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.

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Afghan Box Camera

Birk, L., Foley, S., 2013. Afghan box camera. Dewi Lewis Publishing, Stockport, England.


Gulbert would recite prayers and verses and blow on the camera, and then take out the photographs announcing, “A MIRACLE!”


In Afghanistan in the 1950s a simple hand-made wooden camera known as the kamra-e-faoree began to be used widely in the country for the first time.

Further afield in industrialised Europe and North America, patented relations had already appeared in the 1910s; whilst the photograph process the camera used was first introduced by William Henry Fox-Talbot in 1840s England.

In contrast […] to photography as a thing of the elite, the kamra-e-faoree brought photography to the common man and quite literally, to the street.

Only a narrow pavement slot was required to fit a camera, a chair and a cloth backdrop. The chair in which the customer posed for the portrait could also serve the photographer as a perch on which to rest or even sleep in quieter times. The camera lid provided a handy platform on which to place a pair of scissors and box of photo paper as well as hold a mug of tea and a saucer of sweets.

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The Body and the Archive

Allan Sekula, ‘The Body and the Archive’, pp.3-64, in:
October, Vol. 39 (Winter, 1986). MIT Press.


The sheer range and volume of photographic practice offers ample evidence of the paradoxical status of photography within bourgeois culture. The simultaneous threat and promise of the new medium was recognized at a very early date, even before the daguerreotype process had proliferated.

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On the Invention of Photographic Meaning

Allan Sekula, ‘On the Invention of Photographic Meaning’, pp.84-109, in:
Burgin, V. Ed. 1982. Thinking Photography. Palgrave Macmillan, London.


The meaning of a photograph, like that of any other entity, in inevitably subject to cultural definition. The task here is to define and engage critically something we might call the ‘photographic discourse’.

A discourse is defined as an arena of exchange, that is, a system of relations between parties engaged in communicative activity.

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Photography, Vision and Representation

Joel Snyder & Neil Walsh Allen, ‘Photography, Vision, and Representation’, pp.143-169 in:
Critical Inquiry, Vol.2, Autumn 1975.


Is there anything peculiarly “photographic” about photography – something which sets it apart from all other ways of making pictures?

[…] for most of this century the majority of critics and laymen alike have tended to answer these questions in the same way: that photographs and paintings differ in an important way and require different methods in interpretation precisely because photographs and paintings come into being in different ways.

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Picturing Vision

Joel Snyder, ‘Picturing Vision’, pp.157-171, in:
Yates, Steve. ed. Poetics of Space: A Critical Photographic Anthology. University of New Mexico Press, Albequerque.


Our willingness to accept photographs as natural and mechanical records of what we see underscores the power of our belief that certain kinds of pictures achieve significance because they are “natural” – meaning that such pictures are related to what they depict in exactly (or roughly) the same way vision is related to what we see.

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Photography: history and theory

Jae Emerling, ‘Preface’ and ‘Introduction’, pp.xii-xiii and pp.1-16, in:

Emerling, J., 2012. Photography: history and theory. Routledge, Abingdon, Oxon; New York, NY.



Every book on photography is always marked by the same limitation: the absence of all the photographs discussed within the text.

In other words, every historical and theoretical text on photography has blind spots, photographs that are missing, absent, untranslatable. Rather than see this as a shortcoming, perhaps it is better to reckon with these blind spots as openings, as disjunctive syntheses.

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Five Notes for a Phenomenology of the Photographic Image

Damisch, Hubert. ‘Five Notes for a Phenomenology of the Photographic Image’ October, 5, Summer 1978, 70-72


Theoretically speaking, photography is nothing other than a process of recording, a technique of inscribing, in an emulsion of silver salts, a stable image generated by a ray of light.This definition, we note, neither assumes the use of a camera, nor does in imply that the image obtained is that of an object or scene from the external world.

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Desiring Production

Geoffrey Batchen, ‘Desiring Production’, pp.4-24, in:

Batchen, G., 2002. Each wild idea: writing, photography, history. MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.


So no one would want to deny that 1839 was an important year in the life of photography, particularly with regard to the direction of its subsequent technical, instrumental, and entrepreneurial developments. However, the traditional emphasis on 1839, and the pioneering figures of Daguerre and Talbot, has tended to distract attention from the wider significance of the timing of photography’s emergence into our culture. This essay aims first to establish this timing and then to articulate briefly something of that significance.

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Photography as Technology

Patrick Maynard, ‘Photography as Technology’, pp.3-21, in:

Maynard, P., 2000. The engine of visualization: thinking through photography. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY.


This simple theme of this book is that what we call “photography” is a technology. What accurately, it is a branching family of technologies, with different uses, whose common stem is simply the physical marking of surfaces through the agency of light and similar radiations.


Thus the outline of a mini-history of one line of popular photo-technological development for a general market. It is no part of my brief presentation to say that this development was autonomous, or that it basically involved “solving problems”. I do not even call it progress, or imply that it answered anyone’s “needs”.

