This studio-centred doctoral project questions the logic of photography as both natural and
authentic based upon its ontology as the material trace of light. Where the logic of photography
supports its prevailing identification as the language of light, certainty and realism, I discover the
medium to have a paradoxical foundation in darkness, mystery, and melancholy.
I establish evidence for this at photography’s nascence in the two ‘first’ photographs by
inventors Nicéphore Niépce (Point de Vue du Gras, 1827) and William Henry Fox Talbot
(Latticed Window, 1835). I produce new artworks – Wail (2007); Grail (2008), and Black Sun
(2009) – inspired by my close reading of these photographs and my renovated account of their
In Niépce’s heliograph, I find evidence for photography’s foundation in heliolatry. I compare
the photograph to a variety of heliolatric objects based in the sun’s insecurity rather than its
fidelity. I discuss Niépce’s heliograph as an object of reflection, projection and ritual function. I
trace the relationship between photography and the black sun of alchemy. I note the prevalence
of melancholia amongst the inventors of photography and explore Julia Kristeva’s use of the
black sun as a metaphor to describe depression. I compare the raw trace of photography with
that of the pre-symbolic psyche to argue that both must first be understood as language in order
to be meaningful. Meaning arrives in the photograph like light from a distant star: a projection of
desire by the viewing subject, justified retrospectively in the logic of the ‘real’. It is by this same
process that we recognise the moment indicated by photography as a lost one, based upon the
perceived distance of a photograph from its referent.
Against photography’s identity as a medium of instantaneity, precision, stability and clarity, I
argue that photography has a powerful capacity to encode multiple, latent, concealed and occult
meanings. I consider Talbot’s Latticed Window photograph exemplary of this potential and
propose multiple possibilities for its motivation. I note Talbot’s polymathic interests in languages
and secret codes. I discover occult emblems of Freemasonry in many of Talbot’s photographs
and suggest his Latticed Window can be read as illustrative of Masonic beliefs and rituals. My
aim is not to supplant existing readings of Talbot’s photographs but to draw attention to these
supplements and the capacity of the photographic code to conceal and reveal even as it
persistently defies closure.
I note than through its ease of reproduction, photography presents new opportunities to
confer meaning on previously unrelated artworks. I present a picture essay juxtaposing
photographs by Talbot and artworks by Marcel Duchamp to highlight the intriguing occult visual
language that they share.
I contend that photography has an affinity with mystery. I speculate that photography’s
hidden ontology in darkness, mystery and melancholy fuels the medium’s enormous psychic
power like a black sun. Out of darkness, photography gives light to the losses and limitations of
knowledge, the transitory experience of awareness, and the contingencies of self-hood in an
illusory experience of the ‘real’.
Awards: Winner of the Mollie Holman Doctoral Medal for Excellence, Faculty of Art and Design, 2010.
Principal supervisorAnne Marsh
Year of Award2010
Department, School or CentreFine Art
CourseDoctor of Philosophy
FacultyFaculty of Art, Design and Architecture