Lights and Shadows in the History of Photography

One of the most quoted moments in the history of photography is the speech of the politician and physicist François Arago presenting the daguerreotype to the Chamber of Deputies in Paris, in July 1839: the announcement of photography was famously characterised by a positivist fervor and an illuminist enthusiasm. Arago presented the invention of Louis Daguerre and Nièpce Nicèphore, emphasizing the progress photography would bring to scientific domains such as astronomy and archeology … While the contributions of photography for science were highlighted by Arago’s positivist discourse, the important role photography would play in the entertainment industry was yet unpredictable and it was, in some way, hiding in the shadows. Indeed, photography is related to science as well as to entertainment. The history of photography was so determined by the lights of reason and truth as by the shadows of superstition and illusion. Received with a positivist ambiance of exploration, photography has also aroused an uncanny atmosphere of astonishment. From the family of the camera obscura, the microscope and the telescope – instruments, which were mentioned in Arago’s speech –, photography is also a playful apparatus from the lineage of philosophical toys, pre-cinema devices such as magic lantern and diorama, and cinema itself. In the International Year of Light, it is pertinent to revisit the history of photography, revising the ways in which photography links to scientific truth, but also rethinking its more obscure affinity with the popular arts of illusion.

The telescope and the praxinoscope.

The telescope and the praxinoscope.

The enlightened appropriations: astronomy, topography, and medicine…

One of the first scientific domains mentioned by François Arago, who would become the Director of the Paris Observatory in 1843, is astronomy. Referring to the first astrophotography experiences conducted by Louis Daguerre, Arago explained that the diversity of the light intensities captured by the daguerreotype would allow registering the moon, the sun and the stars. Topography, archeology, geography and history are other scientific domains in which photography would be useful, according to Arago:  “To copy the millions and millions of hieroglyphics (…), scores of years, and whole legions of painters would be required. One individual, with a Daguerreotype, would effect the labor in a very short space of time.” Indeed, as soon as photography was invented, the expeditions in order to take and to store topographical photos of the entire globe have proliferated.

Radiograph of Wilhelm Rontgen’ wife's left hand, obtained by him on December 22, 1895.

Radiograph of Wilhelm Rontgen’ wife’s left hand, obtained by him on December 22, 1895.

Although medicine was not mentioned by Arago, this is one of the first scientific domains using photography: photography namely made radiography and microphotography possible. William Rontgen took the first radiograph in 1895: a picture of his wife’s hand on a photographic plate formed due to X-rays. In turn, the first micrographs using the daguerreotype technique were obtained in 1839 by Alfred Donné, who invented the microscope daguerreotype. In 1845, Donné and his assistant Léon Foucault would publish a medical illustrated atlas, with several microdaguerreotypes.

While Rontgen, Donné and Foucault used photography to explore the depths of human body,  Guillaume de Duchenne and Jean-Martin Charcot were rather intrigued by the depths of human soul. Their photographic experiments in the domains of neurology and psychiatry, in the Salpêtrière Hospital, produced one of the most famous medical iconography. Guillaume de Duchenne in the decades of 1850 and 1860, combined electrophysiological analysis and photography in order to obtain an “orthography of the physiognomy in motion”, in his own words. By 1870, Jean-Martin Charcot established a photographic studio in the Salpêtrière, in order to capture, describe and stock the symptoms of hysterical and epileptic patients.

Electrophysiological Experience, Salpêtrière hospital, Guillaume de Duchenne, 1852-1856.

Electrophysiological Experience, Salpêtrière hospital, Guillaume de Duchenne, 1852-1856.

The human body and soul would not be scrutinized with medical purposes only: in the last decades of the 19th century, photographic portrait became a means of identification in criminal processes. The first rogues galleries, collections of photographs of criminals wanted by the police, were unorganized and their usefulness was restricted.  Alphonse Bertillon, a French criminologist, created the first standardized system of criminal identification by 1880, which combined physical measurements, photography, and descriptions. Among his several improvements are the mug shot (the full-face and profile photograph of the criminal, with constant distance, angle and light) and the statistical classification of criminals according to their anthropometric measurement.