Setting the account in the context of widening mass, popular, consumer markets, fairly affluent and increasingly mobile– as well as within a production and distribution network increasingly global– is a reminder from the outset that, technologically, necessity is by no means the mother of invention. In fact, the idea of necessity is a poo way of understanding human and technological initiatives generally and who are still in the context of modern popular consumer markets.


Given their market applications, photographic inventions of the kinds listed seem more often the mothers of (perceived) necessities. This is the place of modern advertising, in which photo processes, as we all know, serve as an “engine of visualisation,” affecting conceptions, quickening desires.


History shows that many technological initiatives simply fail to interest potential uses.

Nor did all the changes occur in cameras themselves. During the same decade, color prints began to dominate color slides in the popular market, and black-and-white printing suffered successive demotions (which may be tracked through our family photo albums) from standard to default, option, speciality or “custom” (more expensive and not so fast)–a plunge similar, though rather less dramatic and final, to that of final sound recordings after compact discs appeared.

While listing such high-technology advancement in certain markets, we might also note that throwaway cameras came into vogue about the same time, following the trails of the disposable ballpoint marker of the mid-1950s and razors of the mid-1970s.


Here is the point at which we should observe a technological fact that usually passes unappreciated in discussions and prophecies of this sort. If something called photography seemed about to be transformed by fast-developing computer technologies, these technologies were themselves functions of a photographic technology and could not exist without it.

The reason is simple: personal computers were made possible by the emergence in the early 1970s of microprocessors, tiny solid-state structures that depend, crucially, upon the process of microfabrication of computer chips, which is itself a “photolithographic” technology.

That variant of what might be called classic photo-technology is necessarily a chemical, not an electronic, process. Without photo-technological miniaturisation, computer circuits would simply be too large, too slow, too undependable, and fighting expensive to have any of the uses I have indicated. For more than photography relies on a electronic and digital technologies, those technologies rely on standard chemical photography.

This observation carries us from the topic of (“merely”) technologies of photography (such as autofocus devices) to that of photographic technologies (such as those from making microchips) and thereby to photography as technology.

If those photographic technologies are to be considered part of what we mean by”photography,” then there is photography that does not consist in making photographs–at least not as we ordinarily understand those terms. That photography may be a technological way of doing things might suggest that even in the more familiar or “traditional” case of making photos, photography could also be understood in terms of doing things.


[My sample] was to remind us how much photography is a creature of technology, a product of nineteenth-century industrial society which continue transformation right through twentieth-century technological society.


[…] the term “photography” itself is, like “lithography” […] the name not the class of things that of a kind of productive process, which frequently but not always issues in things of diverse use and interest.

The only advertising for photography and daguerreotypy (if we keep these systems at first distinct), their scientific and commercial promotions, and certainly their patents, of course, stressed their physical means of production. Early inventors and promoters such as William Henry Fox Talbot were prudent to draw attention not so much to new class of objects as to the diverse uses of the new set of technological procedures.

By contrast, almost all writing about photography in our own times tends to begin with the emergent nature of the product rather than with its production and use. Photography itself is taken as a productive process for producing photographs.


[Ref Bazin, Cavell]


Some influential theorists almost provide exceptions to this predominant thing-mindedness. I third modern film theorist, Siegfried Kracauer, is also something of an exception to the approach to photography via the nature of photographs. To be sure Kracauer’s introduction to his 1960 book on cinema speaks of “the nature of the photographic medium” and it’s “specific properties”, but he works at such topics quite effectively through an analysis of the early and recent histories of our ideas of it.

Kracauer also argues explicitly against perhaps the most harmful false dichotomy in the history of talk about photography, pointing out that its realist recording powers are fully consistent with its being highly interpretive, even self-expressive. His famous, controversial insistence on maintaining cinemas connection with “physical reality,” however, still emphasises what it produces photographs of.

Such was true of an even earlier writer, Walter Benjamin, whose avowedly technological approach to still photography and film during the 1930s would become very influential some decades later; his is perhaps the most influential of reputable opinions. Benjamin provides the rare case of a modern writer on photography he treats the technologies of photo reproduction centrally and relates these (though all too to briefly) to the printing press and to sound recording.

[Benjamin’s essay as “sweeping and often misleading historical generalisations about the use of images”]


This avowed Marxist’s technological approach, however, yielded an essay distinctly about kinds of things, rather than about the work that people do with a technology or even about the ways in which that work became organised and industrialised.

His way of thinking leaves out for example, the normal use people make of photographic reproductions: to discover originals, learn about them, imagine seeing them, even indirectly perceive them, as we do by listening to sound recordings.


Citing Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, Sontag too understands photography basically in terms of the relationship between two kinds of entities: images and reality–as a producing of photographs of things–and offers many perceptions about what “photographs are” or tend to do.


One has to wait for her very last, not so influential, pages to find your qualifying this approach was an interesting contrast of Chinese and “capitalist” photographic practices– the ontology of photos presumably being the same in Beijing as in New York.

As for Barthes, there could scarcely be a clear instance of the tendencies under review than his melancholy investigation. Highly a sustained account of photographs themselves, his monograph is actually reductive to your subjects photographed, taking substantively: usually people are details of them and their attire.

