Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 10, 2018
Katja Müller-Helle Zeitspeicher der Fotografie: Zukunftsbilder, 1860–1913 Paderborn: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 2017. 295 pp.; 58 b/w ills. Hardcover €39.90 (9783770560332)

The history of photography, film, and technology often builds its narratives around significant dates that seem to map precisely the beginning or end of certain developments in these media. The invention of photography in 1839 and the birth date of film in 1895 are such events, and historiography has repeatedly treated them with reference to one another. This dominant schema presents the development of instantaneous photography teleologically as a precursor to the projected film image, as if the spirit of invention and attainment of knowledge had evolved itself strictly between the two dates.

In her most recent publication, Zeitspeicher der Fotografie (Time Stores of Photography), Katja Müller-Helle questions this established pattern of explanation, which regards the photographic medium as a “technological foundation” (40; all translations from the book are mine) of film. Going beyond historical relativism, the author undertakes to establish the possibility of a non-teleological, nonlinear history of photography. In fact, the book is less a revisionist history of photography than an attempt to show how the “essence of photography as one [concept] is dissolved in the plurality of its histories” (213, original emphasis). To this end the author undertakes case studies of image production by Auguste Chevallier, Camille Flammarion, and Anton Giulio Bragaglia during the years 1860 to 1913, here and there opening the discussion of photographic “time stores” to contemporary artistic practice. All the while, Müller-Helle develops themes in this (her first) monograph that she had explored in the graduate research project “Sinne—Technik—Inszenierung” (Senses—Technology—Staging) at the University of Vienna, in her dissertation and various essays.

The study’s four chapters are devoted to photographic means of storage and, beyond technical apparatus and material artifacts, pose the question of the potential that each visual technology once promised. The author’s departure point is the thesis that photography’s ability to store time constituted a promise to the future not only in the early days of the medium, but that it continues to do so into the present moment, although the forms and technological conditions of this promise have changed. In this sense, the book—which bears the subtitle Zukunftsbilder (Future images), 1860–1913—focuses more on the imaginary aspect of photography’s technical dimension, as it was expressed in literary fictions, fantasies, and metaphors: speculations on time travel (Flammarion), Futurist studies of the dynamics of movement (Bragaglia), and visions of a possible “See-All” (Chevallier, 76) are taken by the author as opportunities to discuss photographic time stores as “producers of the future” (28) and media of knowledge production.

Müller-Helle enhances her investigation, for example, with an epistemological query: “What possible ways of thinking about temporal processes do photographs and their apparatuses trigger?” (19). When the author then dwells on the matter of “hybrid configurations between instantaneous photography and moving-picture techniques” (56), she inquires, on the one hand, into the representability of time in the image, as in Eadweard Muybridge’s and Jules Janssen’s sequence photographs. On the other hand, she focuses on the philosophical, aesthetic, and literary concepts of time in their very first manifestations in response to the technical image mediums of photography and film. Though the author examines both scientific and artistic-literary modes of expression in order to illuminate these “models of future knowledge” (12), what remains unclear is the relation of art and science as wellspring of the production of knowledge. This fundamental question for the field—that is, the extent to which science and art are to be regarded as epistemic practices of equal value and in what respects they differ—remains untouched in this study.

At the beginning of her historical analysis, Müller-Helle does enter upon the methodological demands of her own historiography, utilizing especially the categories of Hans-Jörg Rheinberger and Reinhart Koselleck. Her theoretically motivated study addresses a specialist public much more than an interested lay reader. A methodological excursus is required because looking at “past projected futures” brings with it an altered way of seeing history. Through Koselleck’s category of a “future past” (22), the analysis can incorporate wishes, hopes, and horizons of expectation at various historical moments. And in order to avoid the teleological schema of traditional historiography, Müller-Helle relies on Rheinberger’s “description of recursive structures of historical constellations” (25). “The relation of disparate times and lines of development” (25) thus becomes possible without following a linear history or a search for origins. The “trap of history” is not, however, thereby avoided, as the author reveals various lines of development—for instance, the prefiguration of contemporary surveillance techniques in the photometric methods of the nineteenth century.

