Photography is “writing with light,” but it depends just as much on the dark. The analog film camera, regardless of size, has always been a camera obscura—a dim room—into which breaks a tiny point of light, letting in a brief glimpse of the outside world. No one can see what goes on in there. It hides away a thin sliver of the present and quickly turns it into the past. It takes something visible and makes it invisible, at least for a time. To see it again, to let it out, one must enter yet another dark room. In a bath, a shallow birthing pool, a photographer gently coaxes it back into visibility.
And what is there, staring up from the waters? A frozen muscular twitch. One hundredth, one thousandth of a second. All the expressions that are so fleeting one cannot perceive them, at least not with the eyes alone. The camera observes everything: all the movements and moments and everything in-between. What do Eadweard Muybridge’s and Étienne-Jules Marey’s late nineteenth-century chronographs show? Not the smooth travel of a body in motion, but that every action of agility and grace is composed of countless awkward incidents in which one appears to be stumbling, falling, or impossibly hovering above the ground. They knew about the dark. They matched their little camera obscuras with hollow dusky caves, long expanses of dark paint, and inky velvet light traps so that they could pick out the bright bits of body in contrast. There the body’s movements could be measured and calculated, subject to standardization and control. They contrived the deepest depths to make their flat images and to turn unfurling life into discrete information.
Soon after Marey and Muybridge had mastered photographing and studying the outsides of subjects’ bodies, Wilhelm Röntgen began looking straight through them. Röntgen’s Radiograms saw past flesh and tissue, revealing bones and their breaks, and bits of foreign matter lodged inside. X-rays, the beams of light that made these images possible, were invisible to the human eye. Hence, they were named “X”: the unknown object or quantity. It was on photosensitive surfaces that they first made their presence known. How could photographic papers or plates, wrapped in opaque black paper, stored in pitch-dark rooms become speckled with flecks of light? How could there be light in the dark? The accidentally exposed photographic plates allowed the hidden to be seen. The scientists could trace backwards the unobserved path of these imperceptible rays to the rock minerals that were secretly glowing. And so, the patient did not merely undress in front of the doctor but became transparent, doubly exposed on paper and in the world, seen inside and out. The invisible, unknown thing made what was once hidden and fundamentally unknowable into a picture.
The digital camera is not a dark room but a black box. Between input and output there is only mystery and magic. It gathers data from the world and delivers it bit by bit to the screen. When being photographed, there is the temptation to look right away, to get caught in a loop of capture and peeking. Move from one side of the lens to the other to check. Make sure everyone (especially oneself) looks their best. Delete the ugly, awkward images. Keep only those that seem perfect. Take it again. Discard all of those mysterious moments that used to emerge in the bath as a surprise. Resist what photographers used to see—the unwieldy and unobservable in-betweens. Delete or adjust until flawless. Repeat.
There was a time when photographs took time. It was before Muybridge and Marey, before sharp lenses, sensitive films, and quick shutters. It was before we could see in instants. The first permanent photograph, Nicéphore Niépce’s A View from a Window at La Graz (1826–27), took more than eight hours to expose. The simple window scene does not show the building as much as the slow crawl of shadows across the titled rooftops. Here, the photograph appears not as light writing an image, but as the record of a leisurely rotation of the earth on its axis. It is not an instant, but one third of the day.
So many things escaped the camera’s gaze: clouds and shadows, which were constantly changing; animals and children, which could not be compelled into stillness. Photography was a medium better suited for landscape and architecture—unmovable things. Louis Daguerre’s 1938 image of Boulevard du Temple shows an abandoned Paris: no carriages on the street, no pedestrians or passersby, no birds, no weather. Only the buildings, trees, and pavement could sync themselves to the slow capture of photography. Just two figures—blurry, armless forms—inhabit the scene: a shoeshine and his customer, who, by chance, stayed in the same place for the many minutes the shutter was open.
As equipment improved, time contracted. By the mid-nineteenth century, only twenty or so seconds were necessary to make an image. With discipline, and stabilizing apparatuses like arm rests and head braces, people could slow their bodies down to conform to the pace of the photograph. They had to choose to be seen. They had to sit still and grow into the image. The instant had yet to be invented. There was little “smiling for the camera”: it was too hard to hold, and photographs were rare, expensive, and serious things. During an entire lifetime, one might only sit for the photographer a single time. The image did not preserve a split-second, but a broad idea of a person and her enduring physical presence.
With the instant, everything changes.
Instead of sitters growing into the photograph, it is taken of them. Marey’s camera was fashioned like a gun so he could point and rapidly shoot his subject. There is a violence in the language of photography when it becomes an instant action: a “snap shot,” as the hunters say. And now, our images are continually taken and captured, uploaded and databased, indexed and cross-referenced. We are at every moment made into information. Images come constantly and instantly, slicing fractions of time we can’t feel or perceive.
There is a singular horror of being in front of the modern camera, analog or digital. As before the doctor, one is subject to inspection, yes, but also to permanence and exacting data. The fleeting moment endures; it won’t pass away. It is impossible to live in instants or isolated moments. One can’t see or feel that way. Existence is continuum. In anticipation of capture, reconfigure the face into a mask, the body into a statue. Freeze before being frozen. Be surprised at the uncanny strangeness of the result: “Is that how I really look?” No, you are an always-moving blur, we just can’t see it any more. Through analogy, we have come to imagine the eye as the camera and vision as a photograph. They are not.
Can we get back to the blur? Can one yield to vision and capture without being seen? Without becoming information? Can one be exposed without exposure? Can one remain hidden in a culture of continual recording?
A child hides behind a curtain and claims invisibility. Shape, mass, form: she is still there but yet she is hidden. It is a barrier that withholds information while still conceding presence. It establishes the conditions for exchange. It can open, part, or close. This membrane is a bulwark: a fortification and site of negotiation from the other side of the lens. It allows one to become visible or to remain anonymous. It pictures presence and resists information. Here one can give but is never taken. Here one is knowable but never known.
The camera, like the curtain, is a threshold, and a threshold is a strange thing: neither inside nor outside. In its very construction, it creates the opposites that it holds apart. The camera separates the present from the past, the given from the taken, the exposed from the hidden, the moving from the still, the light from the dark.
Kris Paulsen, Assistant Professor in the Department of History of Art and the Film Studies Program at The Ohio State University, has published on such topics as experimental television, net art of the 1990s, the history of photography, network aesthetics and curatorial studies. Her first book, Here/There: Telepresence, Touch, and Art at the Interface, is forthcoming in 2017.