Unlike Sontag, who at least make some reference to photo-technology, Barthes explicitly puts that aside on page 3 to investigate unabashedly what he terms “Photography’s” (interchangeably, “the Photograph’s”) “essence”.

Where the moment of the composition of the picture seems an undeniable factor in the appeal of the photograph, Barthes counts that as “luck”.

[Ref Berger’s Another Way of Telling]


Although he discusses different uses of photography, commenting that their “truthfulness” varies with the context of use, the thesis of this critic of positivism is based on the unexamined assumption that of photographs can be derived from the way in which they are, already, made: because they are “taken in an instant,” they can capture experiences at instant, whence they can inherit their characteristic and troubling ambiguity, as appearances at instance are ambiguous.

If we are being phenomenological, none of this makes much sense against the experience of some of the most “photographic” of photographs, such as an amateur’s telescopic view of the Horsehead Nebula, or closeups of bark, […] nor does it jibe with standard printed photography of package contents, and so on.

With some exceptions, such a survey of reputable “philosophical” opinions shows a tendency to consider photography in terms of its products, photographs, and then to consider significant relationships that these products bear to some other thing or things and thereby to discover the meaning all this has for us.

In other words, we find an all too familiar syndrome of theoretical puzzlement. It begins with “reification,” the conception of the topic in terms of substantive, “things”– in fact, two kinds of things and thus a “dualism” to beat: on one side there is “the photograph” (click); on the other, “reality” (THUD). Next comes “essentialism”, a search for the essences (drawn from impressions of a few instances) of one or the other member of this pair of things, as well as for an essential relationship between them, from which perceptions are to flow.


Here is a place to note that in the decades immediately following the books just described, many thinkers on the subject turned from the alleged nature of the photograph to that of the other relational term, the world or reality itself, wondering about photography’s power to determine its nature.

If these three labels–reification, dualism, essentialism—are perhaps too strong for describing both common conceptions and printed meditations regarding photography, they at least indicate the direction of the more usual kind of thinking.

Photography is understood in terms of photos, and photos are invariably understood relationally as being of things. Remarkably, one looks in vain to that literature to discover any attempt to find or to explain the relationship “—––is a photograph of—––.” Remarkably one looks in vain even for any effort to mark the difference between being a photographic picture of something and being a photograph of it, although we daily see photographic pictures that are by no means photographs of what they depict.


[Ref Turner’s History of Photography, 1987]

One could hardly find a clearer exposition of the tendency under review: to consider photography in terms of the sort of thing, like bricks, and cast photo-technologies into the background of conceptions and concerns.

Most photo histories, however, are not like that—not even this one.

Almost every history of photography emphasises its technological history, and none presented in terms of technology. A striking symptom of this is that such histories are nearly devoid of reflection upon the nature and history of technologies generally and and never seem to bring insights there to bear on their subject matter.


[…] photographs themselves are of rather different natures, uses, appearances, and have been produced and valued in these different ways from their first inventions. Besides underestimating this diversity, the usual “photographs” approach to photography falls short in its ability to help us understand new kinds of photo imagery as they appear.

Furthermore, we have reason to expect photo-technologies to continue to produce new kinds photographs are, better, new kinds of photography and new uses of it. As these occur, they will be better understood in terms of some general principles. For example, we know that all modern technologies tend to diversity. Dust television was developed from work on radar: an example of what which might be called “route diversification.”

Again, microcomputers, developed independently of cameras, revolutionised camera control systems: such might be called “application” or “transfer.” Application may also be interactive: hence “hybridisation.”

These are typical of many technological developments, and unlike meals, such hybrids often prove fertile, even of other forms.

The lack of principles shows that in most treatments of photography that attempts to be general. There is not only a partiality to certain examples and a tendency to overgeneralise from them, not only an inability to help us understand new examples as they appear, but also a tendency to isolate photography from related, even closely related, phenomena.


Part of my argument is that even when we choose to narrow our consideration of photography to certain examples, we will much better understand them if we first think about photography in a general sense and within the wider field of relationships.

Even writers who would set out to interpret the nature and significance of photography usually forget to notice the photo-reprographic processes by which the very text of their own texts and articles are not only illustrated but printed. Thereby they overlook the most important reinvention of photography, around the beginning of the 20th century (which electronic imaging’s development may never rival in importance): the ink, relief-impact, press-printing systems without which even though “the photograph” today would have a diminished historical significance.


[…] we must do more than draw attention to photographic technologies; we must develop a principled, technological (but not too technical) conception of photography itself.


We can characterise photography in terms of technologies for accomplishing or guiding the production of images on sensitised surfaces by means of light (broadly understood), without necessarily understanding such images as “photographs”.


Procedures, structures, materials will then be photographic when they have a place in such technology, whether or not they themselves work by light (Which, in the case of some parts of camera engineering or development chemistry, we certainly do not).

Putting “photography” before “photographs” in the order of enquiry means that photographs in the ordinary sense are themselves photographic because they are pictorial images produced by such processes.


In short, to understand photographs, we will first have to understand photography.