Lincoln's Smile and Other Enigmas

Alan Trachtenberg

Hill and Wang

Lincoln's Smile and Other Enigmas
American Responses to the Daguerreotype, 1839-51
First published in The Daguerreotype: A Sesquicentennial Celebration, edited by John Wood (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1989), pp. 60-71.
IN the salon of a Broadway hotel on December 4, 1839, the first French daguerreotypes made their initial New World appearance. In the preceding months American examples of the fledgling art of picturing had already been seen in New York shop windows, but here were specimens from the hand of the inventor and master himself, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, offered to the public by his ingratiating agent François Gouraud. With impeccable credentials as "friend and pupil of Mr. Daguerre," Gouraud announced his "charge of introducing to the New World the perfect knowledge of the marvelous process of drawing, which fame has already made known to you under the name of 'The Daguerreotype.'" Already known by name, the curious objects with their flickering images of Parisian boulevards and monuments nevertheless challenged the credulity of the select audience. Seeking an appropriate language to describe "their exquisite perfection [that] transcends the bounds of sober belief," Lewis Gaylord Clark, patrician editor of The Knickerbocker, struck upon a perfect solution from the apparatus of everyday life--a looking glass:
Let us endeavor to convey to the reader an impression of their character. Let him suppose himself standing in the middle of Broadway, with a looking-glass held perpendicular in his hand, in which is reflected the street, with all that therein is, for two or three miles, taking in the haziest distance. Then let him take the glass into the house, and find the impression of the entire view, in the softest light and shade, visibly retained upon its surface. This is the Daguerreotype! ... There is not an object even the most minute embraced in that wide scope, which was not in the original; and it is impossible that one should have been omitted. Think of that!
Like Plato's whirling mirror, Clark's panorama of Broadway beguiles the mind with flashing images of the real. Of course, Plato's conundrum of appearance and reality, in which the mirror induces a kind of inebriation in the deceptive pleasure of mere illusion, is hardly the case here; Clark's mirror stands simply and unambiguously for exactitude, and the author's quite anti-Platonic awe at imitation itself: "Think of that!"
Exuberant awe and fascination prevailed at the inauguration of photography in America, as it did everywhere in Europe. Here was proof again, like lithography, the steam engine, the railroad, of an age of "progress," of enlightened reason prevailing over dark superstition, and science over magic. But the chorus of celebration was not without its discordant notes. The very wonder excited by first sight of the new objects occasionally harbored a more reserved, disbelieving response, such as we hear from Philip Hone, another visitor to Gouraud's exhibition, who included among his words of praise in his diary this flickering hint of uncertainty: "One may almost be excused for disbelieving it without seeing the very process by which it is created. It appears to me a confusion of the very elements of nature." This note of discomfort, quickly muffled in Hone's hymn of celebration, finds an answering echo in the reaction of Phoebe in Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables (1851): "I don't much like pictures of that sort,--they are so hard and stern; besides dodging away from the eye, and trying to escape altogether." Phoebe's unease invokes a little-regarded moment in the early career of photography in America, a moment of shudder, suspicion, and refusal. "I don't wish to see it any more," she cries. Tobe sure, most Americans proved eager enough not only to see but to possess a specimen of the new art, and a thriving trade in daguerrean images developed rapidly. Photography fit so neatly the rhetoric of the "technological sublime" common in the age of steam in America, how are we to understand the few but insinuating signs of a countervailing response?
For the cultural historian such rifts within the linguistic environment of a technological innovation provide telling signs of an uneven process of change. In regard to photography, the process of acclimatization was neither as spontaneous nor as unequivocal as is often assumed. The compacted overlay of implication within the language of response can help us reconstruct and understand a climate of mind within which photography achieved its initial cultural identity in America. Language in its figurative uses especially--images, allusions, metaphors--preserves nuances of meaning that can be read as indices to the cultural effects of historical change. The figures by which people represent new phenomena to themselves and each other is especially valuable to the historian, for by such language the new is brought into relation with the old and the familiar--in Emerson's words, is perceived "to be only a new version of our familiar experience." By familiarizing new objects, tropes such as Clark's mirror on Broadway serve as more than descriptive terms; they signify an entire process of ingesting new experiences, making a place for them within existing systems of thought and feeling, and in the process modifying old structures in ways only a sensitive attention to language can reveal. Particularly apt and promising for close attention, then, is the metaphor of the photograph as mirror, especially as Clark imagines it: a mirror in the New World marketplace of Broadway.
