Before the Click
You have to consider we’re only made out of dust.
—Philip K. Dick1
Early cameras were wooden boxes, each with a small hole, eventually equipped with a lens. The lens had no shutter. There was no click, no moment captured. From the late 1830s into the mid 1850s, for whatever subject a camera operator chose—fossilized shells, a boulevard, a woodland canopy, a pile of apples—he focused the lens, removed its cap. And waited. Daylight carried the picture into the box and registered the image onto a chemically pretreated light-sensitive surface of metal, paper, or glass at the back of the box opposite the lens.
The phenomenon had been known for centuries, especially in sunny climates. Someone napping at midday would notice on the wall of his chamber an image of the world outside, having entered through some tiny opening, like a tear in a curtain. It was amazing. No one thought to fix that image and remove it from the box until the first decades of the 19th century, when people wanted pictures. Of everything, especially things too difficult or time-consuming to copy by hand, like Egyptian hieroglyphics, crumbling French cathedrals, ivy-covered stone, a porcelain tea set.
Camera operators weren’t photographers then, even though they were “light-writers.” They were painters of modest gifts, designers of public entertainments, linguists, country gentlemen, who in turning to the camera surpassed themselves. The best ones liked exploring that part of photography that wasn’t progressive, that didn’t seek commercially viable clarity or momentary slickness. They liked waiting. Time’s slow passage reshaped their subjects. Refusing to render the world with crystal clarity, they looked to the beauty of blurs. Slow and blurry spelled failure to the scientists. But progress doesn’t always move in a straight line. Artists loved playing with what seemed scientifically backward. Their resistance hasn’t been given the attention it deserves and still remains largely unknown.2
It started early. By the 1830s, when Daguerre pointed his camera toward a row of fossilized shells, he recorded the shape of slow time in the very structure of his subjects. When, in 1838, he pointed his camera out of his studio window in Paris to record daily life on the boulevard du Temple he knew as he uncapped the lens that his plate wasn’t sensitive enough to freeze horse-drawn trams and carriages, the swaying crinolines of shoppers, or juggling street performers. His daguerreotype renders the busy street empty.3
During the long exposure, the plate in the camera registered everything, no matter how transient, and rendered the accumulated movement as a poignant grey boulevard blur.
The hero of the image is a single, stationary man, because he was having his boots blacked. But there is another way to think about the image as a document. It carries time’s passage in the soft grey of what it doesn’t articulate. We sense the remnants of place, moments long gone, encapsulated in the bitter-sweet blur of slow time.
Gustave Le Gray, a painter from the late 1840s through the mid 1850s, used paper negatives (called calotypes) in his cameras. Paper fibers soaked with chemicals were also slow recorders. Le Gray, built like a jockey, dragged big wooden cameras into the Forest of Fontainebleau. Nothing was harder to photograph than the chaos of light and shade on green leaves. The canopy required exposure times that sometimes lasted twenty minutes. What could happen in a tourists’ mecca like Fontainebleau during twenty minutes is anyone’s guess.4
Le Gray didn’t waste time. He stationed several cameras in the woods at once. On each he hung a stop watch. After removing the lens caps, he recorded the exposure times by consulting the watches, like a doctor on rounds checking the pulses of his patients.
Le Gray’s forest scenes are beautiful because they breathe. Clear enough, blurred enough to render not a place but an experience of gently respiring, dappled light, Le Gray’s chemically treated paper negatives swallow movement and render it atmosphere. We don’t know what passed before the lens in twenty minutes. Maybe the slow passage of a herd of deer, maybe the shadows of a trysting couple.
When Henri Le Secq, another painter, photographed still lifes with paper negatives in the 1850s, he recorded the same gentle transformations that paper’s long exposures gave to a subject.5 He went further. His apples are old, wrinkled by time in a root cellar. He joined his slow process to his slowly expiring subject. Why did the first photographers court this side of their art? They were poets who meditated on change. They photographed for safe-keeping. They also realized that everything alive, man-made or not, follows an arc of slow time that turns the world to dust.
- Notes From Dick’s Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, quoted in “Introduction,” Philip K. Dick, The Last Interview and Other Conversations, edited and with an introduction by David Streitfeld, Brooklyn, Melville House, 2015, p. xix.
- See André Jammes and Eugenia Parry [Janis], The Art of French Calotype, With a Critical Dictionary of Photographers 1845-1870, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1983, passim, the first attempt to explore early paper-negative photographers’artistic regard for the limitations of their medium and joins these photographers to a way of seeing, not simply the practice of a technique.
- See Parry “The Bug in Amber and the Dance of Life,” in Vanishing Presence, Foreword by Martin Friedman, essays by Eugenia Parry [Janis], Max Kozloff, Adam D. Weinberg, Minneapolis, Walker Art Center, 1989, pp.8-29.
- For Le Gray’s work at Fontainebleau, seeThe Art of French Calotype, and Parry,The Photography of Gustave Le Gray, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1987.
- See Parry, ”L’Art d’un Collectioneur: Henri Le Secq Photographe,” in Henri Le Secq Photographe 1850 à 1860, catalogue raisonné, by Eugenia Parry [Janis] and Josiane Sartre of the collection of Le Secq photographs in the Bibliothèque des Arts Décoratifs, Paris, Paris, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, 1986.