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.

Photographing Jesus

The Turin Shroud
The Turin Shroud

For the forthcoming Images, Icons and Idols conference at the University of Manchester, I hope to present a paper with the title and abstract below. Forming part of my doctoral research, this paper will contribute to a chapter on the iconic characteristics of the photograph, particularly as they relate to the interpretation of biblical texts:

Photographing Jesus: Truth, Typology and the Turin Shroud

The first photographs depicting Jesus in the nineteenth century were typically defined by fine art conventions relating to symbolism, dress, age and pose (Gabriel Harrison, Léon Bovier, Fred Holland Day among others). A relatively young medium, the interpretation of photography’s realism, to our modern eyes, is not convincingly suited to ideal representations of a religious or mythological nature. However, in the person of Jesus Christ, the combined aspects of an historical flesh-and-blood figure and an iconic, divine being receive a unique hermeneutical treatment in the form of photography. Taking the specific example of the Turin Shroud when it was first photographed in 1898, this paper will present the photographic aspects of its representation of the crucified body, and examine the visual interpretation by which these have become evidentially and ontologically ascribed to Christ. The extent of the denoted and the connoted photographic image (Roland Barthes) on the Shroud will be discussed with reference to, respectively, the physical record of truth (as it correlates to the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ death) and the notion of the icon as a form of typology in reverse. With regard to the latter, the perceived presence of the real object of veneration is, I suggest, less the subject of discourses relating to material idolatry and instead a visual correspondence after-the-event to the textual pre-figurations of Isaiah 52-53.

Early missionary photography

'Baobab tree' by Charles Livingstone, c. 1858
‘Baobab tree’ by Charles Livingstone, c. 1858

Missionary photography is outside the main interest of my research by virtue of its departure from biblical representation. However, it is undoubtedly a significant aspect of photography made and published in the name of religious interest, from its first occurrence in the mid-nineteenth century, up to the present day. There are certainly instances of biblical focus, but they remain subservient to the broader aim of mission focus, which can vary from documentation of indigenous cultures to reports/celebrations of material and spiritual progress. Such images certainly seem unconcerned with artistic or reflective nuance, though as I go on to mention, they perhaps offer a noteworthy check on the marshalling of representation in the name of ideological purpose.

T. Jack Thompson, in his book Light on Darkness? Missionary Photography of Africa in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries, highlights uses of photography which range from scientific and anthropological interest during Dr. David Livingstone’s 1858-1864 Zambezi expedition (see above) to the atrocity photographs of Alice Harris showing mutilated Congolese during King Leopold’s era (1865-1909). Photographs both posed and emotive were believed to be demonstrative of ‘Africa as it was, not simply as [the photographer] saw it’ (p.273) and were more often than not accompanied by images taken to show the (successful) work of the missions themselves. In one interesting case, a photograph of a black missionary to Malawi taken around 1878, is later doctored in the 1924 publication of the Laws of Livingstonia (by W. P. Livingstone) so as to show the man holding a Bible. Originally part of a group photograph, the solo portrait of William Koyi takes on the singular authority of a ‘man of God’, albeit one dressed as a European, with the representative token of purpose and position. Similar doctoring occurred with figures who were never converted (p.156-158).*

In this sense, the Bible explicitly figures as an anchor for certain ideas about Western civilisation and the expansion of the Empire. There is no inherent textuality about it. It is an object wielded (at least pictorially) to help ‘read’ the identity of the person shown, but not itself to be read or internalized. It is Bible-as-symbol, much as it appears in countless photographs of confirmations or as the accessory of choice in early society portraits.

* Incidentally, in 1908, American athlete Forrest Custer Smithson was photographed jumping a hurdle while holding a Bible in his hand, supposedly in protest at being asked to run on a Sunday in the Olympics. However, this photo, too, turns out to have been ‘faked’ – this time by posing after the event.