"Talk no more of 'holding the mirror up to nature'--she will hold it up to herself, and present you with a copy of her countenance for a penny." Thus exclaimed N. P. Willis in the Corsair, April 13, 1839, the first published news of photography in the American press. He had notset eyes on an actual specimen, had only read William Henry Fox Talbot's account of his experiments in the English Literary Gazette (February 2, 1839), but instantly imagined the medium as a kind of mirror press by which nature imprints itself as a cheap picture. Seizing the Englishman's remark that the invention would abridge "the labor of the artist in copying natural objects," and that "by means of this contrivance, it is not the artist who makes the picture, but the picture which makes itself," Willis calls up a scene of panic among displaced craftsmen: "Steel engravers, copper engravers, and etchers, drink up your aquafortis, and die! There is an end of your black art--'Othello's occupation gone.' The real black art of true magic arises and cries avaunt ... . The Daguerreoscope1 and the Photogenic revolutions are to keep you all down, ye painters, engravers, and, alas! the harmless race, the sketchers."
The cleverness of the conceit was not entirely a joking matter. New York in the winter and spring of 1839 still felt the worst effects of the catastrophic Panic of 1837: financial collapse, ruinous defaults and bankruptcies, uncontrollable deflation, and an economic slowdown of an order never before experienced in the United States. Over the next ten years, virtually until the discovery of California gold in 1849, the city remained gripped by unemployment, rising pauperism and homelessness, sporadic riots, and an increase in violent crime. In light of what one writer in 1843 called "these Jeremiad times," in which "only the beggars and the takers of likenesses by daguerreotype" can survive, Willis's "real black art" reveals a distinct social meaning.
Among the early writers on the new medium, mostly gentlemen scientists and artists like Samuel F. B. Morse, Willis is virtually alone in imaging the situation from the point of view of practicing draftsmen, engravers, and printers. The depressed condition in fact created a favorable climate for the commercial development of portrait daguerreotypy. To set up on one's own required only a minor outlay of capital and small expenses, and thus photography could take up some of the slack among unemployed craftsmen. Not that he himself refersexplicitly to the hard times visible on the streets of New York, but his imaginary scene of discarded craftsmen, their "occupation gone," serves as a sharp reminder that photography appeared in America in the midst of the first modern depression and mass unemployment, the first signal of an unstable economic system keyed to the mysterious vagaries of capital, of money. It seemed to many at the time that blame for the depression lay at the hands of private banks and their issuance of paper money not backed by specie, a practice that encouraged unrestrained speculation. While this is difficult to prove, it is not improbable that loss of the authority of printed money and the consequent widespread perception of instability in society's basic token of exchange affected the reception of photography, a new technique that itself threatened, as Willis foresaw, to destabilize the entire craft of picture making and, not least, to deflate another kind of standard currency: the representational value of handcrafted pictures.
Willis imagines further ambiguities and encroachments in the realm of daily life.
What would you say to looking in a mirror and having the image fastened!! As one looks sometimes, it is really quite frightful to think of it; but such a thing is possible--nay, it is probable--no, it is certain. What will become of the poor thieves, when they shall see handed in as evidence against them their own portraits, taken by the room in which they stole, and in the very act of stealing! What wonderful discoveries is this wonderful discovery destined to discover! The telescope is rather an unfair tell-tale; but now every thing and every body may have to encounter his double every where, most inconveniently, and every one become his own caricaturist.
Beneath the witticism lies a vein of serious contemporary worry, the telling linkage of anxiety over losing one's "image" by stealth and one's property by theft. The doubled fear results in a paradoxical predicament: what the magic mirror seems to offer on one hand--security of possessions through an invisible system of surveillance--it removes on the other--the security of self-possession, the danger of appearing inpublic as a caricature of oneself. Owners and thieves stand equally naked, undefended, against the scrutiny of a newly ubiquitous social eye, a gaze belonging to an invisible body; the implacable mirror is simply immanent, part of the room. Thus the inconvenient "double" is itself doubled, representing two apparently distinct but distinctly connected objects of anxiety: personal goods and public "image." Are owner and thief, then, two sides of the same self? Willis seems to grasp, at least in the unconscious vibrations of his language, that he stands at the threshold of a major turn in culture, toward a condition in which mechanically reproduced self-images will emerge as a new form of marketable, and thus vulnerable, personal property.
This is not to claim any special prescience in Willis but to identify implicit concerns and fears betrayed by the linguistic resources that lay ready at hand to a Broadway writer in 1839. In the following years numerous writers will include, in their list of "applications" of photography, protection against crime both by direct surveillance (anticipating the autoptic functions of the camera) and by physiognomic identification of criminality, or revelation of "character" through "image." Willis's fantasy of self-indicting thieves in the night, slight as it is, can be seen as answering to the sort of tense nervousness in middle-class New York we detect by noticing what lies on either side of Philip Hone's diary entry about his visit to the Gouraud exhibition. His glowing account of the French daguerreotypes appears between two entries of disturbing acts of violence. The first tells of drunken street brawls and stabbings, "some even in Broadway," signs that "the city is infested by gangs of hardened wretches, born in the haunts of infamy"; the second, of "a most outrageous revolt" of tenants near Albany, "of a piece with the vile disorganizing spirit which overspreads the land like a cloud." The social turmoil within which photography appeared in America, and the perceptions of crisis among the earliest elite patrons of the new medium, could hardly be made more graphic than this location within the private discourse of his diary of Hone's appreciation of "one of the wonders of modern times."
