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Introduction: where does photography start? And where does it end? A hybrid introduction

Sara Hillnhuetter, Stefanie Klamm and Friedrich Tietjen

In his text Beyond Photography on the photographic works of Taryn Simons, Homi K. Bhabha discusses the hermeneutics of realism or rather of realisms that despite all differences have one thing in common: “[That] the referent, which is concealed on the body of the text or image in any number of ways, can and must be found before the ‘whole thing’ falls into place”.1 This understanding of realism appears so self-evident that it usually dominates all discourse about photographic pictures. Defined by their chemical and physical and thus scientific properties they are attributed an evidence that cannot be achieved with any other, and in particular not with older manual and artistic means: What photographs show is or at least has been, and thus has been true. It is this understanding of a technically founded evidence Bhabha argues against. The blind spot of photography, however, is not that it only pretends to depict reality or realities but rather that its pictures are more than just depictions: “What is within photography that reaches beyond its limits ... is its mode of signification, not its mimetic resemblance as image”.2 Continuing Bhabha’s thinking, photography’s definition is impinged at its core: It is not the apparatus and the technology involved that makes photography’s pictures evident—it is their reading, their translation into text. And this process of reading and translating is not determined by the precision of recording these images but interwoven with coincidences and contingencies: “Contingency is... a formal condition of the relationship of image and text; their conjunction in that interstitial space that opens up in between the photograph and the narrative and prepares the ground for a translation of image into text, and vice versa”. '1 It, therefore, is an agent of the hybrid. Being a curious term of discourse, the hybrid describes relationships between often contradictory pairs of terms and neither leads to a dialectic transfer of these terms into a new unit nor does it let them stand alongside each other in a paradoxical and irreconcilable manner. In fact, the hybrid allows things to have more than one defined characteristic and, rather than have materializations comply with the definitions, requires the opposite—that the definitions comply with the materializations.

The many names and ideas of photography

Thinking about photography, therefore, also means thinking about hybrids and the hybridity of the medium is expressed through the fact that photography as a term is neither self-explaining nor clear nor neutral. This problem is not new; rather, it has been a part of the history of photography since its beginnings: when the first protagonists of proto-photography described the process, they had to find names and the ones they chose were above all dependent on the goal of their initial experiments.

Mary Fulhame spoke of a “New Art of Painting and Dying”,4 after she had successfully used the photochemical attributes of silver and gold salts to treat fabric and maps—although her process does not appear to have been purely about photographic image generation as we know it today, the visual potential of her process is expressed in the title of her publication.

Nicephore Nièpce began his experiments with the goal of making the lithographic processes more effective and, for that purpose, experimented with a range of light-sensitive substances and mechanical constellations—partly by using engravings made transparent with grease practically as negatives, partly by using a camera. He also thought equally long and hard about the name of the process and tried out suffixes such as -type (print, imprint, stroke), -graphy (write, draw); he ultimately called the camera-based process he developed heliography.5 Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, who, as the operator of a diorama, was experienced in marketing visual attractions, decided to give his process its own brand name and in addition to a life-long annuity was also able to earn real and symbolic money from the venture beyond his own death.

William Henry Fox Talbot, finally, used two terms in his writings about his processes, of which talbotype sounds like an echo of Daguerre’s self-memorialization, while calotype (from KaXôç: beautiful) suggests its aesthetic potential, which Talbot formulated in even more ambivalent fashion, and still marked by the intellectual-scientific possibilities of the new picture medium, with his first designation, photogenic drawing. At the same time, these terms all include the relationship of this new graphic process with old methods, which also applies technically: Nièpce’s famous heliograph of the view from the window of his house in Gras could, in principle, have been used as a printing block had it been further processed like his early reproduction of the copper etching of Cardinal d’Amboise.6 The copper plates Daguerre employed as a base for his pictures were the same that were used by engravers and etchers, and Talbot’s method worked with paper, the universal picture medium of printed graphics.7 The indecision, indeed insecurity, about the status of the images is also expressed in the use of -graphy and -type as the most common endings of all these designations: are they drawings or prints—is the manually or mechanically produced aspect of these pictures to be emphasized? That the term photography, coined by the natural scientist John Frederick William Herschel, also in 1839, should win the day as the umbrella term certainly also has to do with the fact that it underlines the general and mutual characteristic of the different processes, namely, that they all record light in some way or another.

