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Several years ago, an Egyptian fly who died in 1870 was belatedly elegized in the pages of a prominent cultural studies journal. This poor airborne creature had lost its way, navigating into the camera of Antonio Beato and careening into the sticky collodion that coated the photographer’s glass plate negative. The fly’s treacly end would secure its immortality, for when the image was printed, the carcass loomed monstrously large over the citadel that was Beato’s putative subject. Occupying the flat surface of the plate and of the print, the mummified fly makes a travesty of the perspectival construction of the scene. As Peter Geimer, the elegist, put it, “the fly appears together with the landscape, but at the same time separated from it. It seems to occupy a space on the image or in front of it; but this “in front” itself constitutes an entirely flat surface and is thoroughly unperspectival.” This errant, accidental protagonist thus draws attention to the dimensions of the photographic process that are ordinarily naturalized and made transparent.
Geimer’s more recent Inadvertent Images: A History of Photographic Apparitions is likewise preoccupied with all manner of “bugs” in photographs. The full gauntlet of perils—cracks, stains, streaks, spots, halations—with which photographers have had to contend are not merely errors of technique. Rather, as Geimer demonstrates, they are disruptions of the illusionistic integrity of the representation, material elements of the medium that obtrusively crash into the smooth surface of the depicted realm and shatter it into pieces. These “apparitions” have traditionally been consigned to a file drawer labeled “failures,” categorized as violations of the canons of technical competence and as products of a representational process that have slipped the grasp of an intentional, masterful author. Even when these aberrations appear in didactic manuals, like the 1902 confessional Why My Photographs Are Bad, they are contraband brought out only under special conditions in order to scare novice readers straight. In his bold, revisionist account, Geimer brings these suppressed accidents to center stage, for, he asserts, “the history of photographic representations cannot be detached from the corresponding history of contaminations, disturbances, and destructions” (34).
Even more than the wonderfully vivid case of the wayward fly, the apparitions at the heart of Inadvertent Images are integral to the medium’s history. They are not produced solely by extrinsic forces invading the photographic process from without, but often are intrinsic to photography itself. Photography’s sensitivity to the contingencies of the world secures its epistemic privilege, but it also tends to blur the nature of the knowledge it furnishes. The propensity for things to go wrong is both photography’s enabling condition and its inherent vice. Not so much images “in spite of all,” the works that Geimer investigates are, more pointedly, images in spite of themselves.
One of the reliable features of the historiography of the medium has been its tendency, over time, to lurch back and forth between extreme constructivist and naive realist models. Inadvertent Images dispenses with this supposed antinomy, instead concerning itself with the dialectic of control and contingency that characterizes most photographic production. But it nevertheless holds the line firmly against the most absolute forms of constructivism. For Geimer, the material conditions of the medium do not ultimately permit a purely constructed image: “an irreducible surplus remains—that dimension of photography which cannot be, properly speaking, ‘invented’ or ‘constructed,’ which must occur, which comes to pass as an event” (194). The forms that this surplus assumes are not superfluous but are the manifestations that constitute this alternative history.
The account begins before the beginning: in the accumulation of registrations that make up the prehistory of photography. Geimer codifies three rationales that have been adduced to distinguish between, say, the gridded discoloration of a sun-bleached curtain presented to the Paris Académie des Sciences in 1737 and Talbot’s Latticed Window of a century later: the image must be the product of a purposeful technique; it must be permanently fixed; and it must bear representational traces of the world. Yet, as Geimer rightly notes, these criteria have been created relatively recently and quite arbitrarily, as the byproduct of a teleological version of the history of photography favored throughout much of the twentieth century. Appearances such as the eighteenth-century cloth have traditionally been excluded from the history of photography proper. This is in large measure because to confer upon a “natural accident” the status of a photograph would be to disregard the primacy of the agency of a human maker. It would substitute an observant draper for a Daguerre and would dissociate photography from the kind of intentional mastery constitutive of achievement in the more longstanding visual arts. Conventional, and legitimating, narratives of photography of the twentieth century have thus been invested, almost existentially, in keeping these accidents in an ahistorical abyss.
Two closely argued case studies suggest that the requirement of intentionality was, at least in the years around 1900, negotiable. In the first of these, we learn of neurologist Jules-Bernard Luys and chemist Émile David, who collaborated to produce photographs of patients that would reveal the activity of “vital fluids,” universal forces supposedly swirling around living beings. When these efforts yielded photographs suffused with visual aberrations, the unexpected forms were attributed by debaters to every imaginable cause. Were they indeed the predicted emanations from the human body? Or registrations of other atmospheric phenomena? Or the result of faults in the manufacture of the plate, or in the purity of the developer bath? The surprising epistemic commitments signaled by each of these explanations makes clear how attentive fin-de-siècle users of photography were to the fuzzy demarcation between representations of “real” phenomena and the interfering artifacts of the representational medium.
The example of the Shroud of Turin, while more familiar, is nevertheless illuminated anew. With a new photograph executed in 1898, “what had been visible as a mere pattern of ‘faint markings’ on the linen sheet was decoded by the photograph to have been a latent image—a quasi-photographic portrait of Jesus Christ” (104). If photography provided the shroud with visual confirmation of its reliquary status, the shroud furnished photography with the opportunity to decode an encrypted message left to posterity by the Son of God. Possessed of an “eye” more blessed than those of mortals, the camera nevertheless depended, paradoxically, upon the metaphorical repertoire of human vision, which it ostensibly superseded. This entanglement lays bare the epistemological challenge of sorting the truth content of such representations. “Is a picture faithful to the truth if it renders what an imperturbable eyewitness of the moment it was taken would have seen,” Geimer asks, or is it rather truthful when “it reveals what no unarmed eye on the scene could have discovered” (131)? This contradiction is finally unresolved since photographs whose evidence cannot be confirmed by vision function in a kind of epistemic vacuum, legible only in terms of the very contested processes by which they are brought into existence.
The contradictions of “effluviographs” and the Shroud of Turin provide a concrete historical grounding for the most conceptually revelatory chapter of the volume: a critique of the dichotomy of visible and invisible realms, which has been central to recent investigations of “scientific” photography. Here, Geimer deftly points out that in order for a phenomenon even to count as invisible, it must in fact be not-yet-visible; without passing into a visible state, it would simply remain unknown. When photography creates the possibility for this visible state, it is conventionally said to be “constructing” the image that results. But, as Geimer convincingly argues, grasping these images requires a more agnostic account of construction (or, as he prefers to designate it, “making”). Such artifice cannot be understood solely as a deficit, for it fundamentally does provide knowledge, while the nonvisualized phenomenon, cloaked in its unknowable obscurity, offers nothing but the satisfaction of a useless epistemic purity. And, in any event, the adherence to any scrupulous non-intervention is folly, since there is no anterior original image to which the camera could be loyal. At least at the end of the nineteenth century, a questionable “something” was preferable to a secure “nothing,” a view consonant with the investigative spirit of many of the period’s practitioners.
Geimer’s grasp of this paradox is part of what distinguishes his study of accidental images from previous forays into this nebulous territory. As a result, Inadvertent Images offers crucial insight about the central epistemological problems of such a paradoxical visual medium. It provides an account of how photography was, and is, a contested terrain for the high-stakes questions of scientific realism. It responds with special nuance to fundamental, if familiar, queries: Can our theories, models, and representations tell us something—anything—about natural phenomena? Are photographs ever more than artifacts of their own contrived interventions into the natural world? With both historical specificity and a broad conceptual scope, Geimer poses these longstanding questions afresh, demanding that we reexamine some of our most fundamental premises.
Associate Professor, Department of the History of Art, University of Toronto