Even more graphic and dire are scenes depicted in a slim novel by Augustine Joseph Hockey Duganne, published in Philadelphia in 1846 by G. B. Zieber, suggestively titled The Daguerreotype Miniature; or, Life inthe Empire City. The earliest appearance of photography in American fiction, this otherwise unremarkable pulp fiction puts into dramatic motion many of the covert concerns and perceptions dashed off in Willis's brief essay. By plot and theme the story belongs to the genre of "city mystery" popularized in the 1840s by the labor radical George Lippard. A country lad appears on Broadway and falls into the clutches of two confidence men who scheme against his life as well as the inheritance of which he himself is ignorant. While their elaborate plans proceed, the innocent hero wanders among the "gorgeous" shop window displays of Broadway and falls in love with a daguerreotype portrait he sees in the window of the "Plumbe National Daguerrian Gallery" at Broadway and Murray streets (an actual place; indeed Duganne dedicates the book to "Professor Plumbe"), recognizing it as the very image of the beautiful young lady he had glimpsed his first day on Broadway, when he risked his life to stop the runaway horses of her carriage. He procures a copy of the daguerreotype in exchange for allowing Plumbe to take his own likeness and wears it in his bosom as an amulet; indeed it proves its magical powers in the end by deflecting a knife blade aimed at his heart by one of the villainous crew and leads him to marriage with the appreciative young heiress.
But the plot alone provides only a fraction of the interest of the tale. Life in the Empire City, which takes place chiefly on Broadway, appears as a never-ceasing drama of eyes, of watching, observing, gazing. The plot itself centers on acts of deception, of false identity, disguise, and betrayal; its villains are gamblers, speculators, conniving lawyers--a predictable Jacksonian cast of enemies of republican virtue. Duganne opens the narrative upon the "river of life" of Broadway, in which the crowds go about their business mindless of a certain set of "men with cunning eyes ... watchful and observing, glancing at each and all." They are all "robbers," though "some were called merchants, bankers, brokers, aldermen, judges, lawyers, and gentlemen--others were designated as speculators, sportsmen, bloods, and beggars." What they have in common is a certain kind of eye, "in the expression of which were cunning, and uncharitableness, and cruelty, and deceit." The text overflows with terms of seeing: "survey," "glance," "gaze," "observe," "view," "detect," "penetrate," "look," "behold," "inspect,""stare," "scrutinize," "appear," and "disappear." Moreover, a number of reflective surfaces--the large plate windows of a saloon, the waters on the bay, the gloss and glitter of the arch-confidence man's sartorial splendor, and not least, the eyes in which the united lovers at the end "beheld ... the light of first love"--provide a mise-en-scène of glinting mirror effects. A paradoxical place of heightened visibility and counterfeit appearances, Duganne's Broadway resembles a hall of mirrors, where selves encounter each other as images, as doubles, and "robbers" disguised as respectable men of business lie spying on unaware victims.
And in the midst of Broadway, at the still center of this swirling spectacle, Duganne inserts a picture gallery. The very site of both image making and exhibition, it is a place above the street where "ladies and their attendant gentlemen" "promenaded the floor, or paused admiringly beneath some elegant frame." Duganne's description of the actual Plumbe gallery corresponds strikingly with a newspaper account by Walt Whitman in the Brooklyn Eagle in the same year: "The crowds continually coming and going--the fashionable belle, the many distinguished men ... . What a spectacle! In whatever direction you turn your peering gaze, you see naught but human faces! There they stretch, from floor to ceiling--hundreds of them. Ah! what tales might those pictures tell if their mute lips had the power of speech!"
The pictures, mainly of the famed and celebrated, engage Whitman in speechless conversation, their silence together with their vividness "creating the impression of an immense Phantom concourse--speechless and motionless, but yet realities. You are indeed in a new world--a peopled world, though mute as the grave." A "new world" of images conveying a new order of reality: Whitman thus discovers in Plumbe's gallery of daguerreotype portraits unsuspected powers in the eyesight alone. The eye, he writes, "has a sort of magnetism ... . An electrical chain seems to vibrate, as it were, between our brains and him or her preserved there so well ... . Time, space, both are annihilated, and we identify the semblance with the reality."
Duganne evokes a similar mystic sense of the gallery as a new kind of electrical power which "chain[s] the attention of the passer-by." Its function in the tale, moreover, is not merely to embellish the story witha contemporary reference or to provide the deus ex machina to resolve the plot--the physical daguerreotype that saves the hero's life. More than this, the gallery holds the key to the symbolic action of the melodrama, for it holds up a mirror of truth in the place of deception. It provides images that counteract those of the street: portraits of "statesmen, the renowned soldiers, the distinguished literateurs [sic] of the country, [who] looked down, life-like, from their frames." With its irresistibly compelling pictures of presidents, governors, poets, and preachers, "Lecturers, Lions, Ladies and Learned Men," the gallery was "a perfect study of character." In a world of rogues and false seemers, the gallery above yet within Broadway offers itself as a paragon of character, a mirror of what ought to be as perceived in the faithful representation of the best that is--what a few years later, following Plumbe's lead, Mathew Brady will call his "Gallery of Illustrious Americans." Just as the hero assures his own salvation by fixing "indelibly within my bosom" the "image" of his love, so citizens can save themselves and their city by gazing on these still, magical images. Thus the "daguerreotype miniature" represents more than an incident and a device of plot but a pedagogy, a kind of "mirror of magistrates," to "the life of the empire city."
