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How do we know the world exists?
This question, which precedes Martin Heidegger’s examination of the meaning of Being itself in Being and Time (trans. Joan Stambaugh, Albany: SUNY Press, 1996), brings Heidegger quickly to the terms by which we can “know” the material world. His argument singles out “useless things” as key to the process by which the world discloses itself to us, for these disturb the instrumental order of everyday existence, opening an awareness of the “totality.” The sense of yielding that Heidegger evokes here with the term “disclosure” is important, and he singles it out for definition: “‘To disclose’ and ‘disclosedness,’” he writes, “are used as technical terms in what follows and mean ‘to unlock’—’to be open.’ Thus ‘to disclose’ never means anything like ‘obtaining something indirectly by inference’” (69–70).
The carefully balanced tension between passivity and directness with which Heidegger colors his remarks is central to Kaja Silverman’s phenomenological assessment of photography, The Miracle of Analogy, or The History of Photography, Part 1, for Heidegger’s theory of disclosure implies that abdication of agency is a prerequisite for true knowledge of a self-generating, mind-independent world; this is a mode of understanding, Silverman argues, made available to us through photography, if only we recognize it: ”Photography isn’t a medium that was invented by three or four men in the 1820s and 1830s, that was improved in numerous ways over the following century, and that has now been replaced by computational images. It is, rather, the world’s primary way of revealing itself to us—of demonstrating that it exists, and that it will forever exceed us” (10).
The idea that photography is an unmediated trace of the real is not new to histories and theories of the medium, but the argument for it, at least since the late 1980s, has been cast most often as semiotic—a negotiation between index and icon—or, more recently, as a tension, unique to photographic representation, between agency and automatism. Boldly, Silverman argues against both of these positions, paraphrasing Walter Benjamin to fully articulate her thesis that “the photographic image is an analogy, rather than a representation or an index” (12). “Photography is neither a human representation nor a tool . . . but rather one of the primary means through which the world discloses itself to us. What it reveals is uninformed by human consciousness—not just because it exceeds our optical capacities, but also because nature ‘speaks’ a different language to the camera than it does to the human eye: one based on analogy” (141).
This last term, analogy, is both familiar and new to photographic theory: it draws on the standard assessment of the pre-digital photographic process as analogical, but turns away from the operations of the photographic apparatus to focus on the structural potential for these unique images to function socially, regardless of their content or subject matter. Defined here as equalizing forms, analogies take on a kind of autonomous democratizing power as “the authorless and untranscendable similarities that structure Being, or . . . ‘the world,’ and that give everything the same ontological weight.” Braiding this proposition with Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s concept of chiasmus, a “reversible reversal” that signifies social cohesion because each element “calls for an other” (101), Silverman makes the analogical image the spine of her photographic theory as well as the cord that knots together the discursive installments of her revisionist history of the medium.
Any summary of that history will do injustice to Silverman’s deep research and close reading of primary texts, but I will make an attempt. Early, canonical accounts of photography, including those of William Henry Fox Talbot, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, Nicéphore Niépce, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, treat photography as “discovery” rather than “invention,” and the images themselves not as duplicates of “worldly forms,” but as “portraits they made of themselves.” But by the 1880s, the industrialization of the medium was underway, and with it came the notion that the camera (as well as the image it made) was an extension of the photographer’s look: “The verb ‘to take’ decisively replaced the verb ‘to receive’ and ‘shoot’ became a synonym for ‘take’” (70). In a few short years, the “untotalizable” flow of images that had characterized the camera obscura had been converted into “single, stable circumscribed representations” (22). Consistent with Heidegger, Silverman points to René Descartes for this outcome, critiquing him for having located vision in the mind rather than the body, and thus giving “mind” ontological superiority to all other things by “construct[ing] the visible according to a model-in-thought” (18).
But, Silverman insists, photography is the world’s way of “awakening us from our Cartesian dream and reasserting its primacy” (29). This statement both expresses the radical nature of this revisionist history and articulates its stakes. For in arguing for the importance of recovering photography’s mind-independent aspect, Silverman is stepping beyond a symbolic displacement of authorship/authority to advocate for a new way of conjoining with the world. By helping us to “learn to think analogically,” she contends, photography will enable us to remand our controlling relation to the world and take positions of parity within it as figures with the same ontological weight. Whether or not humankind will welcome this position is a matter Silverman leaves open. But she is insistent that it is only by understanding ourselves as bound to the world and each other through similitude “that the promise of social happiness can be glimpsed” (12). Since there is good reason to believe that our position of world conquest has led the planet to the point of ruin, the stakes Silverman lays out for photography are dire and cosmic, and the pressure on the medium and its operators enormous.
