Thoughts about Nicéphoe Niépce’s photograph Point De Vue Du Gras
Niépce’s photograph is something like a traumatic event. It’s an originary moment resonating throughout history, underground.
And like all originary moments it’s a fictional construct. After all Niépce never meant to traumatize future photographers. He was trying to take a picture, to achieve the photographic device that would make him rich and famous. In addition, he was dealing with a technique different from what we have been calling photography for more than a century. It seems to be missing a fundamental component of what Cartier-Bresson will construct as an « essential » photographic factor : instantaneity. The « trauma » might just be lying in the epistemological shift contained in looking at Niépce’s Point de vue du Gras as a photography in our understanding of the term. This picture was all but instantaneous. Niépce had to expose his plate for several hours, creating the seemingly impossible shadow patterns on the final image. But most of the other characteristics of the resulting image are very similar to what we call a photograph today. It was made by a mechanical/optical/chemical device that creates an image resembling to what we perceive with our eyes and call external reality. The device is monoptical, hence creating a flat image lying on a flat surface. We only have an illusion of space in that image because the device optically complies with our habits of seeing the world represented via a linear perspective with one vanishing point.
So, it is what we call a photograph. Instantaneity doesn’t really matter but for a specific, historic way of practicing it. Among all the diversity of ways in which photography was made since Niépce’s first achievement, the process of production remained very similar, characterized by a fundamental dialectic of space that is dramatically obvious in Point de vue du Gras. A photograph is a flat representation of a three-dimensional space. It is deleting the extra information provided by a second ocular, bringing vision back to a pure ground of visual stimuli, of sensitivity content. Once again, we only have a natural understanding of the real « 3D » space represented in a photograph because it complies with the common language of linear perspective. Step out of this and things get awkward. People who have never seen a photograph fail to recognize their own children in a leaf covered with shapes and colors. Ultra long focal lengths make it impossible to guess the actual organisation of things in space. Ultra wides like Nikon’s 6mm have a wider field of view than human vision – forty years after its production, the idea of seeing behind one’s head while looking through it still conveys a strong feeling of impossibility. Just because we then are not exactly within the language of linear perspective anymore.
Instantaneity was a useful addition. Studies and the principle of motion pictures have shown that the duration of an « instant » within human sensory field is much longer than the average shutter speed used (1/125th of a second being, until digital, most certainly the most used exposure speed in still photography). Human perception of the shortest instant lasts approximatively 1/16th of a second1 ; quite a slow speed in modern photographic terms, but still much faster than Niépce’s exposure time. Possibly one of the reasons why it seemed so historically important to speed up cameras, lenses and films was to reach that impression of instantaneity. It was then quickly overpassed by much faster speeds, faster than human perception can expect to « feel ». Winogrand said he always used the fastest speed available within a situation « to attain sharpness » with moving subjects – but probably also to freeze his subjects in the strange ways he became renowned for. Faces in his photographs often look awkward or out of place, misplaced : they show slices of time that we never get to see, for they are too short. That effect is best achieved with the use of flash, making it possible to achieve exposure speeds much faster than any physical shutter can hope to achieve – great examples of this are his Stock Photographs.
We stand on the exact opposite end of the spectrum from Niépce. Where he was dependent on actual light, we now create the light we need. Where he was dependent on a slow process, we have it fastened in every way possible. We can easily make millions pictures within the hours necessary to make a single Point De Vue Du Gras plate.
So what’s with this picture? Its weirdness is easily dissipated by all the above. Abnormally long exposure time of several hours caused contradictory light sources to appear on a single image. Left and right buildings each have their opposite faces illuminated, suggesting a natural light source coming at angle from left and right at once. There are two suns in Niépce’s photograph. And then there is that sharp dagger-like form in the center, illuminating only a part of the backyard, suggesting sunrise or sunset, angular sunlight.
Now wait. I have just realized, writing this, that how I perceived the organisation of space within Point De Vue Du Gras is in fact partly wrong. Reading articles about it, written descriptions and analysis, it slowly dawned on me that I was seeing the « wrong » picture. Where I had been seeing a patch of illuminated grass was, in fact, the horizontal rooftop of a building.
It did not go smoothly. First, I denied it, assuming that the articles were wrong. Then, after looking at the images, schematics and re-reading, I managed to see that rooftop. It was physically hard for me to adjust, to stop from seeing that backyard grass and finally see that roof. Like experiments with reversing glasses, it was an interesting way of feeling how much of what we see in photographs is actually constructed through habits, expectations, preconceptions, all in all, an activity of the mind, and not that much of the eyes.
Then, I stopped writing for a while, wondering how relevant what I thought I had to say about Point De Vue Du Gras still could be, if I’d been wrong about it for so long. Eventually, I believe that my error doesn’t really matter ; more than that, it even serves my ideas about it. So let’s go on.
Photography as Niépce’s era created it obviously would have been very interesting to Renaissance « creators » of linear perspective, users of the camera obscura and scrupulous painters of several centuries earlier. It is the final development of what they started, the ultimate tool for their trade. Although it immediately brought new visual specificities with all the aberrations of optics, in principle and in fact, it realizes the perfect Renaissance-like reprensentation of space.
