Photography came into the world as the bright new mirror of modernity, promising to reveal the objective truth of appearances. In the end, it has had almost the opposite effect upon modern culture, making the world appear ever more elusive, shaded, transitory, and enigmatic. In different ways, the two major exhibitions of photography that recently opened in New York—The Dawn of Photography: French Daguerreotypes, 1839–1855 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Strangers at the International Center of Photography—illuminate the historical impact of the medium while conveying with special force its glorious and ineluctable mysteries.
The show of about 175 daguerreotypes, organized by Malcolm Daniel of the Met and curators at the Réunion des Musées Nationaux and the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, includes a rich array of these earliest of early photographs. Given the flashy future of the medium, it seems appropriate that the inventor of the daguerreotype, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (1787–1851), was a showman and an entrepreneur as well as an artist. In 1839, just months after he first exhibited images printed on silver-plated sheets of copper to the French Academy of Sciences, daguerreotypes became the rage; Parisian satirists were soon lampooning their popularity. Daguerreotypes were put to a variety of uses. They could be used to create portraits, serve as artists’ aids, provide a scientific record, document local places and events, call to mind faraway places, and commemorate the dead. Before destroying (at the insistence of his second wife) an atypically earthy rendering of his naked first wife, Ingres commemorated the painting in a daguerreotype.
The installation at the Met is unusual. The works are spotlighted against dark walls, which both evokes nineteenth-century rooms and makes it easier to study the often small and extraordinarily detailed imagery. The daguerreotype process often led to images of preternatural clarity and precision; they must have seemed miraculous in the 1840s. To our eyes, they also have a magical quality. To see them properly, you must often move around a bit, as if you were looking at sculpture, which gives their details a kind of three-dimensional flicker. More than old photographs printed on paper, which lack the same palpable physical quality, the daguerreotypes create for modern viewers an almost unbearably poignant sense of lost time. Through the small shimmering window of the daguerreotype, you can see the barricades thrown up on the streets of Paris during the revolution of 1848 or the smoke floating upward from a factory built at the inception of the Industrial Age. Victor Hugo may be about to get up from a table. The stones of the Acropolis—the Acropolis of the nineteenth century, as seen by European travelers like Byron—appear close enough to touch. Nothing remains comfortably distant.
What must have been disorienting to the first viewers was the seemingly unfiltered character of the reality on display—the inclusion of scatter and flux, the recording of the unintended as well as the expected. Earlier images of the world were invariably distilled and refined to some degree, and while the makers of daguerreotypes obviously took care to compose their pictures, the natural disarray of reality—like a loose thread in a seam—was inevitably present in their work. That fresh and awkward sensation, typical of so much photography, would have a powerful influence upon almost all the arts.
Its impact continues to this day. In choosing the theme of “Strangers” for the ICP’s first triennial survey of photography, the curators—Edward Earle, Christopher Phillips, Carol Squiers, and Brian Wallis—intended to demonstrate that many recent photographers and video artists have moved out of the controlled confines of the studio into edgier, less settled territory. A symbol of the determination of the ICP to make a splash in the photography world, this ambitious survey, which includes about 100 works of contemporary photography and video by 40 artists from twenty countries, chronicles the many different forms that the idea of “the stranger” can take in contemporary art. But the provocative theme also conveys something essential about photography itself—its way of bewitching everything it touches.
In “Strangers,” many of the artists find ways to unknow their subjects. The photographer Rineke Dijkstra, for example, melts away our confidence that we can understand children. In a series of pictures she took over a decade, she has documented the otherworldly transformation of a refugee girl from the Balkans into an ordinary European adolescent. (Dijkstra also presents a video of a girl on the cusp of adolescence, suddenly a stranger to herself, lip-synching a corny love song by the Backstreet Boys.) The many ways that people dress and present themselves, instead of revealing character, appear as forms of disguise, escape, and concealment. In a photograph by Collier Schorr, a young contemporary German dresses in a Nazi uniform—and appears to drift uncertainly between past and present. The South African dandies depicted by Zwelethu Mthethwa employ their clothes as a form of resurrection: They become gods who transcend their shack. Susan Meiselas takes pictures of tourists taking pictures of tribesmen of the West Papuan Highlands. Now, if someone would photograph her doing so . . .
Many artists work with the strangeness of places. Some like to contrast old and new—a traditional African market, for example, in a modern city—in ways that make each world a mystery to the other. In Olivo Barbieri’s photograph of new construction in Shanghai, a building rises from a lot like an alien spaceship. The urban street in Philip-Lorca di Corcia’s work becomes a place of crisscrossing glances, a momentary stage set for strangers enacting themselves. In Nancy Davenport’s recent work, the most ordinary buildings imaginable may harbor terrorists, and extraordinary things may be occurring in and around them. Not surprisingly, some photographers play with the idea of voyeurism, achieving intimacy with strangers in dark places. Shizuka Yokomizo wrote anonymous letters to people with whom she had no other contact, asking them to present themselves at a window to be photographed. Is photography what happens when a voyeur meets a narcissist? Obviously, the old fear that the camera will one day demystify the world is unfounded.