Duganne's fiction alludes to a cultural program for photography already established in public discourse by 1846. The photograph represents a different kind of image from that which catches the eye in the crowded flux of the street, and in its difference lies a hope for control, for a moral pedagogy from above: a teaching by images of the virtues missing on city streets and in shops and halls of public office. In the same year an article in the Christian Watchman spoke of daguerreotypes as "indices of human character," providing "so many exponential signs of disposition, desire, character," and thus accomplishing "a great revolution in the morals" of portraiture. Unlike a hand-drawn or painted portrait, most likely designed to flatter, the daguerreotype offers a genuine mediation of a living presence, thus making it possible for the moral leadership of the society to make itself felt as immediate experience. In a world where money transactions prevail, where the marketplace and competitive individualism encourage a traffic in false images, the emerging discourse implied, the daguerreotype portrait offers anespecially potent corrective. For it too belongs to the market; it competes as image with image, as true image driving out false. The quasimagical mirror of the daguerreotype miniature seemed to offer, then, an amulet against the menace hidden within the Broadway spectacle, the threat of counterfeit transactions at the market center of the Empire City.
Within the overt appropriation of the mirror image as an emblem of security, a paragon of character, a pedagogy of republican virtue lay less hopeful, more murky implications in the new technology of picturing. Variants of the mirror image--from exactitude to enchantment, from accuracy to necromancy--disclose a fascination that cannot be explained by reference to rational political motive alone. Like Willis's "the real black art of true magic arises and cries avaunt," Phoebe's turning away from the shadowy image as if it possessed a will or spirit of its own revives ancient taboos against graven images and likenesses, against icons, simulacra, imitations--any reproduction of the world's appearances. It may be that reproduction as such excites subliminal unease, as Jean Baudrillard writes in Simulations, for "it makes something fundamental vacillate." A closer look at uses of the mirror metaphor offers some clues to its staying power.
The trope seems to have, for example, a basis in physical fact. As an object the daguerreotype indeed resembles a looking glass, the image floating on the surface of a silver-plated copper sheet burnished to a bright mirror effect. By a mere shift of optical focus from the image to the ground upon which the image appears, beholders have a personal hand mirror, their own mutable reflections mingling with the primary image. The result is a doubling of image upon image: the beholder's fluxional image superimposed upon the fixed daguerrean image, most commonly a portrait of someone known to the viewer. The effect is apparitional: at the merest tilt of the plate the photographic image flickers away, fades into a shadowed negative of itself entangled in the living image of the beholder. The primary image comes to seemevanescent, suspended in a depthless medium. Moreover, as in actual mirrors the daguerrean portrait appears reversed right to left, thus allowing the sitter viewing his own finished image the curious experience of catching sight of himself in the past, as if in a mirror-once-removed, coexisting with one's present and immediate mirror image.
But by themselves literal associations only partially explain the pervasiveness and power of the mirror metaphor. In its semantic depths lay resources answerable to needs less articulate than those of physical description, or of the cultural needs to which the emulatory theory of the daguerrean portrait responds. By tradition a paradoxical symbol both of the mind's encyclopedic capacity to depict the sensible world (Plato's whirling mirror) and of the mind's severe and fatal confinement to its own self-image (the Narcissus myth), the looking-glass image was at the same time a folklore motif of wizardry, black magic, occult divination, forbidden encounters with the dead or absent, and it projected alternative, elusive, and contradictory interpretations upon the new mode of picturing by light. Standing at once for truth and deception, the trope of photograph-as-mirror returned to its users their own confusions and incomprehension, a modern version of old suspicions aroused by images and icons. No matter how well intentioned as a term of praise, "mirror" transfers to the photograph the duplicity traditionally suspected of pictures and picture makers.
Of course, no more need be made of such figures than to take them as a sign of linguistic resourcefulness before the unfamiliar. But their persistence into the first decade and beyond of American photography, particularly in popular fiction and verse, suggests something more complex and revealing: oblique or unconscious recognitions of an uncanny and possibly disruptive power in the new medium of mechanical reproduction. In popular fiction of the 1840s and 1850s, daguerreotype likenesses appear not only as amulets but also as objects of unique obsession, as if they were living presences. In sentimental and celebratory verse they are indeed living spirits, animated shadows, or souls of the dead. Most often they appear in Gothic settings of preternatural fantasy, wrapped in the same cloth of motifs and imagery examined by Otto Rank in his study of the "doppelgänger" and by Freud in "The Uncanny."
