Leaves and Lincoln

Prof Larry J Schaaf's revelation of 1839 leaf photograph as by Bristolian Sarah Anne Bright
Prof Larry J Schaaf’s revelation of 1839 leaf photograph as by Bristolian Sarah Anne Bright

By way of an introduction to the conference Rethinking Early Photography held at Lincoln University earlier this month, Prof Larry Schaaf presented a lecture called ‘The Damned Leaf: Musings on History, Hysteria and Historiography’. In the whirlwind speculation that swirled around this particular photograph, which had come up for auction in 2008 as part of an album, Schaaf’s comments at the time gave rise to unmerited suggestions that it was possibly an earlier photograph than Talbot. The name Wedgwood popped up, since a ‘W’ is found in the bottom left of the negative. In a welcome spirit of openness since the leaf’s quiet retreat from the public spotlight, Schaaf’s lecture gave the photograph its long-due much-deserved critical attention; and the results, while not the tabloid headline so hastily dreamed of, nevertheless open the door on other aspects of early photography.

Of no little interest to me is this early history in Bristol, and the likely female involvement. For Schaaf has discerned in the scrawled lettering on the back of the negative the initials ‘SAB’, standing for Sarah Anne Bright, the daughter of the Bristol MP Henry Bright (1784 – 1869) whose residence was in Ham Green. That the image is printed on paper produced by William West (of the Clifton camera obscura and the Bristol School of Artists) is highly probable – the ‘W’ is a likely link to the blindstamp identifying the paper with the stationer Lancaster, who was selling to West in Bristol at the time. I have written about West in the past (in my book Bristol Through the Lens), as his camera obscura was key to the tradition of landscape composition and view that developed in the South West – a particularly Romantic and photographic view, especially in the area around the River Avon and its Gorge, which includes Ham Green. That the leaf has been treated as a photogram, in the manner of a specimen, is not as far from this Romantic view as we might think.

In my paper for the conference ‘Let There Be Light: Theology and Spirituality in Early Photography’, I consider the vocabulary, context and direct evocation of biblical themes in and around early photographs. Leaves had something of an emblematic status, whether for biological perfection and detail (Talbot), for monogram experimentation (Herschel), or for revelatory apparitions (Enslen); at times, they come close to bearing the immanence of God through the way people saw them, with the action of divine light on the photo-sensitive surface. I argue that when we examine so many leaves, our view should not thereby forget that there was once a forest – that background milieu of religious or spiritual understanding. Nor need we suppose that we have ‘clear’ sight now, rather that we are grafting new philosophical perspectives into early photography.

Two things pointed this up to me mostly clearly at the conference: the first was the final question put to a panel at the end of the last day, a question that sought an answer to our persistent search for photographic origins, for photographic ‘firsts’. Amidst the general replies that questioned points on a historical line rather than the existence of the line itself, I found myself offering the comparison of linear photographic perspective: within its system, we can continue to plot and map our direction and position – but beyond this, surely we have all already woken up to its system-like nature, to the limitations of it, indeed to the falseness of it? And isn’t it in fact photography itself that has done this – in our increasing awareness of its subversion of normative perspective? So the question of origins needs a rather more radical a-historical discussion.

Secondly, 36 of the 52 speakers at the conference were women. In a varied programme that crossed several disciplines internationally, from geography to history, from literature studies to conservation, this high representation of women to me suggests the lack of entrenched patriarchy in what is still a relatively young subject. It bears the mark of the social eclecticism which was undoubtedly a contributing factor to Sarah Bright’s involvement in photography, though here it’s rather more an academic eclecticism. Practicing or studying photography, it is remarkable that so many women are telling the story, which volunteers another radically new, still unrecognised perspective.

Let there be light!

Enslen's 'Face of Christ Superimposed on an Oak Leaf', 1839/40
Enslen’s ‘Face of Christ Superimposed on an Oak Leaf’, 1839/40

Coming up in the middle of June, I will be presenting a paper at the Rethinking Early Photography conference in Lincoln. Below is my abstract for Let There Be Light: Theology and Spirituality in Early Photography:

Largely absent from discourses on the development and context of early photography is an examination of the religious and theological backgrounds of its pioneers. This paper will consider the evidence for a Christian spiritual hermeneutic both in the plates/prints and through the backgrounds of Niépce, Daguerre and Talbot; further, it will discuss the surviving work of Johann Carl Enslen (1759-1848), a largely neglected figure in conventional histories of photography. Enseln’s 15 extant salt prints, including ‘Face of Christ Superimposed on an Oak Leaf’ (1839-40) will be shown to explore a concept of divine immanence through highly experimental collage techniques. Of critical importance is the argument that the birth of photography was pervaded by a Christian spirituality that manifested itself in both the culture at large (in the popular press and in the background of empirical scientific endeavour) and in the individuals’ inclusion of biblical or theological reference in their images. The manner of such references will be examined, ranging from textual quote to conceptual collage to the reproduction of religious paintings/prints.

Historical discussion of such evidence of spirituality must also challenge the discourses pertaining to photography’s ontology, so this paper further argues that the so-called hegemony of photographic realism is somewhat complicated by its religious affiliation. Considered as a misplaced ideology of the Victorian era from which we have an enlightened critical distance, it will be suggested that such notions of objective realism are helpfully resisted by an understanding of Christian spirituality (rather than vice versa). The tools of contemporary photography criticism are all the richer and sharper for the heritage of theological terminology and concepts, and this paper attempts to bring such a heritage to light with particular reference to the term ‘index’ and its ongoing usage in this field.

