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Light out of darkness: the foundation of photography in mystery and melancholy
thesisposted on 16.01.2017, 04:18 by Fereday, Susan
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 themes. 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.