Like Freud's "uncanny," which arises out of a relation between the familiar and the unfamiliar, the heimlich and the unheimlich, animistic descriptions of the photograph often arise in an "enlightened," even scientific and technical, discourse in which the invention of photography represents a major event in the progressive liberation of mankind from superstition, magic, and mental tyranny. Animism may seem a minor note within the rhetoric of "progress" that greeted photography, but its effect is acute. The coexistence of discourses suggests that the process of assimilation of photography within the broader culture shaped itself as a dialectic between familiarizing and defamiliarizing languages, between images of science and images of magic. Writers employed the rhetoric of enlightenment to make a home for the new medium and its unfamiliar images within a familiar ideology, just as practitioners tried by a steady current of "improvements" to make the image seem familiar as "fine art." At the same time, and often in the very same pages of journals, other writings reveled in uncanny sensations that, as Freud observed, arise when something novel comes to seem already known, "once very familiar." It is the meeting again, unexpectedly, of "something familiar and old-established in the mind that has been estranged only by the process of repression."
One of Freud's major examples is the recurrence of an emotion associated with "the old, animistic conception of the universe," which supposed that "the world was peopled with spirits of human beings." Thus animistic tropes in written accounts of photography can be taken as a return, at the site of an image, of guilty, repressed beliefs in the old animistic universe expelled by Christianity, reason, and science. Uncanny sensations such as Phoebe experiences would thus represent the unconscious recurrence, charged with guilt, of the long-repressed belief and feeling that likenesses--shadows as well as reflections in mirror surfaces--are detached portions of living creatures, their soul or spirit. Freud's insight into the way the psyche allows itself the pleasurable terrors of the uncanny in order to reinforce its defensive repressions helps us to better understand the function of figures of black magic as reinforcement of the authority of "reason." It suggests that the progressivist view of the origin and development of photography allowed space for "irrational" figurations as a way of reinforcing itself, confirmingits own authority to speak for the future of the medium, especially its application to the fine-art genre of portraiture.
The social history of the medium supports this supposition. While commercial practitioners in the early 1840s were often transient entrepreneurs and itinerants, photographic communities began to consolidate in the major cities, and by the beginning of the 1850s a distinct "profession" emerged, complete with national journals, associations, competitions, and awards. A key element in this process was a differentiation between the "mechanics" (including the practical science) and the "art" (including the theoretical science) of photography, as well as between "cheap" and "artistic" pictures.2 The early journals took as their major cause the need for theoretically knowledgeable and artistically cultivated practice as the prerequisite for professional status. The mix of articles of history, science, and art, chronicling the history of research leading to photography and combining theoretical discussion of the nature of light and optics with arguments for the fine-art possibilities within the medium, conveys the ambition for the public acceptance of commercial photography as a serious and not merely a marketplace endeavor.
Henry Snelling, founder and editor of the Photographic Art Journal, titled his lead editorial in the first issue, January 1851, "The Art of Photography":
At the present day it [photography] is viewed, too much, in the light of a mere mechanical occupation to arrive at any highdegree of excellence. In too many instances men enter into it because they can get nothing else to do; without the least appreciation of its merits as an art of exquisite refinement, without the taste to guide them, and without the love and ambition to study more than its practical application, neglecting the sciences intimately connected with it, and leaving entirely out of the question those of drawing, painting, and sculpture, sister arts, a knowledge of which must tend to elevate the taste and direct the operator into the more classical and elegant walks of his profession.
The initial step in the walk toward "profession" is clearly to promulgate standards of excellence. Too many practitioners lack essential qualifications of theory and sensibility. The scene surveyed by Snelling has its beginnings in the economic depression of the late 1830s and 1840s, when to set up as a daguerreotypist seemed relatively free of risk, requiring minimum capital and mechanical skills. While what Snelling most deplores is ignorance of the finer points of the craft and crass commercial motives, he also wants to dispel an aura of quackery and the hint of sorcery clinging to the medium. Robert Taft notes that the earliest photographers, often local blacksmiths, cobblers, dentists, and watchmakers with an eye to expanding their income, "made their work appear mysterious, especially those in smaller towns: that is, they imposed themselves as magicians," a deception made credible by the darkened closet into which the daguerreotypist slipped to prepare and develop his mysterious plates.
In the 1840s the popular press had made much of the perils of having a daguerrean likeness taken, a running comedy in which the humor cuts both ways, toward the primitive devices of the medium and toward the wounded vanity of a public increasingly aware (and the new medium fostered this to an incalculable extent) of "image," of social self-presentation. Shadows were a particular blight. "'Can't you take me a likeness without these dark places?' asks a lady who sees, with surprise, a dirty mark under her nose, around her eyes, under her chin, or on the side of her cheek. 'There is nothing like this on my face.'" T. S. Arthur, who recounts this misreading of the image in a humorous essayin 1849 in Godey's Lady's Book, also tells of a farmer so frightened by the photographer's preparations that he "dashed down stairs as if a legion of evil spirits were after him," and of sitters who suffer the "illusion that the instrument exercises a kind of magnetic attraction, and many good ladies actually feel their eyes 'drawn' toward the lens while the operation is in progress!"
