Burning with Desire – The Conception of Photography

I bought this book, Geoffrey Batchen’s 1997 alternative take on the history of photography, based on a footnote in the EYV course notes which promised ‘a fascinating account of the origins of photography’. I eventually read it as part of my procrastination over assignment 2 of C&N.

The central part of the book is a post-modern take on what could be thought of as the pre-history of photography. Taking as his thesis the notion that Daguerre and Fox Talbot did not come up with the idea (of fixing the image of a camera obscura) from thin air, he looks back at philosophical thought and art in the 18th and early 19th centuries, to see the notions evolve. This is not something that started in one mind or one place; Batchen tracks down 24 people, who he dubs the ‘proto-photographers’, from eight countries, who expressed ‘the desire to photograph’ (although not in those words) before 1839. Beyond that, there is a cast of characters who have influenced or documented them.

The account is scholarly, picked-up in a lot of detail, well-referenced and difficult to summarise in review. Chapters 2, 3 and 4 carry the story and are worth reading. Chapters 1 and 5 are mainly postmodern theorist-speak and can be ignored if one is only after the history.

A final section, ‘Epitath’ (Batchen 1997: 204-216) echoes Delaroche’s ‘From today, painting is dead” with a prediction that digital imaging would be the death of photography as practiced for the previous 150 years. Like Mark Twain’s obituary, it was premature. While the popular use of film has fallen dramatically, it is enjoying a hipster revival. Of more concern is Batchen’s thesis that, with computer-generated imagery indistinguishable from in-camera digital imaging, photography would lose its privileged status as evidence of the real. With ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ very much to the fore at present, watch this space …

Reference

Batchen, G. (1997) Burning with Desire : The Conception of Photography. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

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