Photography’s New Materiality?

From its earliest manifestations in the form of the reflective Daguerreotype or the utilitarian Carte de Visite, the photographic image has been an active rather than passive object.

Manipulated in the hand, or physically exchanged, the image combines a function—an act of representation—with a use and history that constructs how that image communicates. We might say that the image constructs a meaning specifically navigated through use.

Early photographic images were specific in what they chose to depict, along with their modes of communication and distribution. The development of photography in its early years has been widely reported, but the history of the medium too often becomes a history of chemical development and technological determinism. We currently lack a history that aligns the technical advances of photography to specific material properties of the image; understood as decisions and not technologically determined limitations.

The experimental and material photography that resulted from the practices of Pictorialism, Dada and Surrealist montage (where technological considerations did not hold sway) reappear today in the form of new abstractions and photographic objects that have become a staple of recent art practice. As the material sites of intervention, and three-dimensional objects whose physicality operates within the spatial limits of the gallery, these works emphasise the long established, but easily neglected, detail of the image’s objecthood.

But what propels this return to materiality and the emergence of an object-based practice in recent photography? Why now? Is it resonant in and of this moment in the twenty-first century, or can it simply be reduced to the perceived crisis in photographic practice caused by the ‘death’ of analogue?

The early incarnations of photography were defined by the medium’s relationship to its materials of making: the specific properties through which the photograph came into being. From Heliograph to Daguerreotype to Calotype, each seemed to depend on its own chemical and material constitution, distinct characteristics that were subsequently possessed by the viewer in the act of consumption. But in the making public of the medium’s invention that dominates most histories of the medium, two important properties are sometimes forgotten, such are the emphases on a medium ultimately understood as democratic.

First, we should remember that in the Heliograph or the Daguerreotype, as with many early processes, the end result was a unique image. Photography was not multiple, but singular. The photograph maintained rather than displaced any notion of aura inscribed within the image through the expanded moment of exposure in which, as Benjamin suggested in his ‘Short History of Photography’, the sitter was not excised, but grew into the frame. Following Benjamin, it is in the cultural re-deployment of the image under reproductive conditions that Photography, as we know it, began. Undoing Benjamin, could we state that Photography is actually singular, and is made multiple?

Second, we might recall the competitive claims for ownership of various photographic methods by Niépce, Daguerre and Fox Talbot, which reveal the entrepreneurial undercurrent of photography’s early development. Founded not upon the ability of the camera to capture an image (the much earlier camera obscura), but to record it permanently, the dispute was not one of conception, but execution, chemical, and based upon material substrates: founded upon a supposedly “unique” composition, rooted in a material constitution.

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This text was a collaborative essay by Sandra Plummer, Harriet Riches and Duncan Wooldridge originally published in Photoworks issue 18, 2011
Commissioned by Photoworks

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