Thus tremors of apprehension, of the "uncanny," survive the humor, a strong enough hint for us to venture that by knowledge of science and art Snelling meant precisely the skills to produce an image so true to conventions of flattering portraiture as to be free of disturbing traces of the unfamiliar, the unheimlich. The onus for producing a "true" picture lies with the photographer, his sensibility, his cultivation. The alternative would be surrender to the mechanical apparatus, to the camera as automaton--another image, mirrorlike, steeped in the "uncanny." The lesson of those early grim images in which sitters cannot recognize themselves as they imagine themselves to be is that "no one can be a successful Daguerreotypist unless he is an artist, as well as a manipulator."
Snelling argues obsessively in the early years of the journal that professional status for commercial photographers requires that they take their lead from the fine arts, which themselves in just these years developed distinct institutions, schools, art unions and associations. Everything depended on how the photographer saw himself: artist or mere technician, creator or mere manipulator. Snelling supports his defense of photography as a potential fine art by drawing on the rhetoric of progress and enlightenment that ruled public discourse in America. He enlists photography in the master plot of "progress": the struggle between light and darkness, science and the black arts, reason and barbarism. "The faculty of language," he writes, voicing the commonplace middle-class ideology, "has gradually worked a most wonderful change in the relations between man and all other created things," letting loose "a flood of intellectual light" that washes away "old established opinions and theories" and establishes "others more truthful, more natural, and more intrinsically valuable." A key event is the defeat of superstition: "those things which once appeared ... marvellous are no longer so, but the mere effects of natural causes." Thusthe "progress of knowledge" leads "from the barbarism of former ages to the present civilized state." And from the same civilizing process behind the Copernican revolution and the discovery of the invariable laws of physics, "the photographic art was brought to light." "At once the cynosure of all observers" for the "beauty of its conception, and the importance to which it must ultimately arrive in the world of art," the universal enthusiasm at its birth gave rise "to a class of artists who must one day become as famous as the great masters of painting." Guided by art, photography will inevitably advance toward the goal of the perfectly realized resemblance, as it has already progressed from the "mere half distinct development of the daguerreotype plate" to "the full drawn, bold and clear impressions" of recent improved processes. Thus, as Snelling wrote in the opening number of the journal in 1851, in the not far distant future "our best Daguerreotypists will wonder how they could, for so long a time, be content with the specimens of their art they now put forth, as much as they do at this day at the shadows of six and eight years ago."
To illuminate the shadows, to dispel the aura of sorcery and deception, to exorcise demons still haunting the medium: these motives Snelling shared with the photographic community emerging in the 1850s. Yet, like ghosts and blurs and other inexplicable appearances that frequently marred the most carefully executed of pictures, those demons refused to disperse; they continued to assert themselves in the very diction representing the medium in popular expressions. The term "shadows" may, for example, represent the primitive state of "half indistinct" images, but in the common coin of daguerrean lingo other meanings survived. "Take the shadow ere the substance fade," the popular slogan of daguerreotypists, calls up the notion of shadow as soul, as animate extension, double, and immortal part of self. Of course, such figures of speech had long lost original force, diluted of any distinct supernaturalism. But is it only fanciful to suggest that just as, according to Freud, experiences of the uncanny in tales suchas E. T. A. Hoffmann's "The Sandman" represent a recurrence of repressed psychic anxiety (chiefly about castration), so the reappearance within the public discourse of photography of a diction of shadows and shades, spirit lands, mirrored doubles, represents the return of a barely repressed animism comparable to (surely a sign of the same development) the eruption of Gothicism at the height of the age of "enlightenment," "reason," and "revolution"? That in the daguerrean period photography rejuvenated a debased diction of light and shadow, reinvested it with new anxieties provoked by mechanical images of automatic reproduction, the evocation of the visible from the invisible, but just as surely in response to rapidly changing social relations, the displacement of an older system of propertied wealth and deference by an urban market economy of money and its deceptions?
No matter how conventional and formulaic, how drained of literal belief, magical and animistic figures of speech signify strains, tensions, and fears within the culture. Why, for instance, so widespread an association between daguerreotypes and death? Providing a lasting image of departed "loved ones" was among the very first possibilities imagined for the medium. "Take the shadow ere the substance fade": the very taking of a likeness, fixing a transient appearance of flesh as an image, evoked death, cessation, ultimate fixity.
Here is a genial, smiling, energetic face, full of sunny strength, intelligence, integrity, good humor; but it lies imprisoned in baleful shades, as of the Valley of Death; seems smiling on me as if in mockery. Doesn't know me, friend? I am dead, thou seeist, and distant, and forever hidden from thee; I belong already to the Eternities, and thou recognizest me not! On the whole it is the strangest feeling that I have ... .