Hybridity, therefore, is not an exceptional phenomenon in the treatment of photography and photographs, rather a constituent condition. This hybridity, however, is limited neither to the process itself nor to terminology. On the contrary, both the historical and the contemporary discourses about photography are full of dichotomies: nature vs. culture, art vs. science, truth vs. manipulation—many treatments involving such pairs of terms eventually made one or the other their own in order to make generally applicable and standardized statements. Statements of this kind, however—and this is one of the central arguments of this book—have trouble standing up when tested using concrete photographs: in other words, using their production processes, practices of application, and materialities. Moreover, when they are observed in relation to other, simultaneously used modes of visual representation (above all, drawing) the purported unambiguities can become precarious—and the discursive oscillations thus triggered productive.

Photography as object

Many debates about the use of photography and drawing in science and humanities from the nineteenth century onward revolved around the rhetoric of the non-manual image and its perceived mechanical objectivity. One emblematic example is the British physicist Arthur M. Worthington, who, in the 1890s, studied the shapes that formed when drops fell on solid or liquid surfaces.9 To record these forms he initially observed the event with his eyes, using stroboscopic flashes to freeze singular moments and then transcribing what he had seen into drawings. The first publications of his research were illustrated with wood engravings after these drawings and showed highly symmetrical structures. Yet when he later replaced his eye with a camera, the photographs showed a stunningly different picture: Instead of the perfect forms he had expected, most splashes were irregularly shaped. No matter how often he repeated the experiments or tried to eliminate all random effects and inaccuracies, he never realized his expectations of achieving the same balanced representations he had recorded in his drawings. In the first place Worthington wondered whether his drawings were just a wishful notion of what he had seen. “Thus the mind of the observer is filled with an ideal splash—an ‘auto-splash’—whose perfection may never be actually realized”.10 Over several years he discussed the relations between photographic and graphic imagery ambiguously. It is important to note here that photography did not replace the use of other media, but changed their value, because Worthington also reflected within the “history” of his experiments that his early drawings were as irregular as the photographs:

In the first place I have to confess that in looking over my original drawings I find records of many irregular or unsymmetrical figures, yet in compiling the history it has been inevitable that these should be rejected, if only because identical irregularities never recur.

Worthington was hardly interested in what happens to particular drops—he tried to find out about the hydrodynamics ruling the behavior of different liquids falling from different heights onto different surfaces. Interestingly enough, his use of photography for observation did not change much of his basic hypothesis and findings—after a certain time he decided to take the mimetic drawing as a model for the indexical photograph and not vice versa.

Worthington’s experiments are not further discussed in this book; the collected studies, however, deal with similar cases insofar scholars employed photography along with other media such as drawings, models, maps, and dioramas. And while Worthington struggled to come to terms with the relations of his primary assumptions, his scientific aims, the media he used, and the results he got, other scholars came from other disciplines, pursued other goals, used photography together with these or other media for other purposes, met other difficulties, and drew other conclusions. Photographs replaced the object of research, but the absence of the object had to be compensated in individual ways. So the images had to be reworked and reread in order to distinguish between the object in question and the accidental artifacts generated in the course of the photographic process. Each of the historical actors reached the epistemical question they were looking for by going beyond the photograph as an object and its material condition. “Medium specificity, in such a perspective, is then as much a matter of programming as of serendipity, and its status remains by definition open and provisory”.11

Like Worthington, many researchers reflected on what happened when photographic and non-photographic media mingled, and since they one way or the other were familiar with other scientific, cultural, private, and/or political applications of photography, these other discourses of and on photography informed these images and their scholarly use, too. Under these conditions, the seemingly rock-solid ontology of photography as a mechanical object starts shifting, and, used as an analytical tool, medium specificity can reveal social and cultural contexts.