The obscure misappropriations: photographic recreations and trick photography

Head in the hole, Nusch Éluard, Paul Éluard, Ady Fidelin, Man Ray, France, 1937. Credit: Collection Gérard Levy and Peter Weiss. (Clément Chéroux, La Photographie timbrée)

Head in the hole, Nusch Éluard, Paul Éluard, Ady Fidelin, Man Ray, France, 1937. Credit: Collection Gérard Levy and Peter Weiss. (Clément Chéroux, La Photographie timbrée)

Scientific appropriations of photography visually contrast with photographic recreations popularised in the late 19th century and the early 20th century, by picture postcards, photographic albums, press and books. As the art historian and curator Clément Chéroux stresses, photographic recreation is a terminology with its origins in the French photographic manuals such as Les recréations photographiques by Albert Bergeret e F. Drouin (1893) and La Photographie Recréative et Fantaisisiste by C. Chaplot (1904), which would instruct amateur photographers about an heteroclite ensemble of photographic techniques. We reuse the term photographic recreation in a broader sense, in order to name the first entertaining uses and the playful practice of photography, common among amateur and commercial photographers who would employ tricks of retouching and artifices of staging in order to create amusing montages, who would often deform the human figure. The history of photographic recreations is crucial in order to revise the foundational relationship between photography and popular entertainment, or, in Walter Benjamin words, the original affinity between photography and the “traditional arts” of the “fairgrounds”.

One of the most popular photographic amusements, spread in fairgrounds, amusement parks and studios in the early 20th century, is the head in the hole or comic foreground photography: it consisted in a painted backdrop with a hole, where the face of people portrayed was juxtaposed to fictional situations.

Introduced during the twenties, in Europe and United States, the photo shooting gallery was also a curious attraction in fairgrounds, which presented itself as a traditional shooting gallery with the difference that its target, when touched by the lead, activated a photographic system that would fix the shooter in a light glare.

Picture from photo shooting gallery, Paris, 1937. Credit: Collection Christophe Goeury (Clément Chéroux, La photo qui fait mouche).

Picture from photo shooting gallery, Paris, 1937. Credit: Collection Christophe Goeury (Clément Chéroux, La photo qui fait mouche).

The labyrinths of distorting mirrors were already popular in amusing parks before the invention of photography, but they became even more attractive when, in the beginning of the 20th century, visitors got used to receiving a photograph of their reflections.

Multigraph photography or five fold portray, performed both at home and in studios, also employed mirrors. It consisted in posing the sitter with his back to the camera; in front of him were arranged two mirrors, set at an angle of 75 degrees; the reflection between these mirrors would produce four images of the person, so that this person could be surrounded by their own lookalikes.

Double Portrait, ca. 1910s-20s. Credit: Collection Museu da Imagem, Photographia Aliança Archive, Braga, Portugal.

Double Portrait, ca. 1910s-20s. Credit: Collection Museu da Imagem, Photographia Aliança Archive, Braga, Portugal.

Double portraits were based on a similar principle, representing an individual sitting side-by-side, playing cards or fighting in a duel with their own self. Despite doubling the human figure, these portraits did not make use of mirrors, but of double exposure with a black background. This operation is part of a vast group of photomontage techniques, such as multiple exposure and combination printing, which would allow to recreate a sort of human bestiary, where ghosts, beheaded man, dwarfs, giants, androgynous figures, mutant creatures kept the appearance of authenticity, provided by the photographic texture.

Perceived by certain authors as the historical background of fantasy film, photographic recreations should not be strictly opposed to scientific appropriations of photography, following the Méliès-Lumière famous duality. The proposal of rereading the history of photography, according to its double belonging to science and entertainment, does not imply establishing a stable binary dichotomy between its scientific realism and its popular illusion, but rather to draw attention to the ambivalence, which is intrinsic to photography itself. Partial reproduction of reality, with an indexical relationship to its referent, photography has, precisely because of that, an effect of real, an illusory force and a disturbing power. The reproductive property of photography, implicit on the idea of index, and based on chemical and physical processes, allowed photography to meticulously document nature and human body, in scientific domains such as astronomy, geography and medicine, but it also permitted to inventively fabricate a phantasmatic world of doubles, which would fit the purposes of the entertainment industry.


meMaria da Luz Correia is a Postdoctoral research fellow in the Communication and Society Research Centre in the University of Minho (Braga, Portugal). She holds a PHD in Communication Sciences, from the University of Minho and in Sociology, from the Université Paris Descartes – Sorbonne. She is presently conducting a postdoctoral research on early trick photography, from the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth century. She is the coordinator of the Visual Culture Working Group, in the Portuguese Association of Communication Sciences (SOPCOM).

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