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Visual Cultures in the Nineteenth Century

Photography was operating within an exploding visual culture, one whose role was essentially illustrative. It had to be possible to present everything (in exhibitions). It had to be possible to depict everything (in prints) - both things and events. The difference between the two was not a fundamental one, as things were still being told, and every description was at the same time also a dramatization. Each thing was a sedimentation of a history, certainly that of the city, its constructions, its stones.

The showing of things - their reproduction - was a process of the imagination, just like the telling, the relating of events. It was bringing something into our process of imagining. Bringing something into view continually presupposes that people can imagine it, which is to say picture it in their imagination. This visual culture did not present facts, but was built around the need for empathic identification. The nineteenth century strove to make itself visible by way of narrative, in image and in presentation. The nineteenth-century image was a link between showing and telling, between making something visible and comprehensible and empathic imagining. Without the after-sensation of Romanesque grammar in that visualization, the soul of that visual culture escapes us. A rampant 'imagolatry' was the seldom-acknowledged basic melody of the nineteenth century. The effect of photography must also be seen in this way. Reproduction, since the twentieth century presented merely as a purifying and (and tarnishing) objectification, takes very poor account of the drama that was present in nineteenth-century reproductions of architecture and urban scenes.

In the nineteenth century, different visual strategies repeatedly intersected one another. Their connections and combinations resulted in increasing complexity, impurity and acceleration. Central to this process was an explosively expanding strategy of reproduction, in whose behalf printing techniques, later expanded by photography, were employed. The idea of the reproduction implies multiplication, and innate to this - immediately - is the logic that underlies reproduction in series'. A reproduction is not a one-time activity, but a campaign in which several items (as many as possible) are reproduced. The line-up of derivatives thus evolved into the series, a set of reproduced entities, in fact something quite unlike a collection. Reproduced documents expanded and grew into documentation.

In this context, aesthetic sensitivity was not indifferent to the results of new techniques. Increasingly, they slipped into artistic practice, and each technique lent itself to artistic suggestions. Precisely because photography was more of a printing technique than a pictorial practice, people saw the weight of graphic visual language grow increasingly stronger. In the nineteenth century, they found themselves working more and more frequently in the service of the exploitation of printing processes. Through reproductions and illustrations, visual culture was growing towards a mixture of graphic and pictorial logic, with the former the more dominant of the two. Everything came to fruition between the two covers of 'the Book': the imaginary museum. The city too awaited the compilation of its book.

This brings us to the third tendency of nineteenth-century visual culture: its pronounced Romanesque character. Its picturesque quality was pre-eminently narrative and dramatizing. Romantic book illustration was the crucial horizon for all nineteenth-century images. It was here where images became prints. The concept of the illustration and the concept of the reproduction were two contrasting and connected cores of nineteenth-century visual culture. Photography must always be seen within the three kinds of logic - it was at once conceptual and instinctive. In this context, the reproduction played an ever more important role, with the idea of the collection intersecting the ideas of the series and the archive, with its image increasingly standardized, unlike traditional prints and illustrations. Art suffered under all of this. But in all of this, art was at play.

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