From its inception in 1839, photography has taken an often convoluted evolutionary course—a meandering path governed by the ebb and flow of faux pas, random chance, and blind luck. Mary Warner Marien expounds upon this seeming randomness by observing in her book, Photography: A Cultural History, “If the invention of photography had depended solely on the availability of materials, it could have taken place during the late Renaissance” (p.1); yet, it would take 200+ years before the camera would finally see photographic fruition. This delayed actualization, when combined with randomization and the fact that “from 1839 on, twenty-four persons claimed to have invented photography” (p. 15), only adds to its mystique and makes for one of its most significant aspects. As historian, Tertius Chandler, remarks in Duplicate Inventions?, “photography is one of the few genuine cases of simultaneous invention.” (p.496), and there is an abundance of documented proof that it was simultaneously invented by insular individuals scattered across the continents.
Chandler continues his sentiment, “It is really quite remarkable: Niepce and Daguerre were inspired by lithography…and their rival Talbot was set off by something quite different” (p.496); yet, both Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre and William Henry Fox Talbot were not the only ones laying claims to being the original creator of the photograph. With other inventors such as Hippolyte Bayard and Antoine Florence constructing similar inventions, “there was not one but several photographies. Some had failed or were destined to be forgotten. Some, like Daguerre’s process, produced single images; others, like Talbot’s, were potentially capable of making multiple prints” (p.23). As to why so many people were conceiving of photographic inventions at or around the same time, Marien offers the reader “the notion of simultaneous invention—that two or more people can develop the same concept at about the same time” (p.8); an idea that is still baffling but very relevant even into the early 21st century. Some contemporary scientists have further elaborated upon and placed an entirely new spin on simultaneous invention—scientists like Rupert Sheldrake—who have proposed the theory of ‘morphic resonance’ (or simply: ‘morphic theory’) to better understand such occurrences throughout the whole of human history.
Comprised of what he calls ‘morphic fields’, Sheldrake suggests in his book, Morphic Resonance, that behavior in humans is contained in a hierarchical schema of nested levels within levels and—once a certain level is attained through imitation and repetition—any human being that has reached that level will then be attuned to a specific mindset and an awareness that becomes instinctual to said mindset: “An individual is initiated into particular patterns of behavior by other members of society…the performance of a characteristic pattern of behavior brings the individual into morphic resonance with all those who have carried out this pattern in the past” (p.190).
In the context of simultaneous invention of the photograph, Sir Isaac Newton’s famous (and often misquoted) citation—“If I have seen a little further, it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants”—comes to mind. Every device, from the European cathedrals with small holes carved out in their roofs to the pantograph to the camera obscura and lucida, had culturally accreted around, amassed before, and accelerated this batch of 19th-century inventors into a similar mindset… or as Sheldrake puts it, “learning is facilitated as the individual ‘tunes in’ to specific morphic fields…Thus, for example, it should have become progressively easier to learn to ride a bicycle, drive a car, ski, or play a video game, owing to the cumulative morphic resonance from the larger number of people who have already acquired these skills” (p.190). Again, in the context of Sheldrake’s morphic theory, the reason simultaneous invention of photography occurred when it did is because of the previous generations’ inventions stacked atop one another into a innovative spire of inspiration, which served as a beacon for individuals such as Talbot and Daguerre to reach an unknowable new perception and an unforeseen advancement constructed solely upon the acquired knowledge of the past.
Think of it this way: like a logical progression up a craggy slope, each invention that aided in optical accuracy before photography had been minor steps taken while scaling a somewhat daunting incline with an unanticipated photographic peak. Thus, the properties and components comprising photography were easily attainable to individuals like Daguerre, Bayard, and Fox Talbot because they were synchronized with a particular morphic resonance—or mindset. And like those adventurers desirous of reaching a mountain’s summit before their mountain-climbing competitors—photography too had its many adventurous inventors and innovators all blindly vying for the same mountaintop.
