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Culture and Education

Photography, a Western Accident—Towards a New History of Photography

Kazumichi Hashimoto
Associate Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

How was photography perceived for those who saw it for the first time?

Photography has become such an ordinary part of our daily lives that a time where it did not exist is unimaginable. How surprised were the people of the 19th century to see photos of their families and friends for the first time ever?

Fortunately, there is a historical document, a memoir left by Gaspard Marnette, a Belgian worker who lived a modest life in the 19th century, which captures a glimpse of the excitement generated by photography back then.

The memoir depicts Marnette’s daily life from when he was 20 years old until his death in 1903. In this memoir consisting of more than 2,000 pages, Marnette mentioned a time when he had photos of his parents taken in a studio for the first time. To fulfill his longtime wish to preserve memories of his elderly parents in a photo, Marnette visited an urban photo studio with his parents on a carriage in April 1877. This was a time where taking photos was still expensive, and many people could not afford it. Marnette described the reactions of his family members who saw the completed photo in this way:

“[The portrait] was very well done. The likeness of my mother, wearing a bonnet or a hat on her head with a silk scarf wrapped around her face, was particularly amazing....We showed it to a few neighbors, and they said, 'This is marvelous! It is indeed a portrait of Gaspard and Marie Bastin.' Our house was filled with joy, and everyone moved to tears. The portrait photo looked like my parents very much that Jean-Louis Fraikin, my 16-month-old nephew, exclaimed 'Grandma and Grandpa,' pointing to it."

René Leboutte, L’archiviste des rumeurs. Chronique de Gaspard Marnette, armurier, Vottem 1857-1903, Liège, Editions du Musée de la vie wallonne, 1991, p. 60.

The fact that the family members were “moved to tears” when they first saw the photo is interesting itself for us who live in contemporary society. However, what grab our attention here are the expressions such as “likeness” and “look like” that Marnette used to describe his parents’ photos. For Marnette, this was something that “resembled” them.

Do photos "resemble" objects?

Marnette’s reaction to the photo is slightly different from our own when we see pictures of our family and friends. Would we describe a photo of our parents as something “resembles” them? Even if it is a photo of our parents in their youth before we were born, we would probably never say that tit “resembles” tem if we can recognize them in the photo. Instead, we are most likely to simply say that they are our “mom and dad.” In other words, our response to a photo is closer to that of Marnette’s 16-month-old nephew than that of Marnette himself.

Photography as animism

Do photos “resemble” objects or not? It is easy to guess why Marnette said the photo of his parents looked like them. He thought that photos were something like pictures. Even for us living in contemporary society, painted portraits are made to literally “resemble” the person depicted.

What, then, separates photos from portraits? Undoubtedly, photos are no more than small, two-dimensional images; they are not the same as the objects themselves but merely look like them. Yet, we regard photos as if they are the objects themselves, just like the 16-month-old Jean-Louis. Sometimes, we even talk to photos of our moms and dads out loud as we would do with our real parents.

19th century anthropology named acts of treating inanimate objects as if they were alive as “animism,” which was classified as childish and primitive. In the eyes of 19th-century anthropologists, we, who recognize portraits as objects themselves just like little Jean-Louis, are practicing animism in our daily lives. Photography is animism unconsciously practiced in contemporary society.

An accident called photography

Hans Belting, the author of An Anthropology of Images (Japanese translation published by Heibonsha, 2014), regards animism as a fundamental principle of image formation. Belting mentions a statue from the 7th century B.C., discovered in Ain Ghazal in the Middle East, as an example of a fundamental image (see the figure on the right). This statue, which was likely created in the image of a dead person, is far from bearing any resemblance to the dead. Nonetheless, images have the fundamental power to animate, thereby making it possible to regard the statue mentioned above as resurrected.

However, according to Belting, the West has created a different image principle that denies animism: mimesis. Since ancient Greece, the West has been devoted to producing images that accurately depicts objects, striving towards creating images that are indistinguishable from what is real. In a world where images are indistinguishable from reality, animating images is no longer necessary. From Belting’s perspective, 3D images and virtual reality are inevitable consequences of the mimesis culture.

There is no doubt that photography is an offshoot of the Western mimesis culture; photography was invented in the West to create images that represent reality more closely than paintings. However, photography was too incomplete to replace reality itself. Photos are two dimensional, small, and above all, stationary. When people come to discover the reality itself in images that are far from real, photography restores animism in the mimesis culture. In other words, photography is an accident, a defective product so to speak, produced by the mimesis culture.

I am working to relocate the history of photography in the context of the mimesis culture since ancient Greece. My work will lead to discovering the appeal of photography that does not change even when we shift from film to digital media.

Kazumichi Hashimoto
Associate Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Professor Kazumichi Hashimoto completed the DEA (Master’s) course at the Faculty of Science and Technology at the University of Nantes (Université de Nantes) and obtained his Ph.D. at the University of Tokyo’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. He became an associate professor at Waseda University in 2012 after serving positions such as lecturer at the Aichi University of Technology. Professor Hashimoto specializes in the study of culture, representation and images. One of his major publications includes Fingerprinting Theory – From Spiritualism to Biometrics (Seidosha, 2010), and he has also translated the following books: George Didi-Huberman, Images malgré tout (Japanese translation, Heibonsha, 2006); Pierre Legendre, La Balafre, À la jeunesse désireuse (Japanese translation, Ibunsha, 2012). Some of his papers are the following: "Study on Lightning Photography," "Study on Fire Photography," and "Study on Tripod Photography" (all these papers were published in Photographers' Gallery Press).