cars used to be.

The camera came out I started taking a photo or two when a more restrained Pontiac pulled into the parking area.  A 1956 Laurentian, a model that I have a particular fondness for, because my partner owned one before we were married.

By the time I’d snapped at it from all angles, a pair of Studebakers had arrived.  Then a 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air, a Pontiac GTO, another two Cadillacs … Then cars started arriving faster than I could keep up with them.

In the next hour or so around 150 of them pulled into the car park, all American, most of them left-hand-drives and all of them immaculately restored.

This was my favourite on the day, the first one that I saw.

 

Cadillac, American Car, Stuart Peel Photographer

1959 Cadillac at Gateway Shopping Centre

More than any other cultural icon, these cars have come to epitomise an era.

Following the end of World War II, the USA was a hotbed of internal conflict.  The unsubstantiated fear of the spread of international Communism saw the instigation of ‘The House Committee on Un-American Activities’, and along with Senator Joseph McCarthy, the Chairman of the ‘Subcommittee on Investigations of the Government Operations Committee’, sought and discovered Communists everywhere.  Many notable Americans had their careers ruined by these paranoid zealots, or were hounded out of the country.

The Cold War with USSR was in full swing, and it was the atomic age.  There was atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons which in turn fueled an on-going doctrine of ‘M.A.D.’, or Mutually Assured Destruction.  It saw children being forced to ‘duck-and-cover’ in schools.  A conservative and restrictive moral code saw the reversal of many of the social advances that women had attained during the war.

Paradoxically, the 1950s was also a time of incredible optimism.  Industry, which had been cranked up to a fever pitch churning out aeroplanes, weapons, vehicles and supplies for the forces fighting in the Pacific and Europe, were now looking for other products to manufacture and the surplus industrial production was channeled into other areas such as household appliances and cars.  It saw the birth of rock and roll and youth culture.  Art was big and muscular with painters like Jackson Pollock pouring and dribbling on landscape-sized canvases.  The Beats were changing literature, rockets were going into space, and architecture and design was reflective of the atomic and space age with a style that came to be known as ‘Googie’.

And then there were the cars.  In automobiles, by the middle of the 1950s all traces of the restraint of the war years had disappeared.  The new vehicles looked like space ships, with rocket tail lights, streamlined bodies and cockpits worthy of an astronaut.  The cars came in versions that culminated in automatic and electric everything.  It is interesting to ponder that the arena of design, particularly of motor vehicles, was the antithesis of the social restraint being felt in the larger society.

Like flashy neon signs, bobby sox, Little Richard and ‘Leave It To Beaver’, these cars are now anachronisms, and now seem out of place in a world of un-leaded petrol, ‘Smart’ cars and hybrids.  But there is still something special about them, and their appeal is sufficiently strong for a small army of car fanatics to lovingly restore and care for them, and occasionally bring them out on a sunny winter Sunday so that the rest of us can look at them and dream.

I didn’t get any photographs of the shopping centre, but there’s always next week.

Text & Images © Stuart Peel 2012

Robert Capa and D-Day

The anniversary of D-Day marks what is perhaps the most significant day of World War II.  The culmination of a year’s planning, it was the beginning of the end of Adolf Hitler’s plan for the domination of Europe and the ‘thousand year reign’ by Nazi forces.

From our comfortable positions at the beginning of the third millennium—which, had all gone to plan, was to be Hitler’s ‘Third Reich’ or third Empire—it is easy to forget the sacrifice made by the military personnel from the United Kingdom, the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Poland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway and the Free French forces who rushed onto the beaches all those years ago.

For many born in the 1950s, our images of the assaults were coloured by John Wayne in ‘The Longest Day’; for those born a couple of decades later it was Tom Hanks in ‘Saving Private Ryan’.  But for many, the most poignant images of the day are a few grainy photographs images shot by Robert Capa.

The photograph above is one of only eleven surviving images made on the beaches of Normandy by Robert Capa on D-Day, June 6th, 1944.  Capa was the not only photographer to go ashore that day, but he was the only one on Omaha beach with one of the first waves of US troops.  Casualties were high, but in military terms, the assault was a success.  Capa shot four rolls of 35mm film with a Contax camera, 106 images in all.  (Some sources say 108, and while the number may be important to historians, it is of little real consequence.)  When the films were processed, all but eleven were ruined by a laboratory technician trying to dry them too quickly.  Those that survived have become iconic images of the American landings and the dreadful conditions faced by all of the Allied troops on that day.

One can only imagine the terror of the soldiers, being fired upon with heavy artillery and machine guns, the screams from the injured, the explosions, the returning fire from small arms close by and the guns from the battleships screaming overhead, the smell of fear and cordite and blood.  But the images are silent, one-sixtieth of a second, trapped, frozen.

Accounts written at the time and compiled from interviews with the soldiers reveal what must have been a harrowing experience.