Reaching the top of that peak gave us the ability to look back at the road traveled before ; it also gave a new point of view on what would be coming next : linear perspective crumbling under its own weight, when fully realized. That I think to be the trauma contained in Niépce’s photograph, the disaster immediately unveiled in the first true photograph ever taken : it clearly shows that actual space doesn’t matter anymore, when perfectly represented. Perfect linear-perspective representation of space actually destroys the possibility of truly understanding the actual organization of real space. Photography does not in fact and as we hoped, expected or believed, act as the perfect tool for representation. It is useless without a caption (literature is thick about this). Niépce’s innocence is proof. He was just testing and what came out was that cryptic organisation of geometrical forms within the frame, craving for a name, a date, a fully analytic and schematized description to make it representational. A hundred years of culturally looking at photographs did not make me better at understanding what is happening in that picture. Niépce certainly had no intention to deceive, probably no other intention than just plain testing.
I argue that this has nothing to do with contrast or graininess in that specific picture. Whatever we do today, we are still in the same situation when taking and looking at a photograph. We are staring at pure sensory data presented to our sensory tools – a situation different than what usually happens, when the world and our sensory system interact. It sort of makes the visual process lag, stutter, in disbelief. This is looking at looking.
There is nothing else in photography, that it could be about. Categories, genres of images, rules of framing, writings, all these actually are taming that wild photographic power to allow us to see outside the sensory process. They carry us away from a raw photographic matter, serving other purposes. Which is neither uninteresting nor wrong, just not exactly photographic. Wanna state clearly what the image is about ? Put the subject in the middle of the frame. Isolate it in blurry front and backgrounds. Purely arbitrary conventional habits. People will receive the image as they do reality with their eyes, i.e. interpreted, pre-digested. Want to be clear about the organisation of space ? Eliminate grain, put the horizon at 2/3 of the top of the frame, be level, sharp. Purely conventional. It has been for long enough to become a second nature. But still, getting us away from plain photographic matters. It is aiming at information, conveying ideas or feelings. Niépce’s wasn’t up about that. He was building a device that sees. And then, when the device has seen, we can look at its vision, at what it’s seen. But apart from the initial engineering, there’s no brain behind the machine to make up something of it, to interepret this gathered data. We are left with pure data. Certainly no information there. Photography hence is not about anything. Photography is : « it » is seeing.
We are left with a frame – whatever its size, format, filled with forms. Geometry strikes immediately, in the very first photographic act, and will haunt photographers for a long time to come. « When I look through my lens, I see a rectangle, and through that I see lines and harmonies. The key of the photograph is in geometry.2 » That dagger-like triangle in the middle of PDVDG3, one I had « misinterpreted », strikes through the frame violently, as if to state immediately how important shapes will be to photography. Shapes within a frame. A photograph that does not comply to the aforementioned conventions will be completely unclear as to what it’s about, probably because it is not about anything else than reaching that state of unprocessed sensory data. And thus the viewer will be able to see not pedestrians, crossroads, cars and buildings but different fixed shapes, colors and tonalities4.
Point De Vue Du Gras even kills framing. Shot dead from the start. Framing has only ever been a conscious occupation to photographers with an idea in mind, who wanted to « say », to state, to point or to argue, who had one toe outside of a pure photographic field. And thus had to devise ways of organising shapes inside the frame so that they convey something familiar, something recognizable, sort of already partly digested, partly interpreted. But what was Niépce about really ? We can search and understand, retro-engineer the photography to get back with almost total certainty, to know where the picture was taken from, when, with what kind of lens, how long the exposure took, etc. But can we reason why he put his camera up there, in that direction ? Why not a couple of inches to the left or up ? Maybe he just liked the view there. I guess we’ll never know. I believe it really didn’t matter at all that it never completely mattered since then. Niépce simply has to put up the camera, and expose the plate. Then, the frame happened.
Frame is like the will. You get the wrong idea thinking that you are an entity willing something and that you’re free to do so. In fact, will is willing through you, like it or not. There is no singular agent actively willing (there are links to be made between zen and photography 5). Framing is the same. There is no active or conscious way of framing, nor there is any correct way of framing to attain. You might have the idea that you’re choosing a specific frame or you might be trying not to frame on purpose. But the frame happens, always, whatever you do. So there is no « framing » like an active thing that the photographer would do or not do. It just happens through you and your camera, whatever you do. There is no image without frame and therefore photography is the frame.
Eyes are not just facilitators of vision. They are seeing. What comes after and what’s made of it is constructed by the mind and the culture surrounding it. I like the idea that somehow, there might be a way of using the photographic tool to extract vision out of this context and construction, to save it from being culturally modeled. Another illusion, sure.
Jacques-Henri Lartigue, Mon Chat Zizi, 1903.
4 cf. the work of Peter Downsbrough.
5 Zen and photography: https://fr.scribd.com/document/60800194/Zen-and-Photography#