Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 26, 2017
Lisa Saltzman Daguerreotypes: Fugitive Subjects, Contemporary Objects Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015. 232 pp.; 48 b/w ills. Cloth $35.00 (9780226242033)

Lisa Saltzman’s Daguerreotypes: Fugitive Subjects, Contemporary Objects distinguishes itself from most theories of photography, both in content and approach, via a lucid analysis that considers the characteristics of photography less as unique to one medium than as qualities that migrate. She brings together heterogeneous objects that share a distinctive relation to time, identity, and memory, such as Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home (2006), W. G. Sebald’s novel Austerlitz (2001), David Claerbout’s video installation Sections of a Happy Moment (2007), and Vik Muniz’s The Best of Life series (1988–90)—the last of these a palimpsest-like entanglement of photographs taken from drawings, which had previously been traced from memorized photographs. By gathering and analyzing these works, Saltzman aims to tell “a different sort of story about the history of photography, one that dramatizes a set of philosophical and aesthetic concerns about photographic images that persist into the present” (157).

Although Daguerreotypes is Saltzman’s first comprehensive study on photography, it can be considered as a continuation of her prior research. Currently professor of art history at Bryn Mawr College, she received international recognition for her seminal work Making Memories Matter: Strategies of Remembrance in Contemporary Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), in which she discusses notions commonly associated with photography, such as the index, remembrance, and persistence. In that book, she analyzes contemporary art by Rachel Whiteread, Kara Walker, and Krzysztof Wodiczko in relation to the concept of the “post-indexical” (13), described in terms of a troubling principle beyond trace and historical evidence. In Daguerreotypes, for its part, Saltzman continues this line of research, now linking time, identity, and memory with varying concepts of the photographic in the changing field of media. By insisting on the instability of seemingly given notions, she joins a larger contemporary project often described as “postmodern,” i.e., she breaks with ossified ideas of history and “truth,” and discards any belief in an unmediated access to reality. In this context, photographs appear, despite their “evidentiary promise” (10), as “precarious object[s]” (149) that are “structured not by fixity, but by flow and flow” (149).

The cover of the book already announces Saltzman’s approach: the title evokes a traditional photographic technique established in 1839, while the cover image is an installation shot from Tacita Dean’s Czech Photos (1991/2002)—a work composed of black-and-white prints presented in a filing box. Whereas daguerreotypes are characterized by their non-reproducibility, their fragility, and their flickering surface, Dean’s photos are reproducible, multiple, and presented as objects that can be touched: the archival box invites the recipients “to pull out whichever photographs engage their interest, to spread them out on the tabletop, and to see what emerges in the constellation of images that takes shape before them” (77).

Despite these material differences, both daguerreotypes and paper prints are known today as “photographs” and are connected with the “vestigial idea” (40) of trace, veracity, and the presence of the past. However, these principles migrate, as Saltzman shows, across different media. They can be found, for example, in the drawings Bechdel based on family photos from the 1950s to the 1970s, which imitate the latter even in format and their characteristic white borders (87). But they also have an afterlife in the age of electronic pictures, notably in Oscar Muñoz’s hybrid video portraits Line of Destiny (2006) and Project for a Memorial (2004–5). These “enactments of futility and fragility” (155) correspond with the gesture of deferral and distancing that photographs always represented: they take “the idea of a stable, enduring photographic image and allow it to give way before our eyes” (154–55).

Saltzman’s jeopardizing of ontological definitions of photography also becomes apparent in her deconstruction of historically established master narratives. Her book dismantles founding myths by unfurling several points of departure, both fictive and “authentic,” that are anterior or posterior to photography. One of these uncommon starts is a historical case of imposture in sixteenth-century France, which was adapted for Daniel Vigne’s movie Le Retour de Martin Guerre (1982). Another “introductory tale” to Saltzman’s book is conveyed through the fiction of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). In this film, cyborgs are given human status (and memory) by means of fake photographic testimony. Both narratives raise “questions of ontological and epistemological doubt” (14), which Saltzman revisits throughout the book. Chapter 1 focuses, for example, on contemporary practices of photography in the age of digital manipulation. No longer necessarily “a material trace of contact,” the dematerialized photo relinquishes, according to Saltzman, “the pencil of nature for the false perfection of pixilated form” (17). It tends to be a copy without an original, an even more ghost-like mirror of human existence than the cyborgs in Blade Runner.

However, as recent developments show, photography is far from losing its evidentiary function. Selfies are more ubiquitous today than ever, and in 2016, a new identification technique called “Pay by selfie” has been introduced (Leo Kelion, “MWC 2016: Mastercard Rolls Out Selfie ID Checks,” BBC News Online, Fully aware of this tendency, Saltzman insists on a tension between doubt and belief. She coins the term “retro-spectacle” (44) for contemporary photographic practices that oscillate between documentation, restaging, and utter fiction, acknowledging that photographs still “produce both a sense of self and a sense of place in the world” (13).

More importantly, Daguerreotypes concludes that the promise of self-constitution and evidence is not exclusive to photography, but has also been exploited by other image forms through intermedial imposture. In Gillian Wearing’s video portraits, for example, “the photographic comes to us in cinematic form” (148), or, rather, the video appears as “temporal photography,” to use Johanna Drucker’s words (“Temporal Photography,” Philosophy of Photography 1, no. 1 (2010): 22–28; cited in Daguerreotypes, 186). According to Saltzman, Wearing establishes an aesthetic of arrest, as the portrayed actors in her video try not to move. The nearly static videos not only call to mind the apparent immobility and duration associated, in particular, with early photographic portraits, but they also provide epistemological insights into processes of media classification and (re)definition by challenging binary concepts such as stillness and movement, durée and instantaneity.

In Wearing’s and other artists’ references to photography, “medial masquerade” (148) does not only serve as a “protective carapace” (145) that allows an appropriation of another medium’s apparent qualities. This special form of imposture also provokes a reflection on what media are, or, rather what they might be, and how they come into being. Saltzman’s book is a remarkable contribution to questions of mediality. It characterizes migration and flux as decisive principles in the constitution and destabilization of representational practices. A slight drawback, however, is the poor quality of the illustrations, which are all printed as small black-and-white reproductions. Material qualities thus get lost, though they might have generated further engagement with Saltzman’s line of thinking. Daguerreotypes will certainly be influential in the field of recent research on phenomena of transmediality, intermediality, and media crossing. Although it avoids these terms, it provides a stimulating overview on contemporary art practices that reject any fixed definition of media.

Astrid Köhler
PhD candidate, Braunschweig University of Art, Brunswick, Germany/Centre allemand d’histoire de l’art, Paris