‘The landing craft came in under the comforting thunder of the tremendous fire support from naval guns, as well as the tank and artillery pieces firing from LCT’s.  [LCT: Landing Craft, Tank]  Up to within a few hundred yards of the water’s edge, there was every reason to hope that the enemy shore defences might have been neutralized. Then, many of the leading craft began to come under fire from automatic weapons and artillery, which increased in volume as they approached touchdown. It was evident at H Hour that the enemy fortifications had not been knocked out.’  (War Department Historical Division 1945 p 41)

‘Small-arms fire, mortars, and artillery concentrated on the landing area, but the worst hazard was produced by converging fires from automatic weapons. Survivors from some craft report hearing the fire beat on the ramps before they were lowered, and then seeing the hail of bullets whip the surf just in front of the lowered ramps. Some men dove under water or went over the sides to escape the beaten one of the machine guns. Stiff, weakened from seasickness, and often heavily loaded, the debarking troops had little chance of moving fast in water that was knee deep or higher, and their progress was made more difficult by uneven footing in the runnels crossing the tidal flat.’  (War Department Historical Division 1945 p 44)

‘One of the six LCA’s [LCA: Landing Craft, Assault] carrying Company A foundered about a thousand yards off shore, and passing Rangers saw men jumping overboard and being dragged down by their loads. At H+6 minutes [Invasion hour + 6 minutes] the remaining craft grounded in water 4 to 6 feet deep, about 30 yards short of the outward band of obstacles. Starting off the craft in three files, center file first and the flank files peeling right and left, the men were enveloped in accurate and intense fire from automatic weapons. Order was quickly lost as the troops attempted to dive under water or dropped over the sides into surf over their heads. Mortar fire scored four direct hits on one LCA, which “disintegrated.” Casualties were suffered all the way to the sand, but when the survivors got there, some found they could not hold and came back into the water for cover, while others took refuge behind the nearest obstacles. Remnants of one boat team on the right flank organized a small firing line on the first yards of sand, in full exposure to the enemy. In short order every officer of the company, including Capt. Taylor N. Fellers, was a casualty, and most of the sergeants were killed or wounded. The leaderless men gave up any attempt to move forward and confined their efforts to saving the wounded, many of whom drowned in the rising tide.’ (War Department Historical Division 1945 pp 45-47)

Capa said, ‘If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.’  (Magnum Photos n.d. n.p.)  And he was close enough.  But in the images, all remains silent.  Bursts of machine gun fire, heavy artillery shells from both sides exploding all around, machinery, curses, orders, bullets whistling through the air, radios crackling, screams of pain.  All are gone.  All that remains of the landings are the memories of those veterans, still alive and who lived through it, and these photographs.

There were many hundreds of other photographs taken that day by dozens of other photographers, and while Capa’s have come to stand for all of them, all are silent.  There is no hint of the world going past, of shells exploding and the stink of death.  All that we see is a layer of silver, just a few microns thick.

That this is enough to carry our emotion says much about the power of the photographic image.

Text © Stuart Peel 2012

Bibliography

For more information see ‘The Magnificent Eleven’, http://www.skylighters.org/photos/robertcapa.html

Magnum Photos, http://www.magnumphotos.com

War Department Historical Division 1945, ‘Omaha Beach’, available at the US Army Center of Military History,  http://www.history.army.mil/books/wwii/100-11/100-11.HTM

Two Early Photographs: Niepce and Daguerre

Two images made by pioneers of photography illuminate the humble beginnings of what has become the most ubiquitous of the arts.  When Nicéphore Niépce and Louis-Jacques Mandé Daguerre worked together in the early 1830s, they could not possibly have envisaged the impact their simple experiments would have on the contemporary world.

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Figure 1 Nicéphore Niépce, 1826 View from the Window at Gras (8 hour exposure)

It is unlikely that this indistinct image is the first ‘photograph’ that was ever taken, although many histories of photography say so.  What can be said is that it is the earliest image still in existence.  It was taken by a French scientist and inventor, Nicéphore Niépce from a window in his house near Chalone-sur-Saone, Burgundy, in 1826.  The process, which Niépce had invented, involved taking a metal plate which had been sensitised with bitumen of Judea, exposing the plate inside a camera obscura, a light-tight box with an attached lens, and finally fixing the image with oil of lavender.  It is not recorded how many other plates Niépce produced, nor how many other scientists and inventors had attempted a similar feat but failed.  Until 1952 it was thought to have been lost, but was re-discovered by the historian, Helmut Gernsheim, who donated the plate to the University of Texas, where it remains.  (Broeker 1984 361-362; Frizot 1998 19-21)

While it was an important scientific breakthrough, the process that Niépce used was inefficient and unsuitable for all practical purposes.  The process required an exposure times of several hours—eight hours for the view from his window—and while the image of the plate as shown here is the one most often reproduced, it is quite unlike the original, which is dull and closely-toned and almost impossible to see except when viewed from an oblique angle in perfect lighting conditions.  Despite these caveats, View From His Window At Gras is a remarkable image.