Thus Thomas Carlyle writes to Ralph Waldo Emerson about a daguerreotype likeness of his American friend, and goes on to request that "you get us by the earliest opportunity some living pictorial sketch, chalk-drawing or the like, from a trustworthy hand." A poem by Mrs. G. H. Putnam published by Snelling in 1851, "On Seeing a DaguerreotypePortrait," more literally associates death with the unique look of the daguerrean image:
What means this vain, incessant strife, To hide thyself in fitful gleams--Now standing like a thing of life? Then fading like a poet's dreams.
The flickering that disturbs Carlyle becomes an emblem of the passage between "thing of life" and "dreams," between life and death. The poem goes on to say that the daguerreotype's "visioned form" is like "a fiction," or a trace that "memory leaves / Upon the tablets of the mind," or the "flitting of a thought" that rises from "secret depths" and is quickly "vanished" by "reason sage." It is precisely this tendency toward unfixing itself in the mind, seeming familiar and unfamiliar at once, that gives the image its uncanny power to evoke death. Thus its "semblance" is "airy," "it speaks of forms in spirit land," of "that better state, / Where sin and sorrow never come," and promises that "those we love / ... Shall wear those well known forms above."
The easy absorption of daguerreotypes into sentimental thanatoptic diction may say more about sentimentalism than about the medium, but it tells of a cultural association of photography with death that we cannot discount as mere convention. In addition to sublimating natural fear of death, consolatory verses appearing in the early photographic journals in the 1850s address more public concerns, at a time of economic recovery but increased agitation over slavery, about the death of leaders and heroes, the "fathers" of the republic. Caleb Lyon's "Stanzas, Suggested by a Visit to Brady's Portrait Gallery" invokes the "soul-lit shadows now around," the pictures of "illustrious Americans" Brady and other leading photographers exhibited like charms on their gallery walls: "They who armies nobly led, / They who make a nation's glory / While they're living--when they're dead, / Landmarks for our country's future." After reciting the names of Brady's pantheon--Taylor, Jackson, Frémont, Houston, Webster, Clay, Audubon, Bryant--the poet concludes:
Like a spirit land of shadows They in silence on me gaze, And I feel my heart is beating With the pulse of other days; And I ask what great magician Conjured forms like these afar? Echo answers, 'tis the sunshine, By its alchymist Daguerre.
The rhyme breezes through figures of magic, alchemy, and conjuring spirits without blinking, but even the doggerel conveys an authentic wish that photography preserve not only the appearance but also the actual presence of authoritative fathers so badly wanted by a generation bereft of the moral guidance of the founders.
No surprise, then, that for all his enlightened rationalism, Snelling indulged himself in sentimental verse, let alone Gothic tales in the German manner of E. T. A. Hoffmann. In at least two striking instances he opened the pages of his journal to unadulterated fictions of the uncanny. One is an actual tale by Hoffmann, "The Empty House"; the other, in the same mode but in a manner close to Poe, "The Magnetic Daguerreotypes." Identified only as "A German Tale," without mention of the author, "The Empty House" (1817) bears many similarities to "The Sandman" (1815-16), upon which Freud bases his discussion of "the uncanny." Ambiguity of perception lies at the heart of both tales: in "The Empty House," apparitional visual experiences produce strange "indescribable" feelings of "delightful horror," "at once uneasy and delightful," "full of anxiety and ardent longing." In both tales optical devices, possibly magical, magnify the ambiguity of the visible and heighten anxiety: Nathanael's pocket telescope in "The Sandman," Theodore's opera glasses and pocket mirror in "The Empty House." Powerful erotic feelings affect the bedeviled heroes in both tales, and wizard figures with green catlike eyes appear in both, imagoes of the wicked father. And by use of skeptical, disbelieving characters who insist the hero can free himself from his morbid obsessions, each tale leads the reader to the unanswerable question: are the uncanny experiences self-willed delusions, signs of the hero's mentalderangement, or the product of an external cause such as black magic, or both?
The presence of the pocket mirror, so like a daguerreotype in size and intimacy, probably accounts for Snelling's publication of "The Empty House," which he ran serially in four successive numbers. Not only is Theodore able, as he discovers accidentally and not with unalloyed pleasure, to conjure in his mirror the image of the mysterious lady at the window of the empty house--it is never clear whether she is an apparition of the young Edwina, the ancient witch in the seductive form of the young woman, or a painted portrait!--but the mirror also induces in him a strange fixation. While using it to make himself inconspicuous when observing the tantalizing image in the window, Theodore suddenly feels paralyzed as if in a "waking dream." A clue to the mirror's power appears in the confession he then makes, "with shame," that he thought at once of a story told by his nurse when she found him "staring at the large mirror in my father's room." His nurse warned him that "if children looked into the glass at night, a strange ugly face would peep out, and that the children's eyes would at once become fixed." Naturally he could not resist looking, and saw "hideous fiery eyes sparkling in the glass, and fell down senseless."
