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.

On Baudelaire Bible-bashing photography

Charles Thurston Thompson, ‘Exhibition of the Photographic Society of London and the Société française de photographie at the South Kensington Museum’, 1858

In The Modern Public and Photography, part of a review of the Paris Salon’s 1859 exhibition, Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) wrote his famous diatribe against photography’s growing presence in the art world. Having first published on the occasion of the 1845 Salon, Baudelaire was now, as he wrote his last review, witnessing the first time that photography was included in the exhibition. If he was often a sharp and vocal challenger of the traditions of French academy painting, he was nevertheless a defender of the ideals of art as he saw them: beauty as both eternal form and essence of modernity (The Painter of Modern Life, published 1863, p.17 in Penguin Great Ideas). Photography, in his eyes, should only ever be the ‘handmaid of the arts and sciences’, ‘the secretary and record-keeper of whomsoever needs absolute material accuracy for professional reasons’ (p.110, 111).

Near the beginning of this short article, Baudelaire quotes Jesus’ words, “‘Oh, ye depraved and unbelieving race,’ says Our Lord, ‘how long must I remain with you, how long shall I continue to suffer?'” (p.105, quoting Matthew 17:17, Mark 9:19, Luke 9:41). The remainder of the essay then loads the terms of the argument with ‘faithless’ artists and public, ‘sun-worshippers’, whose ‘idolatrous multitude’ have a new credo (‘I believe in nature, and I believe only in nature. I believe that art is, and can only be, the exact reproduction of nature.’) and a new messiah – Daguerre (p.105, 108, 109). To our 21st-century ears, this not only seems overly dramatic, but casts the whole frame of photography’s technical accomplishments in paradoxical terms: on the one hand, there isn’t enough believing going on (in art and progress), and on the other hand, there is too much infatuated belief (in photography’s veracity). Has 150 years or so reversed this view?

There had been public displays of photography prior to the Salon exhibition, initially at the Paris Expositions des produits de l’industrie in 1844 and 1849, but the techniques and equipment were part and parcel of displays then more concerned with the mechanics of the new process. Celebrated photographs held a more prominent position in the Great Exhibition at London’s Crystal Palace in 1851, arguably the first international open photography exhibition, and throughout the ’50s groups such as the Photographic Society of London and the Société française de photographie held their own displays (the above picture showing the first such exhibition in a museum). Photography was on the cusp of institutional definition that veered in two opposing directions – a tool for information-gathering or an expression of artistic vision.