2. [Comic] Re-presentation, or How Photography Became the “Reality Copy”

Roger Fenton's photograph of his own dark room and assistant in the Crimea

Roger Fenton’s photograph of his own mobile dark room and assistant in the Crimea

Ordinary thinking about photography seems to vacillate between two wildly different extremes: it is either a mystical death mask imprisoning the innermost of one’s being or hardly there at all and the images of objects taken as the objects themselves, or at least sufficiently so. The Japanese, arguably, take this to an extreme, going so far as to call photography shashin or “reality copy.” It is all too easy to succumb to a reality principle underlying photographic images, but as John Tagg is quick to remind his reader in The Burden of Representation, that very reality principle is an after effect of several mitigating processes.

The indexical nature of the photograph – the causative link between the pre-photographic referent and the sign – is… highly complex, irreversible, and can guarantee nothing at the level of meaning. What makes the link is a discriminatory technical, cultural and historical process in which particular optical and chemical devices are set to work to organise [sic] experience and desire and produce a new reality – the paper image which, through yet further processes, may become meaningful in all sorts of ways. (3)

Tagg’s book, following Foucault somewhat, shows how the technical processes of producing photographic objects were rendered amenable to already highly developed modes of surveillance, documentation, record-keeping, and so forth. As result of this marriage of convenience, photography acquired the perception of it as evidentiary or, as Tagg puts it, indexical. This is another example of what I was saying earlier about a form only being thought as such within a discourse of it, and as that discourse changes—or, in the case of photography, as a recent technological development is made amenable to a pre-existing discourse—so too does the sense of its formal properties. For something that has been lost in our modern valorization of photography as “really real” or “real enough” is the recurring frustrations with its instability and transience in the mid-19th century.

Early photochemical prints were prone to fading, which makes perfect sense, when you consider how photographic processes work. Photography relies on the properties of certain materials to alter when exposed to light. As a result, even though the image is more or less “fixed” by other materials, it stands to reason that when a photochemically produced print is exposed to light again, so that one can actually look at it, that it would continue to be altered by that exposure. Moreover, most earlier photochemical processes were clumsy and time-consuming, demanded an awkward stillness from the persons and objects being photographed, and left one wondering whether it would be faster and simpler to hire a sketch artist. It, in fact, took quite a long time and several other developments for photography to supplant sketch artistry in day to day image making.

In the [eighteen-]fifties photographers were much troubled by the fading of photographic prints, and the great desideratum was to discover a process by means of which photographs could be reproduced in permanent printing ink, suitable for book illustration, instead of having to glue actual photographs in between or on the text pages. (Gernsheim, Roger Fenton, Photographer of the Crimean War 27)

The turning point for photography in print and its amenability to a new discourse of reality was photogravure, for which the foundations had been laid even prior to the development of the daguerreotype but was not perfected until 1878 by the Czech artist Karel Václav Klíč. Other processes amenable to print had been developed prior to the 1880s, such as Roger Fenton’s photogalvanography, but it was photogravure that stuck. There were some examples of periodicals that used photochemical prints pasted onto their pages, The Far East being a notable example, but it was the development of a relatively rapid photomechanical process that allowed photography to enter into the heterogeneous visual milieu of print and thereby disseminate the idea of halftone images as “more real” into the popular Zeitgeist.

Prior to this, photochemical prints were subject to the same form of graphic re-presentation as anything else: woodblock engravings and copper plate etchings. Whether the “original” was a watercolor, a pencil sketch,[1] a charcoal drawing, or a photochemical print mattered very little, for until the later development of photomechanical print processes of re-presentation, they all would likely be rendered as woodcuts for insertion into a movable type press. This means the single tone line art one sees on any given page of, say, the Illustrated London News in the 1850s could have been sourced from nearly anything. Moreover, this non-distinction between photography and other visual forms plays out in the way it is addressed in writing. “Light-etching” draws heavily upon the terminology of print culture, and I say “etching” and not “writing,” as many do, to emphasize how photography was even thought of in terms of print. For, as the classically educated elites of the 19th century would have known, the –graph morpheme in Greek is far more extensive than just “writing,” which is why the English words graphic and graph can refer to images and charts respectively. A grapheus in Greek is a “painter,” and graphis or “stylus” can be used idiomatically to mean “embroidery.” So thinking of photography in terms of writing can be misleading, especially since it points away from the way in which in the mid 19th century photography was explicitly linked to the then common reproduction of images as line art.

Even the now generic term “picture” has its etymological origins in painting, and when it was used historically to refer to a tableau in a theatrical performance, the sense was the actors, dancers, or what have you were, in a sense, performing a painting. What has been lost in the common parlance of photo as picture is the way in which, in the early years of photography, photographs were just as, if not more, commonly referred to as engravings, in line with the logic of woodblock or intaglio prints. In fact, it is not entirely clear whether photochemical or photomechanical prints were considered distinct from what we might now call line art prior to widespread proliferation of photogravure as a means of printing from photographic negatives. A particularly confusing (and thus telling) example of this non-distinction can be found in a 1855 article in the Illustrated London News describing an exhibition at the Watercolour Society in Pall Mall of photographs brought back from Roger Fenton’s trip to the Crimea.

Engraving of one of Fenton's Crimea photographs as printed in the Illustrated London News

Engraving of one of Fenton’s Crimea photographs as printed in the Illustrated London News

The unexampled interest as well as the extraordinary merit of the exhibition of photographs taken by Mr. Fenton in the Crimea amply justify our recurrence to the subject, especially as this week we have the pleasure of presenting the reader with an Engraving in which the ingenious contrivance by which this Artist was enabled to execute his works is depicted by his own hand.

