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Didier Delmas | Show me the truth: the conditions of possibility for the invention of photography

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The popularization of science during the eighteenth century generated, toward the end of the century, an epistemological anxiety that reached all levels of the population from the most literate scientist to the poorest peasant, the expert in differential calculus like the witness of the flights of Montgolfières. Books, periodicals, schooling, private salons, and public demonstrations contributed to this quasi-universal anguish. Toward the end of the century, spectacles appeared that were at once expressions and tentatives to remedy the period's epistemic malaise; among those spectacles of the phantasmagoria, the panorama, and the diorama, all connected to the history of photography, figure prominently.

In this dissertation I focus on the progressive build-up through the eighteenth century of the yearning for an accurate and truthful representation of the natural world that culminated in the 1839 invention of photography. Rather than seeing photography as the inevitable result of improved knowledge in the specific sciences of optics and chemistry, I consider that what else was needed to create the conditions of possibility for photography’s invention was the 18th century’s crisis of knowledge. A crisis that intensified as the Enlightenment’s new order built on the strength of reason both threatened the traditional understanding of nature based on theology and introduced a new understanding of the fragility of the human mind and the uncertainty of perception, and hence anxiety around the question, “How do we trust what we see? How can we be certain of what we know?”

If problems linked to the nature of knowledge drove the invention of photography, as soon as it was invented, photography split in a variety of practices sometimes opposed to one another. Scientists forged ahead with using “objective” photography on one side, and artists coerced the medium for their own creative needs on the other. Thus, on its way to what it has become today, photography practices cancel or at least complicate the original intent; what some historians have perceived as photography's second invention.

This “second invention” of photography is one we can understand if we consider that the 18th century was not only characterized by Reason’s reign but also by philosophical speculation, the popularization of science, and mass entertainments that together exposed a wide segment of urban society to the unsettling tension between truth and skepticism. My dissertation thus seeks to reconnect 19th-century photographic practices with photography’s pre-history, which was also very much concerned with the question of how to apprehend the world of solid objects given a growing understanding of a reflexive subject.