The historical studies that follow remain rather monadic, even if the author makes cross-references here and there. This may well be the result of an approach that eschews linear narrative. A first case study addresses time stores as the pictorial products of scientific modes of note taking, entering the field of photogrammetry and surveying practices. There is already a clue to the nature of such a picture, which is less a visual image than a form of data storage, on the book’s cover, which sports Auguste Chevallier’s “planchette photographique” (little photographic plate) of 1866. This experimental compilation of various modes of notation involves multiple exposure of both sequential and anamorphically distorted image segments in a circular arrangement. Not illusion but mathematical precision is the guiding parameter of the photogrammetric image system, wherein Müller-Helle sees a “radically other order of visibility” (89), insofar as camera and picture served as their own “systems of evidence” (89). This distinct pictorial quality of “measurement photography” (89) is problematized in relation to the production, visibility, and legibility of the technical image. Just as the picture took form in a black box, its legibility was not direct, but only effected through translation back into measurement data. For Müller-Helle, this is an early example of the gradual shift of photographic-image production from human perception to the “operational images” of current technology. In this sense, the case of Chevallier also illustrates the ambivalence of technical progress: measurement techniques that he expected to produce comprehensive documentation and future legibility of the time stores have long since fallen into disrepute as producers of “inappropriate visibilities” (111). At the end of this chapter, Müller-Helle concludes that this surplus of visibility is today “one of the most virulent problems concerning technical images” (111).

With Flammarion’s long-term literary project Lumen (French first edition, 1872), which unfurled between 1867 and 1900, Müller-Helle shows how scientific speculation was bound to the photographic medium in the late nineteenth century. Flammarion’s idea of an “all-encompassing storage of information on photographic plates” (114) coalesces into a utopia of time travel through history: outer space is imagined as an infinite photographic-image reservoir, within which all events in human history are stored and accessible for all time. For Müller-Helle, this is an invitation to a far-reaching and thoroughgoing analysis of text and illustration, at the center of which is the idea of reversing time: historical processes are conceived as reversible, while historical data are permanently available. This technical utopia is connected by Flammarion to photography in concert with optical instruments for seeing close up and far away, which make possible spatial and temporal movement through history. As Müller-Helle shows with reference to Gaston Tissandier’s A History and Handbook of Photography (1878), the utopian has its source in the historically real. There is also allusion to innovations in transportation and news reporting, notably René Dagron’s microphotographic process, tested during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71. For Flammarion, the historically documented intervention of photography was a literary stimulus for thought and a “conceptual model of the direct recording of the data of history” (140). The time stores unfold their future potential above all by making the “conquest of history” (119) thinkable.

In her third case study the author treats the image production of photodynamism (1911–13). In the programmatic text Fotodinamismo Futurista (Collection Malandrini in Florence, 1913)—selections of which, in German translation, are appended to the book—Anton Giulio Bragaglia proclaimed “pure movement” (231) the sole expression able to capture the “spirit of living actuality” (233). Müller-Helle describes the photodynamic works of the brothers Anton Giulio and Arturo Bragaglia as an aesthetic form that wished to distinguish itself from the young medium of film as well as from conventional photography and chronophotography, which they regarded as means of “cold, mechanical, precise reproduction” (253). To this the inventors of photodynamism opposed the “magic of a moving photograph” (231) in the form of a postcard, thus raising pictorial fuzziness to an aesthetic value. Müller-Helle surveys the assumptions and forms of expression of this aesthetic, which manifested a vehement and idiosyncratic critique of instantaneous photography. Her visual analyses examine the fundamental parameters of an aesthetic program that aimed at nothing less than revolutionizing the arts through photography. Central to this were concepts such as fuzziness, time, duration, movement, synthesis, and lyrical intuition, on which the Bragaglias founded their “transcendental photography of movement” (182). Together these made up the conceptual apparatus for a new definition of photography as art. Photodynamism was regarded, for this reason, as Müller-Helle concludes with reference to Henri Bergson’s theoretical influence, as an epistemic mode oriented to “new knowledge in the realm of intuition” (193).

Written in an informed and substantiated manner, Zeitspeicher der Fotografie affords glimpses into a fascinating and fresh field of research, which places photography in the context of knowledge production. At the same time the study questions canonical assumptions in the theory of photography, providing a valuable contribution to increasingly self-critical, historically self-conscious photographic research. Through each selected historical case study of “models of future knowledge” (12), the author shows what imaginative potential is unleashed—whether formulated as concrete demand, as wish, or as utopia. Katja Müller-Helle’s main achievement in this study is to provide a new way of reading the until now retrospectively established medium, opening an uncommon perspective on photography and its accompanying discourse.

Beate Pittnauer
PhD candidate, Braunschweig University of Art, Brunswick, Germany