I haven’t owned a camera for 30 years and don’t yet have a smartphone. I’ve been writing about photography for 30 years, and when I was very young it shaped my sensibility in ways I’m still discovering, yet in my private life I don’t like relying on visual memory aids and feel that taking a picture isn’t a claim to my visual field but an estrangement from it. Looking isn’t just an intellectual or aesthetic activity for me. If I see a picture of my grandson or a lost love or a place loaded with import in my life, it’s an emotionally raw, subversive experience, but I long ago lost my appetite for acquiring such images of my own, on my own. My estrangement from the practice has deepened and complicated my feeling for the mystery of photographs, for the ways in which even family snapshots withhold at least as much as they reveal, or seem to reveal. A photo is often a story of attachments that expresses our neediness to bond in some way to every moment we inhabit. When I look at early photography, I’m looking at the genesis story of an exclusively modern compulsion and anxiety — it’s a new practice of consciousness being brought into focus.
In Great Britain, photography’s early years were momentous. In 1839, Henry Fox Talbot found a method of fixing an image by placing an object on chemically treated paper and exposing it to sunlight. He called the images photograms. Then he discovered a way of using a camera to create a negative from which multiple positives could be printed. That same year, in France, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre developed a way of imprinting an image of amazing exactitude on a silver-coated copper plate. Two years before these events, Queen Victoria was crowned, and so in a sense was photography, because the new monarch and Prince Albert, whom she married in 1851, became informed enthusiasts of the new way of representing the world. When she proposed to Albert, to set him at ease she chatted him up about daguerreotypes.
Victoria’s involvement in photography, and its interest in her and in the history of her time, is the subject of A Royal Passion: Queen Victoria and Photography, currently at the Getty Center. The royal couple were tireless collectors and sponsors: they immediately began to acquire images and during her reign amassed thousands of them. Like many others, they were interested in photography’s mechanics and artfulness. The Great Industrial Exposition of 1851 in the Crystal Palace spread its 700 photographs over two sections: one devoted to industrial arts, the other to fine arts. The variety was an early sign of photography’s tropisms. There was a celebrity shot of the popular actress Jenny Lind, images of Newhaven fisherfolk, and intimate hand-colored daguerreotypes. Within 20 years of its invention, photography would implement and record the world of fashion, public policy, and royal ceremony, and fields as disparate as medical science, law enforcement, and archaeology. A Royal Passion covers all that and more.
I had an odd moment in the exhibition’s first room: looking at several daguerreotypes in a glass case, I saw my head reflected on the blue-ish silvery plates, a fantastical skin laid on those departed presences, and also on the glass that housed them — multiples of me, layered into an act of viewing that fused past to present. When I broke the viewing axis, the daguerreotype images washed out (as laptop imagery does) but mine remained. They haunted me as I haunted them. Though the images are fixed, as I am fixed at this point in my life, I felt I was in a chamber of changes. So many early photos, because of long exposure times and the resultant smudged or scraped-down textures, look embryonic, coming into a form. The new art was also reminding us (and itself) that verisimilitude could be manipulated, constructed, transfigured.
Photography quickly put its signature on portraiture, which is literally and technically a matter of exposure. The subject displays himself or herself in normal attire or dress-up and assumes a pose that’s contrived or “natural,” though no posed portrait is natural: it’s mediated by complex expectations and desired results. Photos that Talbot made of his family depict sober affection for his subjects. As shutter speeds increased, so did candor: subjects became more aware of the improvised face of the self, shaped not for family and friends but for the camera eye. (The selfie is the most manic expression yet of photographic portraiture.) The exhibition includes many portraits of the royal family, of course, from august official occasions to playful group photos of Victoria and her large family. It also includes pictures of women in an insane asylum, a master sinker and his men at a colliery, and soldiers on the fields of Crimea. There are two stormy close-ups by Julia Margaret Cameron (Victoria’s favorite image-maker) of the Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle that possess the dour ferocity of Carlyle’s own writing style. They could be medical evidence of a mental disorder: divine unrest.
Victoria and Albert were themselves a kind of medium in which photographic culture flourished. They were ardent collectors and tireless album-makers. They supported the Photographic Society of London, founded in 1853. They documented nearly every aspect of their lives. Victoria, a woman given to privacies, allowed herself to become the first great public protagonist of photographic art. The images here document her coronation, marriage, years of rule, family life inside Windsor Castle — Talbot made stalwart images of the castle’s exterior — and the years of widowhood during which she virtually disappeared from public view but allowed herself to be photographed in mourning. There’s more than straight-up photography in A Royal Passion. A film clip tracks the passing of the queen’s funeral cortege. And there are a few of the 3-D stereoscopic viewers that so entertained Victorians. They’re uncanny: the deep space looks stretched, the indoors atmosphere looks troubled by iffy weather, and the mirror hanging in nearly all those interiors made me look for my own image there.
As photography has become, for some practitioners, a meditation on time and its passing, artists have returned to their origins and experimented with extremely long exposures. The Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, born in 1948, has created bodies of work that are visionary essays on duration, on the past-ness of the present. For one of his best-known series, Sugimoto set up his large-format camera at the rear of movie-houses and exposed the film for the entire duration of the movie. The dark cone of the seating area frames a bizarrely radiant blank screen. The images reduce cinematic flickers to an incandescent blank.
Before Daguerre devoted his energies to his revolutionary image-making process, he was a creator of dioramas, scenes (usually historical, allegorical, or picturesque) painted on linen that were illuminated and manipulated to create the illusion of passing time or changing weather. Sugimoto has made photographs of dioramas in natural-history museums. It and two other bodies of work make up Hiroshi Sugimoto: Past Tense, conveniently fastened to the Queen Victoria exhibition, as if to remind us that photography’s primal urges are still being heeded and scrutinized. In Sugimoto’s dioramas, a polar bear on an ice floe leans over a dead seal, as if in meditation; a manatee floats underwater, showered by sunlight sieving through the sea surface; two cheetahs on a savannah are arrested in a tensely poised awareness. The fantastic artistry of creating a diorama’s hyper-realistic visual fiction meets the appearance-creating artifice of Sugimoto’s camera: the result is a disconcerting super-reality that messes with our perception of what real life really is.
Sugimoto’s art converses with past time. One series streams straight out of A Royal Passion. While visiting the Getty Center in 2007, he photographed some of Talbot’s photogenic drawings. Making photographs of photographs is nothing new, but other practitioners usually exploit the occasion for arch postmodernist irony. (See Sherrie Levine’s 1979 replicas of Walker Evans’s pictures.) Sugimoto is beyond irony. His images squeeze from the past more of the past. While developing and enlarging Talbot’s pictures, Sugimoto tinted the prints so that the silvery marine blues and foggy copper tones make it seem that the artist is coaxing forth the art’s chemical-metallic origins. We see the crimps and rag weave of the writing paper that Talbot prepped before exposing them to the sun. The stark, skeletal ferns and botanicals look fossilized. Sugimoto intensifies the primal. He makes us see these images, all over again, as genesis icons. We feel we’re looking at first things.
A Royal Passion: Queen Victoria and Photography and Hiroshi Sugimoto: Past Tense are on view at the Getty Center, Los Angeles, until June 8. 1200 Getty Center Drive; 310-440-7300; getty.edu