Niépce was an inventor, not a businessman.  In 1829 he met Louis-Jacques Mandé Daguerre, a scenic designer, showman and co-owner of the Diorama, a spectacular image-and-light show in which an audience was enthralled with stage-sized ‘paintings’ made with a clever use of light and illusion.  Daguerre had also been experimenting with ways to produce images for his dioramas, and after meeting Niépce, the two formed a partnership that lasted until Niépce’s death in 1833.  Daguerre took charge of the development of the process, and in 1838 he offered the invention to the French Government.  The discovery was officially announced to the Académie des Science in January 1839.  It was made known to the general public on August 19th of that year.  (Frizot 1998 26)

But even before this date, Daguerre had used the process to make a number of images.

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Figure 2 Louis-Jacques Mandé Daguerre, c1838 A View of the Boulevard du Temple, Daguerreotype

This photograph is usually called A View of the Boulevard du Temple.  It is one of the most important images of the nineteenth century.  At first glance, it is straight forward.  Obviously taken some time ago, it is a view of a deserted street of shops and houses somewhere in Europe, a long time ago.  There is little sign of activity.  You could guess the time of day by the shadows angling to the left from buildings, posts and trees, and the only discernible figure in the scene is a wraith-like shadow in the bottom left-hand corner.

But there are things about this image that makes it historically significant.

Firstly, it is a daguerreotype, and that alone is enough to make it important.  While many thousands of daguerreotypes are still in existence, this is only a small number of the daguerreotypes that were made, and a tiny fraction of the sum total of photographic images made in the last two centuries.  Daguerreotypes are fragile, easily damaged and difficult to preserve, but more importantly, every image was an original.  To make a daguerreotype was quite a task.  The photographer took a sheet of copper, silver-plated on one side and polished to a mirror finish.  In a purpose-built box, potassium iodide was heated and the metal plate suspended above.  Iodine fumes combined with the silver, creating silver iodide, which is sensitive to light.  The plate was transferred to a camera, an exposure made, and then immediately and in darkness the plate was suspended in vapour from heated mercury to ‘fix’ the image.  The plate was finally washed in sodium hyposulfate, rinsed in distilled water and carefully dried.  It was delicate, so the small sheet of copper and silver was usually mounted in a glass case.

Daguerreotypes were expensive, and once they became more common remained the preserve of the middle classes.  While they may seem quaint today, they were the cutting edge of contemporary 1840s technology—the iPad of the day—and were extremely fashionable.  Much of the cost was tied to the fact that every image was an original, and unlike Henry Fox Talbot’s process (which used paper negatives and was invented at the same time in Britain), daguerreotypes could not be reproduced or enlarged.

So the photograph above is notable at one level because it is a daguerreotype.  It is not simply a daguerreotype, however, but one made by Louis Daguerre himself.  If the date is correct—it is generally given as 1838—it was made before photography was announced the public.  It is thought that Daguerre made three images of this scene, but only two remain.  The view was most likely from a window of the photographer’s apartment but this can’t be checked because the building and the street disappeared in the 1850s, a victim of Baron Haussmann’s modernisation of Paris.

One of the most engaging aspects of the picture, though, is the boulevard.  Apart from the solitary figure having his shoes shined, the rest of the street appears as a ghost-town.  But just because we can’t see other people does not mean that none were present.  The sensitivity of early photographic emulsions was low and exposure times were long—thirty minutes was not unusual in the early years of the daguerreotype.  Most early photographs were taken of things that didn’t move, and so many early photographs have a similar emptiness.  There were undoubtedly pedestrians on the footpaths and carriages on the street, but nothing registered on the plate.  The American inventor, Samuel Morse, was shown this image and quickly realised that, ‘Moving objects leave no impression.  The boulevard, though constantly crossed by a flood of pedestrians and carriages, appeared completely deserted, apart from a person who was having his boots polished …’  (Quoted in Frizot 1998 28)

While we know who took the image, we know nothing of the figure, stopping on the way home, nor of the worker shining his boots.  It is likely that he was unaware of being photographed—he would never have heard of the process nor seen the image.  But the presence of that solitary figure makes this image important, because as far as we know, this is the first photograph of a human being, and so it is the first street portrait and the first urban image, taken from the window of the photographer’s apartment a year before the rest of the world knew that such a wonder existed.

Text © Stuart Peel 2012

Bibliography:

Broeker, William L. (Ed)  Encyclopedia of Photography, International Center of Photography, Pound Press, Crown Publishers New York.  1984.

Frizot, Michel 1998  ‘Light Machines’, in Frizot, Michel (Ed)  A New History of Photography, Könemann Verlagsgellschaft, Köln, Germany.  1998.