"The Sandman" concludes with Nathanael's destruction, a victim of his obsession with "the uncanny." Theodore survives, however, aided by a doctor who helps him recognize "the deeper connection between all these strange things." His survival, and the apparent victory of rational explanation, may also account for the story's appearance in Snelling's journal--an example, we might put it, of the mirror image purged of its diabolism. But the tale can be taken as well as an explanation of the persistence of an animistic aura in the daguerreotype. For an "empty house" actually housing strange creatures, including a lascivious witch, translates easily into the unconscious itself--"the dark, mysterious region which is the home of our spirit," in the words of one of Theodore's learned friends. This same "physician" explains that dreams, with their "extraordinary peculiarity" to deposit in the waking mind "dim recollections" that make strangers seem "so astoundingly familiar to me," dispose certain persons vulnerable to influence by "some external psychical principle," "a magnetic relation" that onemind might exert over another. Thus the tale might be read as teaching that animistic representations of the daguerreotype derive finally from propensities within human consciousness itself, from the "empty house" we people with ghosts and wizards and seductive ladies who in the moment of the first embrace draw back the mask to disclose the rotting flesh.
Was it part of Snelling's program to insinuate magic in order to purge it by a kind of homeopathy, a therapeutic reading? "The Magnetic Daguerreotypes," which appeared two years earlier, reprinted from the New York Sunday Courier, speaks more directly to the uncanny effects of the photographic image as a living presence. Also set in Germany, the tale has a narrator--nameless until the final paragraph--who visits the studio of Professor Ariovistus Dunkelheim (the first name signifies prophetic eyes; the last, dark home) with his betrothed, the lovely Elora, to have likenesses taken by the professor's new process. The sitters place themselves each before a highly polished plate of steel, "a perfect mirror," and by "electro-galvanic" or "magnetic" action their likenesses are fixed instantaneously. That night the narrator learns that the portrait of his beloved, upon which he gazes with mounting desire, is "a faithful mirror of the absent Elora's features," an animate picture in which he sees her as she is at the moment (asleep in bed, as it happens). "How superior to the cold, ghastly, shadowy immobility of the mere daguerreotype, were these living portraits of Dunkelheim's."
The pleasure is short-lived, however, for the narrator remembers that Dunkelheim himself had retained copies of both images, and even now, with his "bottle-green eyes" and his diabolic look of "critical penetration," might be enjoying the look of desire on his face, able to "watch every change in the expression of my face, to read my every thought, as in an open book." He feels himself "forever subject to an excruciating moral espionage! to be denied for life, the security and luxury of privacy," particularly as he grows more excited with "a fever of impatient love" and continues "to gaze and gaze with an intense and burning ardor" on Elora's living portrait. He informs Elora of their predicament ("A detested stranger can, at will, become a witness of our most rapturous moments, our most secret delights, our--") andpledges to regain the copies or to slay their tormentor. Dunkelheim eludes his grasp; they marry after all, "but a spectre haunted us ... . Night and day, his terrible green eyes were upon us." The hero resumes his pursuit, destroys the fiend, and recovers the telltale plates. "'Henceforth we are at least our own masters,' cries Elora, 'and not puppets, acting for the amusement of a detestable old necromancer!'" Still, the "cold green eyes" of Dunkelheim return at times to "haunt our fancies."
Only at the very end does the narrator reveal his own name, and we grasp at once the reason for his withholding it until now: Ernest Darkman. The correspondence, slant as it is, of Darkman to Dunkelheim adds a hint of a familial (and oedipal) conflict between hero and villain to the tale's already strained eroticism and prurience. The network of echoes, doublings, parallels through which the tale works toward the frisson of its final revelation serves as a charged setting for its theme of visibility, the fears it raises, in order homeopathically to expel them, of the camera as an all-seeing eye, a disembodied invasive gaze in a system of scrutiny extending through the bedroom into the mind and soul. In this most stunning instance in the early literature of the photograph as mirror we have a graphic diagnostic chart, as it were, of premonitions that among the many ways life would never again be the same after photography, the transformation of self into an object of surveillance as well as an image for manipulation and consumption by others might be the most consequential.
Thus we see that Clark's mirror on Broadway hid within its shadowed depths a far less simple, more troubled--and thereby far richer and more challenging--cultural response to the photograph than we have yet recognized. In part the conflicted structure of response I have described reflects divisions in the early social practices of the medium, including the quite early application of the daguerreotype to the study of criminality. The largest significance of the pattern lies, however, in the ambivalence it represents within the dominant middle-class acceptance of the medium--an ambivalence that suggests a pervasive insecurity about newly gained property and status within a rapidly changing socialand political order. Particularly, the homeopathic process of evoking fear in order to allay it that appears in the professionalizing rhetoric of early commercial photography provides a not-inconsiderable clue to forces shaping a modern culture within the passages of antebellum American society.
Copyright © 2007 by Alan Trachtenberg