Expectations of photography

Common to all cases discussed in this volume is that knowledge about certain scientific objects is produced by way of image making. Thus, the contributions cover a wide array of disciplines and of applications of hybrid processes, but at the same time they share one question: If truthfulness and objectivity are attributed to photographs by tacit consent, and if the images generated by hybrid processes by and large are still regarded as photographs, what is done with the non-photographical qualities of these images, and how do they interfere with what is photographic of these images?

It will hardly come as a surprise that the answers to this again depend on the case in question, that is, on the purpose of the specific image or images, on its viewers and users. But it will also hardly be surprising that as much as the non-photographic parts of image production may interfere with the photographic ones and be visible in the final hybrid image, their impact was often played down. In all probability, the main reason for this was that with photography researches had access to a medium that not only could be used to illustrate scientific research but was scientific in itself. As a medium, photography promised images that were not make-believe but allowed their viewers virtually to check the veracity of whatever claim was made by the researcher for themselves. When Worthington started applying photography instead of trusting his eyesight alone, he was basically interested in employing a medium that—in his eyes—was better suited to convince critics and fellow researchers of his findings than written records of his own observations.

In this respect, the contributions to this book can also be read as a collective and exemplary survey on the epistemic value of those image media that are expected and named as being photographic regardless of how they are actually produced. If—as stated earlier—hybridity is less an exception but rather the common condition of photography in general and of scientific photography in particular, the chapters explore a no man’s land of media theory where in the end the specific purposes certain images are used for are at least as important as the specific modes of their production. With this, the discussion of the mostly historical examples dealt with in this book also open up avenues into researching contemporary use of imagery and image making in science and the humanities. Interestingly enough, the challenges of digital photography and of imaging methods and the often emphasized malleability of the resulting imagery have suspended neither the expectation nor the use of photographs the same way they had been used before. On the contrary, that the results of plain measurement processes such as, for instance, computer tomography are translated into X-ray-like black-and-white images is a telltale sign of the impact and influence photography has to this day. If both the conference and this publication contribute to such further research in these fields, we would deem ourselves rewarded far beyond our expectations.

Sara Hillnhuetter/Stefanie Klamm/Friedrich Tietjen

Berlin/Leipzig/J$czyddl in August 2019


  • 1 Homi Bhabha, “Beyond Photography”, in Taryn Simon - A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I-VIII, (London: Mack, 2011), 4.
  • 2 Ibid., 6-7.
  • 3 Ibid., 9.
  • 4 c.f. above all the preface to Mary Fulhame, An Essay on Combustion: With a View to a New Art of Dying and Painting [...] (London, 1794).
  • 5 c.f. Geoffrey Batchen, “The Naming of Photography”, History of Photography 17, no. 1 (1993): 22-32.
  • 6 In this case, Niepce had used the engraving, which had been rendered transparent with grease, to make a kind of contact print on a tin plate coated with light-sensitive bitumen. Following exposure, the unexposed parts of the plate were rinsed (i.e., the picture was developed and fixed in a single process), the plate itself then etched in the classical manner, and, finally, prints of the plate thus treated made in a gravure press. Niepce used the same bitumen and plate material for his picture of the view from the window.
  • 7 For greater detail with regard to the material relationship between graphic processes and the early photographic processes, c.f. Friedrich Tietjen, “Bilder einer Wissen-schaft. Kunstreproduktion und Kunstgeschichte” (PhD dissertation, University of Trier, 2007), 57 ff (https://www.academia.edn/35885959/Bilder_einer_Wissenschaft._ Kunstreproduktion_und_Kunstgeschichte).
  • 8 See the seminal book by Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison, Objectivity (New York: Zone Books, 2007) on this matter.
  • 9 Daston and Galison, Objectivity, 11-16.
  • 10 Arthur Worthington, The Splash of a Drop (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1895), 58.
  • 11 Jan Baetens and Heidi Peeters, “Hybridity: The Reverse of Photographic Medium Specificity?”, History of Photography 31, no. 1 (2007): 5.

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