Material Light

Touched by Light: Photography’s Return to Matter

Neil Matheson

Dr Neil Matheson is a Senior Lecturer in Theory and Criticism of Photography. He is an art historian with a particular interest in Surrealism and Dada, modernist and contemporary art. His books include The Sources of Surrealism, Lund Humphries, (2006). The Machine and the Ghost: Technology and Spiritualism in C19th-C21st Art, MUP – (2013). Gothic Surrealism Ashgate – (forthcoming 2015).

Now Light, where it exists, can exert an action, and, in certain circumstances, does exert one sufficient to cause changes in material bodies.
Fox Talbot (1)

Photography has experienced in recent years a remarkable revival of techniques, processes and technologies more associated with earlier periods of its history. Whether in the form of the resurrection of the daguerrotype, calotype, cyanotype or the collodion wet plate, or as with the return to more recently superceded emulsions such as roll film and Polaroid, the photograph has seen a marked return to its own past. In part this has been posed as a reaction against the triumph of the digital – against the virtual image and the ubiquitous cameraphone – where, led by artists such as Tacita Dean, we have seen a strong return in photography and film to analogue forms, particularly to analogue film emulsions threatened with extinction as companies such as Kodak and Polaroid closed down their factories. This, though, has been only one aspect of a broader cultural return to analogue technologies, whether in the form of the typewriter, audio tape, solid state amplifier, or vinyl record, as artists and musicians have turned away from the computer screen to seek out new possibilities for creativity in defunct and outmoded technologies. What we see in this is a revived concern with materiality – with the need of artists to manipulate physical materials, to experiment with chance effects and exploit mistakes. Our immersion within the virtual screen world has perhaps revived our desire for the experience of the physical and tactile – for the materiality of paper and other such physical supports, for the experience of performance art and live music.

It would be too easy to dismiss these developments in terms of a ‘nostalgia’ for disappearing forms left aside by technological advance – many artists in fact combine analogue and digital forms to create new ways of working and new hybrid media. Photography’s rapid technological advance in the early decades of its history saw a number of processes quickly abandoned before their full implications could be explored – in some cases before the medium had even realised its potential as an art form. The return to outmoded technologies, as with Walead Beshty’s spectacular return to the cyanotype, or the return to collodion of Sally Mann and others, can be seen as a desire to more fully investigate the artistic potential of such formats and to better realise the particular visual and tactile experiences that they promise. Instead of experiencing the image as a transparent ‘window on the world’, our gaze is instead made insistently aware of the material support of the image – a haptic gaze not confined to the purely optical, but which visually ‘feels’ the peeling skin of collodion, or the many other tactile experiences offered here. And a gaze inevitably transformed by the ubiquity of the screen, such that the second birth of these technologies is inevitably also inflected through our experience of the digital and our immersion in the virtual world.

The insistent materiality of the photograph was declared right at the inception of the medium, in the fake suicide note on the back of Hippolyte Bayard’s Self portrait as a Drowned Man (1840), making the extraordinary claim that the image was so real that the viewer might smell the rotting flesh. Walter Benjamin, writing of the early flowering of art photography in the pioneering work of photographers such as Julia Margaret Cameron, Hill and Adamson, and Nadar, writes that ‘the beholder feels an irresistible urge to search such a picture for the tiny spark of contingency, of the here and now, with which reality has (so to speak) seared the subject’(2). And Man Ray, writing of his own solarised photographs in his essay The Age of Light, likens them to ‘the undisturbed ashes of an object consumed by flames’.(3) We should also recall that Fox Talbot enthused that photography ‘appears to me to partake of the character of the marvellous’ – a term that would become a key concept for surrealism – adding that the image is ‘fettered by the spells of our natural magic’.(4) And in this we can see photography – a process that involves the mysterious transmutation of silver through the action of light – as a distant relative of alchemy.

The extraordinary range of processes and techniques deployed by artists in this exhibition makes clear the multiplicity of photography and the medium’s continued capacity for reinvention. And processes and techniques that are understood differently when revived, because they are now read through the subsequent history of art – particularly that of abstraction and conceptual art, both of which figure prominently here. Material Light, then, reveals to us a medium in the process of rediscovering its own identity – and a medium still exploring a potential that is yet to be fully realised.

1) William Henry Fox Talbot, A Brief Historical Sketch of the Invention of the Art, in Allan Trachtenberg (ed), Classic Essays on Photography, New Haven, Conn.: Leete’s Island Books, 1980, p.29.
2) Walter Benjamin, Little History of Photography (1931), in Benjamin, Selected Writings, Vol.2, Cambridge, MA and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999, p.510.
3) Man Ray, The Age of Light (1934), in Christopher Phillips (ed), Photography in the Modern Era, New York: MOMA/Aperture, 1989, p.53.
4) Henry Fox Talbot, Some account of the art of photogenic drawing (1839), in Beaumont Newhall (ed), Photography: Essays and Images, New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1980, p.25.