Frozen Light

June 15, 2022

I have seized the light. I have arrested its flight.
 – Louis Daguerre 

Artists since the Renaissance had used a tool called the camera obscura as an aid to drawing a scene with proper perspective.  The camera obscura is a box-like device with an aperture or lens on one end that projects an external scene onto a piece of paper or other flat surface.  A successful diorama painter named Louis Daguerre found the device useful in laying out giant canvasses measuring as much as 70 feet by 45 feet. Daguerre had the inspiration to wed the camera obscura to earlier technology developed by Isadore Niepce that captured an image and preserved it with chemicals on a polished metal surface.  The result was the first practical form of photography, known as the daguerrotype after its inventor.

As sometimes happens, Daguerre’s invention was so radically new that he was unable to interest investors in it.  Fortunately, Daguerre won backing from the secretary of the French Academy of Sciences, François Arago, who arranged for the initial display of daguerreotypes on January 9,1839.  The first reports of Daguerre’s invention did not hold back, trumpeting that it “disconcerts all the theories of science in light and optics.” 

The announcement in The Literary Gazette; and Journal of the Belles Lettres, Arts, Sciences, &c.noted, “M. Daguerre has discovered a method to fix the images which are represented at the back of a camera obscura; so that these images are not the temporary reflection of the object, but their fixed and durable impress, which may be removed from the presence of those objects like a picture or an engraving.”

The reason photography “disconcerts all the theories of light and optics” is that it appeared to halt time and motion in their tracks.  Upon closer inspection, however, this turned out not to be the case.   The initial announcement in the Literary Gazette acknowledged that “nature in motion cannot be represented, or at least not without great difficulty.”  Initial exposure times were about three minutes — far too slow to capture most movement.  Early photographs of crowded city streets appeared nearly empty, because the daguerreotypes were incapable of registering moving figures.

Early improvements in photography were aimed at reducing exposure times and capturing motion, thereby stopping time.  When faster exposures finally allowed photographers to take in busy street scenes, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. was astonished by the awkward poses of pedestrians caught in mid-stride. “Is motion but a succession of rests?” he wondered. “Motion is as rigid as marble, if you only take a wink's worth of it at a time.” By the 1870s, landscape photographer Eadweard Muybridge used a high-speed shutter he had invented himself to prove that all four hooves of a galloping horse left the ground at the same time — something too fast for the human eye to follow.  

In the 1930s, MIT electrical engineering professor Harold Edgerton pioneered the use of a stroboscopic flash synchronized with a high-speed camera to capture motion that was otherwise too rapid to be detected by the human eye: a .30 caliber bullet passing through an apple at 2,800 feet per second, a hummingbird’s wings in flight, a balloon bursting, an arrow flying from an archer’s bow at the moment of release.  As his pièce de résistance, Edgerton and his colleagues photographed a nuclear explosion at the instant of its detonation, using specially designed equipment that had no mechanical shutter, enabling them to take exposures as brief as one ten-millionth of a second.  Life Magazine, which had printed many of Edgerton’s photos, hailed him as “the man who stopped time.”

Why was the early development of photography so intent on stopping time?  Apart from certain scientific and documentary purposes, such a preoccupation would hardly explain the hundreds of millions of photographs posted every day on Facebook, Instagram and other social media.  Or would it? 

I doubt people give much thought to what they are doing when they take a picture.  They are looking for a keepsake, a reminder of happy times: an evening out with friends, a church picnic, a meal at a fancy restaurant, a new addition to the family, a wedding or a baptism.  By holding their cellphones at arm’s lengthand turning it around, they can place themselves at the scene.  Now, with the push of a button, an event that would otherwise be lost in the slipstream of time is preserved forever.  For that moment, at least, time no longer holds sway.

The earliest daguerreotypes necessarily depicted inanimate objects, because they were incapable of recording motion. Soon enough, however, they found a use as one-of-a-kind portraits. (There was no negative, so no copies could be made.)  As it happened, the first such image was taken by a Philadelphia chemist named Robert Cornelius, who removed the cap from his camera and jumped in front of it, holding still for one minute before covering the lens again.  In effect, the first photographic portrait was a selfie.

Until then, portraiture had been a costly adornment of the privileged few.  Now, as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. marveled, this “mirror with a memory” enabled even the common man to achieve a kind of immortality.  “It is hardly too much to say, that those whom we love no longer leave us in dying, as they did of old,” he wrote.  “They remain with us just as they appeared in life; they look down upon us from our walls; they lie upon our tables; they rest upon our bosoms; nay, if we will, we may wear their portraits, like signet-rings, upon our fingers….How these shadows last, and how their originals fade away!”

Anatomically modern humans have been around for some 12,000 generations, and for most of that time they have come and gone without a trace.  Yet as soon as they were capable of abstract representation, they began leaving their imprint on the world, as if to say, “Here I am.”  One such representation is the stenciled outline of a human hand found on the Peche Merle cave in southern France, dating from about 25,000 years ago.  Similar stenciled hands or handprints are found on cave walls all over the world.

Is the impulse to leave a little piece of yourself on a cave wall any different from a selfie posted on Facebook? Culture critic Susan Sontag complained in On Photography (1977) that “to take a photograph is to participate in another person's mortality.”  But that is true only in retrospect, when perhaps we look back on an image of a person in the full flower of youth now sadly departed.  However, photographs are “once, forever,” to borrow a phrase from the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson.  They are taken in the moment and of the moment, hoping to preserve some small impression of that moment forever and thereby to achieve a kind of immortality.    

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