Those operators, at least since the industrialization of the medium, are for the most part artists, for they are the figures who have “hasten[ed] to greet” the “presence” of the world in the photograph (33). Silverman, one of the most insightful readers of photographs in the field, here makes keen and complex analyses of work by Julia Margaret Cameron, Abelardo Morell, Hiroshi Sugimoto, and John Dugdale, and acknowledges the implications of digital imaging for her theory with a Joan Fontcuberta “googlegram.” Two films appear in support of her argument, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) and Chantal Akerman’s La Captive (2001), and the skill with which Silverman draws the reader in, fusing form and content into a structure that performs the very melding with the world that it describes, reminds the reader that Silverman’s intellectual project is grounded in cinema, and that her analyses of that medium are classics in the field.
The Ackerman analysis in particular has a central function, for the chapter in which it appears, “Je Vous,” is the one that draws together “the miracle of analogy” (a phrase from Marcel Proust) with the concept of chiasmus, fully articulating photography’s relevance to humankind. Merleau-Ponty’s chiasmus finds its way into her account of photography through their mutual acknowledgment of “otherness” within analogy. With the industrialization of the medium, Silverman argues, the non-hierarchical relation between negative and positive images and the lateral reversal and inversion that had been understood as integral to the photographic system disappeared from sight, and the development process, which had been regarded as fluid (both ongoing and reversible), became fixed and final. This represented an effacement of the “reciprocal relationship” of “reversible reversals” that define Merleau-Ponty’s chiasmus, a kind of analogy that is defined by the bridging of overwhelming difference. It is a crucial term in Silverman’s account, for it reconciles the necessity of difference for producing meaning with the function of similitude in assuring that we are a fully integrated part of the world. Silverman invokes chiasmus to make the point that all things in the world are interlocking: that “Two is the smallest unit of Being” (11). The two-part process grounding analog photography, then, is essential to the medium’s relevance to humankind, for it perceives the Other in a non-hierarchical way: “photography also analogizes the analogies at the heart of human perception: those through which we see and are seen. Because it almost always does so in a visual way, it gives them a second power; it holds the perceptual ‘open,’ helping us to recognize what we might otherwise foreclose” (11).
Again, the democratizing capacity Silverman gives to photography, a faculty she calls “photography’s saving power,” is emphatic, and her messianic tone may strike some as extreme (87). In this book analogy is a “miracle”; photography is a “second coming,” “a divine gift” that holds out “the promise of social happiness” (118; 33; 78; 12). Her characterizations of the medium, made without irony, skate close to shifting sovereignty from the human agent to the natural process itself, which from within this theoretical frame could amount to remanding mastery to the world rather than advocating for an ecological form of social and environmental parity. This is a history of photography without an operator behind the camera, and may well infuriate those artists, historians, and critics who insist on human agency and intention as the only valid shaper of meaning in the medium. Equally, Silverman’s account will not be congenial to those committed to acknowledging the technological apparatus as an inescapable determinant of meaning in the photographic image. Benjamin’s technological optimism in particular is targeted here, in a sharp analysis of his capitulation to photography as a “useful tool” between the writing of “The Little History of Photography” and “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility”—compromises, Silverman alludes, that tragically missed their logical outcome in the form of the Fascist aestheticization of technology.
But if her language is strong and her refutation of the shibboleths of photography pointed, it is only because the world itself, and we within it, are at stake. In giving over the world to representation—to the language of index, icon, and surface—the postmodern theorists who vaulted photography to a position of representational primacy lost sight of the medium’s deep connection with the world and our own position within it. Silverman’s reframing of the medium as disclosure of that world, a project that began with her book Flesh of My Flesh (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009) and will continue with a second volume of this history of photography, The Promise of Social Happiness, may present a point of redemption through which we can reconnect with the world. By that estimation, this is the only ethical history of photography to write at the present moment, and the most urgent one, given what we know of the devastation we have authored in the world. We can count ourselves lucky that it is now emerging from one of most brilliant minds working in the field.
Assistant Professor, Department of the History of Art, University of California, Riverside
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