PRINT November 2015


Kaja Silverman’s Miracle of Analogy

From left: William Henry Fox Talbot, A Leaf, ca. 1840, photogenic-drawing negative, 3 3/4 × 3 3/8“. William Henry Fox Talbot, A Leaf, ca. 1840, salted paper print, 3 5/8 × 3 3/8”.

The Miracle of Analogy, or The History of Photography, Part I, by Kaja Silverman. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015. 240 pages.

READERS FAMILIAR WITH the work of Kaja Silverman—the renowned theorist and self-described “hardcore cultural constructivist” who came to prominence in the 1980s and ’90s—might be surprised by the title of her latest book, not least because it apparently trucks in miracles. Equally unexpected is that Silverman, known for major texts addressing semiotics, linguistics, and psychoanalysis, has written the first of two volumes that proclaim to offer something so empirical as “the history of photography.” If this project sounds overtly religious or deterministic, fear not. The “miracle of analogy” in the book’s title is borrowed from a passage by Marcel Proust, not the Bible, and Silverman’s “history,” although peppered with chronological events important to the development of what she qualifies as “chemical photography,” is actually a non-medium-specific account. Her book is thus unlikely to replace now-standard texts by Beaumont Newhall (1937), Naomi Rosenblum (1984), Michel Frizot (1994), Mary Warner Marien (2002), and, most recently, Juliet Hacking (2012), all of which appear in college curricula for their various attempts to tell the “whole story” of photography.

Instead, Silverman has written something that can best be understood as an ontological account of photography, one that both harks back to André Bazin’s classic text of 1945, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” and extends her own revised take on phenomenology in World Spectators (2000) and Flesh of My Flesh (2009). In those two works, Silverman embraced a view in which human affect is manifest in our answer to the world’s demand that we see its beauty; in this primordial call-and-response, “appearance is the locus within which Being unfolds.” In The Miracle of Analogy, she, like Bazin, extends this concept to posit photography as a kind of automatic, self-developed portrait of the world: a sui generis selfie. Unlike Bazin, however, she sees us (Bazin’s “man”) as integral to the process of this photographic disclosure. Photography, because of its essential similitude and its dyadic negative/positive structure, is, according to Silverman, a constant reminder that “two is the smallest unit of Being.” As a consequence, photography is not only the world’s primary way of revealing itself to us; it is also a summons, through analogy, to human relationality. If only we are willing to heed its call, Silverman says, photography offers us redemption from solitude through a positive response to the world’s demand that we care, a call that we otherwise constantly deflect.

This book, to borrow art historian André Dombrowski’s recent characterization during a discussion with Silverman, is thus a “housecleaning” of received ideas about photography: It jettisons the long-standing notion of the photograph as a physical index or exact representation and dispenses equally with questions of intentionality or authorship. As such, The Miracle of Analogy is a welcome addition to the literature because it helps fill a gap separating philosophical and art-historical attempts to resolve the medium’s split personality between agency and automatism, between active depiction and passive recording. (This lacuna has recently been explored by scholars Margaret Iversen and Diarmuid Costello in a special edition of Critical Inquiry [Summer 2012].) If we also take Silverman’s message as a plea to substitute our selfies with those of the world, her book could further be seen as a bracing and unexpected antidote to our current culture of obsessive navel-gazing. This first volume is a preamble of sorts: It is set almost exclusively BDE (before the digital era), and Silverman’s task is to find evidence that photography, in its early permutations, was divulged by the world instead of taken or made from it.

Silverman’s primary protagonist in this endeavor is William Henry Fox Talbot, who famously characterized photographs as the products of the “pencil of nature” and thus as self-developing images that reveal themselves to us. She traces the genesis of this notion through camera obscuras and pinhole cameras, searching for instances in which the images seen in such devices were described as “received” or “revealed” and their making attributed to the world rather than to a viewer. She finds plenty of examples, not only in Talbot’s writings but also in those of Lady Eastlake, Leonardo da Vinci, and Alexander Pope. Then Silverman introduces, as the antagonist in this narrative, Talbot’s rival claimant to the invention of photography, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, who supposedly wielded the eponymous daguerreotype in order to “take” and fix images, with the photographer capturing the world, rather than the world revealing itself to us. Yet this depiction sets up Daguerre as something of a straw man. If he “took” photographs, he also described the daguerreotype as “a chemical and physical process that gives Nature the power to reproduce herself.” In addition, he is perhaps the most analogical of the early pioneers of photography: His graphic oeuvre, punctuated by repetition—by multiples and variants of single motifs—is an exemplar of similitude.

Silverman’s quest for the specific words used to describe human-camera interactions is thus sometimes at odds with the history she proposes to recount. Her search for terms ironically echoes the “linguistic shield” with which she says Walter Benjamin protected himself from too closely identifying with Proustian urges, causing him to renounce an analogical view of photography for a mechanical one in “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” (1936). One wonders whether a similar linguistic shield causes Silverman to partially circumvent the analogy between photography and the world at the heart of her book. But such open-endedness is also productive. Silverman’s ontological account of photography is one in which the medium is not essentially defined; in this respect, her approach is similar to Michael Fried’s account of contemporary large-scale photography in Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before (2008). And so it is that two of our most incisive critics have now written about photography without discussing it as a unified medium. This is cause for celebration, since it heralds a much-needed shift in the way we approach photography and its history. And because Silverman has announced that she, too, will focus on large-format photography in the forthcoming second part of her project, it also leaves us with a conundrum: that the most commercial photography of our time will be put forth as the most artistically important and the most likely to save us. Indeed, the title of the second volume is The Promise of Social Happiness. Silverman has wryly acknowledged this stance as a provocation, so stay tuned for future developments.

Stephen C. Pinson is a curator in the department of photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the author of Speculating Daguerre: Art and Enterprise in the Work of L. J. M. Daguerre (University of Chicago Press, 2012.)