It seems quite clear from context that the engraving in question is the one just above the article of Fenton’s photographic van, the special mobile darkroom he had constructed from an old wine barrel wagon especially for his trip and the wet colloidion process he was then perfecting. Yet, later in the article, when discussing the photographs of the exhibition, the same language is used.

The new Commander-in-Chief, Sir William Codrington, is also here. He looks older than he is; but the keen glance just seen under the rim of the cap, and the firmly-compressed lips, betoken, so far as appearance may, “the right man.” We may also mention 128* as an engraving which is remarkably good as well as interesting. It represents the “Sanitary Commission;” and further on is a single likeness of one its members, Mr. Rawlinson, an extraordinarily fortunate work[.] A very bold one of General Bosquet, with extended arms, giving orders to his Staff, and a capital portrait of Lieutenant O’Reilly, to whose ready pencil we all owe so much, are also among the additions.

O’Reilly’s pencil is an excellent example of how a proximal, intimate knowledge of the circumstances of the war and the news of it that was current can help elucidate a contemporary discourse of images and their place in print, without which one might easily assume the “pencil” to be that of a writer/correspondent. For Montagu O’Reilly’s service to the ILN took the form of sketches not dispatches.

Charles Wirgman's reportage satirical depiction of the Satsuma Rebellion in Japan Punch

Charles Wirgman’s reportage satirical depiction of the 1877 Satsuma Rebellion in Japan Punch

Yet, even this momentary distinction I make between sketch artist and journalist or correspondent breaks down all too easily. For instance, Charles Wirgman, famous in my line of work for being the creator and editor of The Japan Punch, was, at the same time he was the publisher of a humor magazine in Yokohama, a Far East correspondent for the ILN, regularly providing that publication with markedly unfunny pictures and non-[comic] stories of current events in Japan. In one person, we have much of the full range of 19th century periodical print media, serious journalism and silly caricature, and yet for the reader the two never quite seemed to overlap. There is the obvious point to be made, that his two hats were specific to two completely different publications circulated in two completely different countries, but, to counter Beaty’s statement earlier, distinctions that hold for readers as they experience a particular range of texts do not necessarily hold for the producers and co-conspirators that Beaty valorizes. I mention Wirgman and his two hats in particular to demonstrate how using authors, in fact single individuals of any kind, as a unifying principle can be grossly misleading. It seems obvious that the ILN and The Japan Punch are two different kinds of text and thus would have content of a different character, yet the unifying principle of an author still holds sway, even when the particulars show that any given author can easily be broken down into two or more authorships. Wirgman is a rather straightforward reminder that Foucault’s insights into the nature of subjectivity as a techne of the self is not some flight of high theoretical fancy but a markedly practical observation. We ignore it at our own peril.

Engraving of a daguerrotype of Matthew Perry in an 1953 issue of the ILN

Engraving of a daguerreotype of Matthew Perry in an 1953 issue of the ILN

This means that for a reader, encountering print texts haphazardly as she does, distinctions are made at the order of the text before her, and in the 19th century milieu of print periodicals, these distinctions are always messy. One might encounter an engraving of “COMMODORE MATTHEW C. PERRY, COMMANDER OF THE UNITED STATES EXPEDITION TO JAPAN” and know that it is a [photograph], because the caption notes that it is “From a Daguerreotype by Meade Brothers, New York.” Similarly, Wirgman’s sketches sent back to the ILN are “from our special correspondent,” so, though Wirgman’s name is almost never given, one does at least know what the “original” of the engraving in question is. The problem, of course, lies in the fact that it is more common for the object of “origin” not to be mentioned at all, so whether the engraving on the printed page of a given issue of the ILN comes from a [photograph] or a sketch or a watercolor or a painting or even another engraving is unknowable without extensive archival research (and often simply unknowable even with such research), leaving the reader to ponder, if it even matters to her, what the “original” might be.

Iwakura Tomomi in an 1872 issue of the ILN and the photograph it might likely reproduce

Iwakura Tomomi in an 1872 issue of the ILN and the photograph it might be based on

Consider, for instance, an engraving of Iwakura [Tomomi]—rather inexplicably labeled “Sionii” here[2]—that is almost certainly from a photograph. I can say this with some degree of certainty, because a photograph very similar to this engraving does survive, yet one does have to assume that the photograph’s being a mirror flip of the engraving is not a significant reason to doubt their relationship. Even without the photochemical print, there are reasons to believe this image is not from a sketch, in particular the fine and extensive cross-hatching used to create the halftones in Iwakura’s face. However, level of detail in representing halftones does not rule out the possibility of this engraving being derived from a painting, though the existing photographic evidence makes that reading of this image unlikely.

[1] The perception of the pencil as an artist’s rather than a writer’s tool is key for understanding how many, Sontag especially, misconstrue Fox Talbot’s famous statement about photography being the “pencil of nature.”

[2] One of the great frustrations of dealing with references to Japan in Western periodicals of the 19th century is the complete inconsistency of the transliterations used. Add to that how often transliterations must simply be mistakes, given how one cannot even strain to make sense of them, and you have a veritable nightmare of trying to determine who certain individuals actually are.

NEXT: Pt. 5, the conclusion of the Conclusion! [sort of]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: