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Likeness as Identity

The last few days I’ve been hanging out at Reeves Library on the campus of Moravian College, my alma mater, leafing through books on the history of photography.

Below is an excerpt from an essay entitled “Likeness as Identity: Reflections on the Daguerrean Mystique,” by Alan Trachtenberg, in the book THE PORTRAIT IN PHOTOGRAPHY, Edited by Graham Clark.

Now, when I first encountered these paragraphs I felt it was just a load of pseudo-intellectual gibberish. But after a third or fourth reading I have to admit it’s not altogether incoherent. The professor could have used plainer language, of course, but then his editors would likely have rejected it as too easy to understand. What’s the point of being a a high academic if you don’t make people think harder than they usually do?

The excerpt:

The daguerreotype speaks a language of its own that touches the common chords of life. The daguerreotype possesses the pictorial magic and historic power to fascinate the many as well as expert minds, for it conjures up to contemporary view and truthfully portrays forms and faces long passed away, things that are dead and lost to living eyes because it was, as [Henry] James would put it, 'the real right thing' in its own peculiar time.

Precisely because of its charm the daguerreotype provides a model occasion for a historicist methodology of empathy, a challenge to learn the 'language of its own' which once 'touched the common chords of life' of an earlier time. That language was and is verbal as much as visual, a discursive speech which familiarised the novelty of the visual image. We need to become native speakers in order to converse with the image on its own terms.

But the daguerreotype also exemplifies the danger of critical understanding thwarted at the site of empathy, arrested, we might say, in and by the discourse of mystique. Like all discourses the daguerrean mystique reproduces itself by unreflective repetition, and becomes a power in its own right, a way of seeing and defining that shapes experience and offers itself as understanding. But we can take the discourse itself as an historical object, an archaeological feature of material objects we cannot in the least understand outside the discursive envelope, and cannot understand entirely within it. We need, in short, a doubled perspective of belief and scepticism, to bring the daguerreotype to life for ourselves, not simply as magic, but as historical experience.

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you should really check out ernst junger's short essay "on pain". its about 17 pages. its beautifully written while also being accessible. while not all is devoted to image and aesthetics, it's extremely interesting and i was really reminded of it reading this. you gotta keep in mind that it was written pre-hilter post-ww1 while reading it.

OK, thanks, I'll look it up on my next trip to the stacks!


While doing research on Leila Hadley, I came across your name and subsequently an article you wrote entitled "Memoria Nera" and then this blog. Your writing and your accountability regarding Victoria Barlow have both touched me deeply. It is rare that I voice my thoughts online and I find myself almost apologetic for intruding on your blog, but here I am nonetheless.
Thank you for symbolizing to me a willingness and courage to speak truth when the benefit is for another person. You have my deepest admiration as a writer, but more importantly as an example of a human being endowed with a great strength of character.

Many thanks for your kind and generous words. To say that Leila Hadley had a tremendous impact on my life--as well as many, many others over the long years--would be an understatement.

As for your research on Leila, I'm wondering if you have uncovered anything regarding her being adopted. I ask because in August of last year I had lunch in New York with Jonathan Rabinowitz, owner of Turtle Point Press, who published Leila's JOURNEY WITH ELSA CLOUD. He said he got the adoption story from Gertrude Whitney Vanderbilt Conner when he visited her table at The Lotos Club.

I asked Caroline what she thought, and she said she doubted it.

Here's a link to my LJ account of the lunch.


Re: gratitude

I am sorry to say that my research only touches Leila Hadley tangentially, as she is not my focus - but only the friend of a friend (Gayle Gibbs Giesen, friend of Leila, being the friend of my person of interest). Since I am doing research for an author, I am hesitant to reveal more online.

I did read your account of the lunch with interest, however. These are the rabbit holes I keep going down in my quest for information. Wonderful and distracting rabbit holes! The lives of these characters (you included!)are fascinating and very far removed from my life in a small town in Texas.

If I come across any information that corresponds to the adoption question, I will be gladly pass it your way.

Many thanks, and good luck with your project!

PS regarding the photo

Interesting how the fatherin the daguerreotype appears more dead than the child.

Re: PS regarding the photo

Very spooky image, especially when you consider that subjects were required to pose, unmoving, for several minutes during the exposure!

Re: PS regarding the photo

I was about to say the very same thing.

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