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 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.