The gilding of photography

Niépce's 'Christ Carrying His Cross', 1827; heliograph on pewter
Niépce’s ‘Christ Carrying His Cross’, 1827; heliograph on pewter

It comes to something when 7 hours of travelling effort was required to go a photography exhibition – and when that effort was supremely worth it just to see this photograph. Despite coaches not turning up and trains being cancelled, I made it to London to see Drawn by Light at the Science Museum’s Media Space. It was a fantastic collection, with over 200 photographs from the RPS, including Emerson, Rejlander, Stieglitz, Holland Day, Frith, Fenton, Käsebier and Brigman.

But the highlight by far was seeing this image, one of 4 heliographs created by Nicéphore Niépce (1765-1833) in 1827, the first photographs in the world. This one, and its two accompanying plates, are less well-known than the View from the Window at Le Gras, which captures a view from Niépce’s window. The three exhibited here are contact prints from other artwork, which, having been made translucent (by wax), impress their ‘shadow’ on the pewter plate and its coating of bitumen of Judea.

A reproduction of an artwork about which nothing is known, Christ Carrying the Cross, like the other reproductions, is sharp in its delineation, but nevertheless hard to see on account of the highly polished surface of the pewter plate, the shallowness of the etching and its limited tonal grey scale. Yet it is highly significant because it marks the birth of photography with religious possibility as much as with scientific possibility. Niépce’s own upbringing (including the priestly schooling and later teaching at the Society of the Oratory of Jesus) and written thankfulness to God for successful experiments is behind this image. Holding it together is a certain type of culturally-accepted and pictorially-conventional Christ, who takes up his cross and beckons ‘Come, follow me’ into the divine light, which in this image has echoes of Old Testament cloud and fire.

But the image’s story also belongs to photography’s medium, which takes up the unwieldy mechanics of its discovery and bids ‘Come and follow me’ to anyone who will listen. The road might be uphill, on rocky ground, but is consumed by a luminously real, captured yet elusive, light. This isn’t a Passion image, it’s a calling straight from Matthew 16:24. There’s nothing like a strident mysticism to help get the medium going.

Following shoals to Birmingham

Gillian Wearing's 'A Real Birmingham Family' (2014) in front of the Library of Birmingham
Gillian Wearing’s ‘A Real Birmingham Family’ (2014) in front of the Library of Birmingham

After last week’s post on local events in Bristol, this week I went to the Library of Birmingham for GRAIN’s ‘The State of Photography’ Symposium. In marked contrast to last week, this event was, for me, a dip into the larger sphere of photography in this country and abroad – specifically photography as fine art. Neither photography as commercial business nor photography as hobby is, ultimately, the field for me. In some ways, I’m only just realising which hand I’ve been holding onto all this time, and it’s very much a sense of a bigger picture, which I now need to scope.

At this symposium, scoping involved listening to some extremely proficient experts in the fields of photography festivals, photography agency, photography critique as well as photography fine art practice. Respectively, this was Louise Clements, David Birkitt, Tim Clark and Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin. I suppose I take interest in these fields in increasing order of enthusiasm: festivals are all well and good for those who can easily travel (thanks to time and cost availability) but are by no means a circuit open to me at the present time; agency is a bit of a photographer’s dream, but in this case involves a commitment to production and to a certain kind of commercial brief-fulfilling capability (which is a second-stage possibility); critique is definitely high on my agenda as a first-stage aim, since the communication and engagement it involves is such as to place my work centre-stage; which is ultimately afforded by the fine art practice platform of Broomberg and Chanarin.

Without this symposium, I might never have discovered their work – and suddenly the trajectory of this event takes a turn towards me that really sings. Because it boils down to the fact that my practice sits alongside my research – and THAT, really, is the job in hand. The PhD into photography and the Bible has just found another chapter’s focus in Broomberg & Chanarin’s ‘Holy Bible’, which reproduces a KJV with photographs and underlining. I await my signed copy, on order, and in the meantime, keep the percolating practice considerations at bay…

Saying Christmas louder than words

Colour Nativity, by Sebastian Bergne, 2011
Colour Nativity, by Sebastian Bergne, 2011

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last month analysing the iconographic language of photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron. Her photographs of Mary are undoubtedly tied to the realism of a posed, dressed up model who is trying to look like a biblical Mary. But the question I keep coming back to is how the ‘type’ continually resurfaces?

Photography makes the most of a real scene, real skin, real cloth, real symbols in front of the lens. And critics have said Cameron’s Marys are demonstrative of feminine domestic assertion within the constraints of Victorian society’s norms: her Mary lives in the 1800s. But I think there’s something more obvious than this which gets overlooked. Even with all that dressed up reality, her Mary is still iconographically pointing to the original Mary. Rather than an empowering of modern domestic woman, the pointing action of Cameron’s photography seems to look the other way: her model empowers and reveals the biblical figure of Mary.

There’s something irreducible about the iconography of Mary. Something that can be captured in the simple blue block of Sebastian Bergne’s Nativity above. Something that works at the level of a sign, which remains visual rather than word-based (see Emilie Voirin’s take on a nativity set). Is it the accrual of years of visual reference (conventional), or is it the way truth lives beyond language (ontological)? Is it a universal stripping down, or is it a fleshed out concept. One thing that photography generally does hang onto is a ‘fleshing out’ – that reality behind, within, around the iconography. Isn’t that an incarnational Christmas characteristic?