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A Few Theses

Old photographs do not exist

Nineteenth-century urban photography is not old. It is very current and alive. It shows us things from the past, but it does not age. We can distinguish no essential difference between the oldest and the most recent photographs: always, it concerns the same technique, one that was 'finished', right from the start. From its inception, everything was already said. Photography's countless later refinements are technical complications that transport us away from the core of the issue. At most, a history of photographic techniques is about questions of detail. Old photographs do not exist. Technique piles all photographs onto one another in a single great synchronicity. Nostalgia for 'old photographs' is not relevant here. On the contrary, we are examining the strength of their continuing relevance.

Photographs generate effects that can scarcely be expressed in words, partly because their eye-opening conclusions go hand in hand with an evocative strength we can only describe as magical. This magic also makes photography so difficult to manage: we don't know what to do with it. Its power to move is as great as its banality, its power to convince as illusory as it is unavoidable. The attention that photographs generate is as brief as it is intense. The value they produce in a lifetime is as non-existent as their charm is great. In short, photography renders infantile. Photography is a touching, regressive phenomenon. In any case, its future is assured.

The unclear role of photography

Nineteenth-century urban photography generated no oeuvres that formulated a new definition of the city: no Notre Dame de Paris (Hugo), no Gare Saint-Lazare (Monet), no fantastic city (Meryon), no apocalyptic city (Doré's London). Photography's contribution seems non-existent. Photography followed, it guided, it adapted. Its role was supportive. It did not give direction. It proposed nothing new, but confirmed the dominant convictions of the various actors: the architects, tourists and policymakers. Its role was at once immense and secondary: immense because it consistently produced convincing arguments, secondary because it had arguments for all the actors at once.

In a century of great visionary projects and ambitions, photography was the great non-presence. It sooner heralded the disappearance of the visionary. One could already see how photography - like all later media - had a confirming and tautological effect and nothing more, yet how it was also nothing less than an endless mechanism for repetition. From this young, modern medium, one would expect a strategic role within the overall tendency to modernize. This technical instrument, however, seems to have effortlessly coupled itself onto other disciplines. The sobriety of the reproductive images should have supported a rationalization of the city. With further investigation, that sympathy between new technique and modern city was in any case not a simple one. Indeed, the new technique seemed more often to disguise the modernization of the city than to underscore it. Photography seems to have been more in the service of historic nostalgia than of any prospective utopia. It was a modern medium in the service of the past, a technique that easily confirmed clichés, but it was not in a position to articulate a strong vision of its own: an anonymous technique that was alone in being able to comprehend the present; a document permeated with subtle interpretations; a coarse technique that could only be revealed though aesthetic sensibility. Photography was a confusing intersection, not a clearly delineated trajectory.

Photography's position was surprisingly unclear. Possibly complex, possibly also banal and trivial: it had not a strategic, but a misleading and counterproductive place in the issues of the city. This position is all the more difficult to research because there is always a kind of overwhelming of the viewer on the part of the photograph. The image is so massive that the idea of the photograph playing a weak and unclear role, full of negative ambiguity, seems so unlikely. What in fact transpired was precisely this unlikelihood.

The unstable photograph

Photographs were in principle unstable. They could be employed at many levels by distribution firms and read at yet more levels by their specialized and non-specialized audiences. The photographs themselves seldom impress their own uniqueness of form on visitors to an archive. Often nameless and undated, at first viewing they are a very uniform mass. On further acquaintance, nineteenth-century photography is very diverse. Images can have very different atmospheres and offer varied interpretations of their subjects. At the same time, pinpointing these differences proves no easy task. .

Sometimes it seems a question of nationality. The British, French, German and Italian schools differed fundamentally. Sometimes it seems purely a technical question, of exposure times, exposure and printing procedures. Then again, one could convincingly argue that the nature of the assignment played a determining role. A commercial business allied to tourism (such as the printed card industry) would produce different images than a photographer working closely with architects. Sometimes it seems as though everything could be explained in terms of broad cultural tendencies, such as a romantic, Romanesque, as opposed to a symbolic, poetic vision, or a documentary, businesslike vision. Sometimes one succeeds in reading the differences as running parallel to the movements of (canonized) art history, but then again, there the impression that photographic styles did not succeed one another in a linear manner, but cyclically relieved another (as does fashion). Often, the photographs seem no more than a virtual form that only convincingly suggests a certain interpretation in the context of a specific use, to then immediately underscore a completely different argument. All of this creates specific difficulties for the researcher: what can be read in images that so rarely seem forceful, yet seem to legitimize so much? (What thinking, if indeed it is thinking, comes into play in these photographs?)

Photography: a steering mechanism

Photography is an object-correlated imprinting of light. In this context, people ascribe photographs with objectivity. This means that each photograph is a mass, pure optical-chemical matter, a block of compact formlessness: billions of invisible grains of silver, thousands of visible details on which we never concentrate. Such mass cannot be dealt with from the inside out, but have to be approached from the outside. The image mass is itself unformed: it literally allows itself to be guided by coordinates and parameters. Both the placement and the aim of the camera and the development and printing of the photograph are not to be seen as formative interventions, but as direction. A vehicle driving around with a load of sand does nothing to change that sand, it just moves it. Every photograph in fact carries around its own load of silver granules, in order to externally steer them. Each photograph is an image mass (not an image organization) subject only to global, mass treatment. Taking photographs is the operation of equipment according to a procedure - something quite distinct from creating form. In photography, it is about statistical treatment. Its knowledge is more mathematical than manual.

Guidance mechanisms come into play when the units with which people have to work are too small, too large or too numerous - in other words, when you are confronted with mass. Still, the guidance of that mass is the distinction between form and formlessness. Steering adds energy to mass. It is also literally a physical process: carrying and aiming a piece of equipment, manipulation conducted in the darkroom. Without our paying due attention to the nano-weights inherent to photography, its essence will escape us.

It is thus important to find the interface between the physical guidance and the guided mass. A purely informative approach to researching photographs is like a border patrol examining the contents of a container, while purely formalist readings, like a roadside vehicle check, just investigate the flexibility of the equipment. Photography in fact forces us to place ourselves in the common ground shared by the two, in the external connection of mass and steering. We must arrive at the physical moment when the reins (coordinates, muscles) sling around that mass, like arms gripping a cabinet. The steering system of photography, all too susceptible to formal interpretation, needs also to be understood in its bodily, sensual nuances.

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