A history of light: the idea of photography

Junko Theresa Mikuriya, ‘Introduction’, pp.1-9, in:
Mikuriya, J.T., 2017. A history of light: the idea of photography. Bloomsbury Academic, London.


[On photography]

Its apparent instability belies its generosity; its hospitality is such that its boundaries are porous and mutable, inviting the encroachment of others. Hence photography is often considered to be overly reliant upon its surroundings; attempts to define and to theorise photography would reduce it to a set of cultural, social, political or technological productions, identifying its history solely as the development of the photographic camera, or the inevitable outcome of a changing aesthetic sensibility.


Looking at photography uniquely through the perspective of technological production, ‘across a field of institutional sales’ [Tagg], is problematic and restrictive because it gives priority to photography’s efficiency as a technological tool and the ways in which it is embedded within the system of its production and usage.

Furthermore, Tagg’s statement is indicative of a reductionist attitude towards the medium and presumes an absence of photography’s being.


As we have seen so far, it seems that photography theory is unable to divorce itself from the camera as a technological apparatus.


[On Burning with Desire]

Batchen’s project, though admirable in many ways, still falls into a theorisation of photography that is bound up with its technological status. For his rewriting of photographic history situates the origins of photography in the late 1700s, thus identifying the medium as a product of a ‘modern’ sensibility, arising from a crisis of representation.

I disagree with Batchen’s argument that the thought of photography was only made possible in the last decade of the eighteenth-century. For to desire photography is already to be conscious of it, or something that is akin to it. This sudden irruption of photographic-like discourse in art, literature and science in the late 1700s is in fact the rationalisation of photography. I argue instead that the invention of photography is only the material manifestation of that which has always existed.

Against the widespread tendency to associate the origins of photography with the 19th-century inventions of Niépce, Daguerre, Talbot and others, I argue that as a philosophical project, photography goes further back in time than what is generally recognised as the period of its inception, the nineteenth century.

Instead of locating the origin of photography at the site of the camera obscura, I will complicate the history of the medium and suggest that intimations of photography can be found in the core of Platonic and Neoplatonic thought.


What are the aims of this book is to question the all-too-ready dismissal of photography by historians and critics as a medium with no apparent qualities, the assumption of it being nothing more than a technological system of visual representation based upon Renaissance perspective.


To address the often-reductive discourses on photography, I propose a different way of thinking about photography in terms of photagogia or the ‘evoking of the light’.

This book attempts to explore that which lies behind photography’s difficultness, by examining how photography is already implicated in Western thought, before the arrival of its technical regeneration as the photography with which we are all familiar.