Additionally, Marien notes that “although it seems that the invention of photography should be related to the start of the Industrial Revolution, its connection to the technical, social, and political changes that accompanied the initial mechanization of production during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century in Europe is not easy to establish” (p. 2). However, when factoring morphic theory into the equation, photography’s inception during the drang and drone of industrialization makes complete sense; regardless of whether or not the Industrial Revolution itself had brought about daguerreotypes, calotypes, etc. As Marien observes, “the photographic process began to be linked and experimented with in an era when practical, commercially feasible applications of scientific experiments were encouraged” (p.3); yet another piece of the photographic jigsaw that fits perfectly with Sheldrake’s theory of morphic resonance.
As if that weren’t enough evidence, Marien further remarks that two of photography’s simultaneous inventors—Fox Talbot and Florence—suggested the process of simultaneous invention as an answer to the coincidental surge of photographic devices: “Simultaneous invention…was mentioned by Florence and by…William Henry Fox Talbot” (p.8). Thus, even photography’s inventors were attuned to similar explanations as to how it was possible that so many individuals were coming forth with their own version of the photograph. Further fuel to add to the ‘morphic’ fire.
Another fire that the invention of photography ignited was—and some would say has yet to entirely extinguish—is, as Marien mentions, the “debate about its worth as art” (p.79). The process of photography being no stranger to antithetical mixtures, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the innovative invention was forced to navigate between polar opposites: the Karybdis of art and the Scylla of science. This duality of extremes served as ammunition for those advocating photography’s invention and those admonishing it. Likewise, this dual characteristic also forced both photography’s proponents and critics to cogitate, question, devise, and debate what exactly were the concrete properties governing the lofty ideals of art and science. Thus, the photograph’s status as unifier of these two extreme enterprises into one singular, cohesive entity is yet another significant aspect in its evolutionary history, and, as Mary Warner Marien indicates, “Photography was flexible and experimental, neither a sharply delimited art form nor quite the product of science” (p.28).
During its fledgling years, photography was “regularly called an ‘art-science’” (p.26), and Marien further elaborates that this term “recognized that photographic images were not only generated by a mix of science and art, but also applied in both activities” (p.26). It would seem that, at least for the first 20 years after photography’s inception, a cohesive unity between the two disciplines emanated forth from photography. However, Marien also notes that “the ambiguous character of photography in its early years was fostered by the equally uncertain definitions of art and science” (p.26).
Even with luminary proponents of photography, such as Edgar Allen Poe, “reactions to early photography ranged from the exuberant to the cautious” (p.28). As the years progressed, a “belief in the objectivity of photography took hold” (p.76), as Marien points out and adds, “The medium was belittled as a potential art form” (p.76). And several of photography’s artistic protagonists—individuals such as British critic, John Ruskin, and, artist, Eugenie Delacroix—had changed their minds about the photograph into one of antagonism.
As time progressed, photography began to be considered as “a science imposing its mode of dogged imitation on art” (p.77). The amicable cohesiveness between art and science had deteriorated into us-vs.-them mentality and abrasive contempt. To make matters worse, as Marien describes, “Talbot, Daguerre, and Niepce all shied away from explaining photography as an invention that makes images through human agency” (p.23); thereby exsanguinating it of its creative cruor. Marien further explains that each of these men “insisted that photography originated in nature and was disclosed by nature” (p.23), removing it of its artistry and into the lofty confines of scientific logic. What’s most surprising—and a true symbol of its historical significance in photography—is that the debate whether photography is an art or science has never been wholly resolved and continues to this day.
This furor over a concise definition indicating photography’s true allegiance to one or the other brings to mind a quote from 20th-century French anthropologist and ethnologist, Claude Levi-Strauss, and his concepts of ‘bricoleur’ and ‘bricolage’: “Art lies half-way between scientific knowledge and mythical or magical thought. It is common knowledge that the artist is both something of a scientist and of a ‘bricoleur’” (p.22) ); an idea that fits perfectly with what one commentator for The New Yorker stated when describing the photograph “as ’more like some marvel of a fairy tale or delusion of necromancy than a practical reality’” (Marien, p.25).
