François Arago and his Speech
In July 1839 the physicist and politician François Arago spoke to the Chamber of Deputies in Paris enlightening them to the potentialities of Louis Daguerre and Nièpce Nicèphore’s invention of the Daguerreotype camera. He spoke of it by applying its capabilities to many fields of technology; including its ability to produce new documentations of truth in the fields of science and history, spanning in particular to astrology, archaeology and geography.
“To copy the millions and millions of hieroglyphics (…), scores of years, and whole legions of painters would be required. One individual, with a Daguerreotype, would effect the labour in a very short space of time.” – Francois Agaro (1839, p.235)
This notion Arago presents of being able to capture an entire language as complex and vast as hieroglyphics for use in research and historical archives, which was then to be distributed to the masses, was a huge development for image reproduction technology at the time. In this passage, Agaro, while not actually speaking against painting as a medium, does outline a key ability that photography has over painting; its speed and reliable, practical accuracy. In the present day, photography is known to be many times faster a medium than it was in the time of Agaro; this includes its distribution as well as the process of creating the photograph.
Photography has been for around a hundred years, the common medium in which to document artwork, including all matter of sculpture, installation and exhibitions themselves, but here I will be discussing the documentation of paintings specifically.
We can treat the complexities within the practice of painting ironically as complex and as numerous as hieroglyphics are, if not; more complex because of the on-going creation, invention and production it has. Furthermore we must acknowledge the infinite variants the application a painted brush mark (therefore an entire painting) can have: its spectrum of coloured pigment, its degree of pressure and the speed of its application, its size and weight and the applicator tool itself. All of these variables amount to paintings seemingly infinite potential complexity. Camille Recht alludes to this here in a metaphor, in which he compares painting to photography in a preface for a German photography book about Eugène Atget:
“The violinist must first produce the note, must seek it out, find it in an instant; the pianist strikes the key and the note rings out the painter and the photographer both have an instrument at their disposal. Drawing and colouring for the painter, correspond to the violinist’s production of sound; the photographer, like the pianist, has the advantage of a mechanical device that is subject to restrictive laws, while the violinist is under no such restraint.” – Recht (1930, preface.)
It seems that a language, such as hieroglyphics, can be deciphered in a similar way to the method of the pianist or the photographer, for they work with instruments that have a specific limit to how each note sounds or photograph looks (after technique is ensued); as a language has to each translation and dissection of its words. The process of the violinist and the painter could then, in contrast, be described with this depiction of what is known as the ‘aura’ by Walter Benjamin in which he talks of in his essay: ‘A Short History of Photography’ (1931) and refers back to in ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Technological Reproducibility’(1939):
“What is aura, actually? A strange weave of space and time: the unique appearance or semblance of distance, no matter how close the object may be. While resting on a summer’s noon, to trace a range of mountains on the horizon, or a branch that throws its shadow on the observer, until the moment or the hour become part of their appearance – that is what it means to breathe the aura of those mountains, that branch.” – Benjamin (1931, p.250)
The idea of reproduction in artwork (specifically painting), as Benjamin points out early on in his essay: ‘Art in the Age of Technological Reproducibility’, he describes how the reproduction itself, loses the ‘time and place’ of the original. Where the painting (artwork) loses the place in history that led to its creation. In contrast to this ‘loss’ of ‘time and place’, Benjamin talks about the ability for the photographic reproduction of an artwork to create new perspectives of said artwork in terms of making certain aspects visible, that aren’t necessarily visible for the natural human eye, in both its process and distribution, the reproductions are locating new positions for the ‘original’ that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. With new techniques in photography today making it easier and faster to reproduce artwork and distribute it.