Yet another significant aspect in the early history of photography revolves around the reversed tones of the negative image—or, more specifically, around Fox Talbot’s creation of the calotype process—which, as Marien observes, “Produced a negative, from which many prints could be made… [and] would become the basis for modern photographic reproduction” (p.19); an advantage that Daguerre’s daguerreotype did not have. Of course, one of the true ironies about the above statement—and a sign of things to come—is that, although Daguerre, a Frenchman, was the first vocal inventor of the photograph and had the backing of his country behind him and his daguerreotype, it was the British inventor, Fox Talbot, whose calotype process was chosen by France’s politically-motivated Historic Monuments Commission over Daguerre’s government-supported daguerreotype…regardless of “France’s political and economic rivalry with Britain” (p.57). As Marien notes, “The commission rejected the daguerreotype’s cold metallic tinge in favor of the…calotype” (p.57), and was also chosen for “its ability to produce negatives from which multiple copies could be made” (p.57). Even the French had enough sense and foresight to put aside petty national rivalries for the better (and foreign) photographic process of the two.
However, the negative did more than that; it would become the focus of whether or not the photograph could truly be considered a trusted source of informational authenticity. As a result of this, the public’s perception of the world around them was experiencing a paradigm shift in conscious approach to documentation and commemoration. Moreover, with the introduction of negative, photography—which was often seen as a reliable source of objectivity—was no longer an article of unyielding truth, but rather was the “photographers’ efforts to intensify the appearance of truth” (p.74). Initially, such revelations were greeted silently with a feigned ignorance by proponents and opponents of the art/science debate alike. As Marien asserts “In public discussions and literature, the capacity of the photograph to seem whole and complete, while omitting relevant truths, was rarely addressed directly” (p.74). However, such selective myopia would not last long…
The negative also opened up the possibility for photographic manipulation, which sent those individuals in the art world who felt confident in “the idea of photographic representation as acutely accurate” (p.85) (and, therefore, inartistic) into a paroxysmal panic. One proponent of this manipulative technique—now titled ‘combination printing’—was Oscar Rejlander, whose most famous photographic work, The Two Ways of Life, was a time-consuming composite of “more than thirty individual negatives…which required a great deal of hand-work” (p.91). Rejlander took his inspiration for the manipulated photograph “from a Renaissance source and…distanced the work from ordinary photography” (p.91), likening it to the process of painting. Unsurprisingly, this only fueled further debate about whether the photograph was an art, a science, or an art-science. Much like the The Two Ways of Life’s visual display of the antithetical and archetypal symbols of sainthood and sin—and the two youths represented in the combination print who are torn between these two divergent paths—so too were the opinions in support of and against combination printing—a technique that foredoomed those opinions insisting that photography “was not a medium open to imagination or subjective response” (p.87).
As famed German sociologist, philosopher, and literary critic, Walter Benjamin, keenly observed while discussing the artistic merits of the photograph in his book, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, “It [photography] can…place the copy of the original in situations beyond the reach of the original” (p.6). Benjamin astutely concluded that the reason photography has such divergent opinions amongst its supporters and critics alike stems from issues surrounding its ‘genuineness’ and that, ultimately, the photograph represents “an upheaval of tradition” (p.7).
With Benjamin’s words in mind, there’s little doubt that the introduction of photography marked an end to the way people perceived not only the world around them but themselves as well. Likewise, due to photography, presumed notions of what was considered art and what was considered science were brought into question and re-examined under an intense new scrutiny. But above and beyond all else, photography helped to blur the derisive line between reality and imagination and, like the scores of its simultaneous inventors, the photograph offered the world a multitude of realities and in multiple copies to be shared not solely by the select few but by the masses as well. A new, modern era with panoramic vistas and snapshot horizons was expanding and growing at an exponential rate upon the unsuspecting populaces of Earth as the 20th century slowly crept into existence—an era that the photograph had helped to reshape and reinvigorate…an era advancing the vision of the human race as a whole.
Benjamin, Walter, and J. A. Underwood. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. London: Penguin, 2008. Print.
Chandler, Tertius. "Duplicate Inventions?". Wiley Online Library. N.p., 28 Oct. 2009. Web. 8 Nov. 2011. <http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1525/aa.1960.62.3.02a00090/pdf>.
Levi-Strauss, Claude. The Savage Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966. Print.
Marien, Mary Warner. Photography: a Cultural History. Upper River Saddle, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2006. Print.
Sheldrake, Rupert. Morphic Resonance: the Nature of Formative Causation. 4th, rev. and expanded U.S. ed. Rochester, Vt.: Park Street Press, 2009. Print.