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day by day: a blog

August 19, 2007

morse's vision

daguerre boulevard.jpg [image: Louis Daguerre, Boulevard du Temple, 1838?] The Romanticist Christopher Rovee, my friend and colleague, has established "day by day"'s first feedback loop.

Chris read my recent entry on "Smallness" and modern poetry's parallel fascination with the small and the minute. For this fascination there was a spatial manifestation — a concern with tiny objects and with circumscribed poetic forms — as well as a temporal manifestation — brevity of duration and terseness of language. (The double sense of the written word "minute" captures this duality. It means both a unit of time and a description of the amount of space an object occupies.) In response Chris was kind enough to send me the text of Samuel F. B. Morse's account of his meetings with Louis Daguerre on 7 and 8 March 1839 in Paris. In it, the appeal of the small, or even microscopic, scale to the speculative, creative mind is already apparent much earlier than the 20th century.

Daguerre and his collaborator Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (who died in 1833) had been working for a decade on a more efficient photographic procedure. On behalf of the Académie des sciences, the politician and scientist François Arago had announced the perfected daguerreotype method in early January 1839. Excited write-ups of Daguerre's achievements soon began appearing across Europe as well as in the US press. The first of the latter was published in the Boston Daily Advertiser of 23 February 1839. Morse's article was printed in the New-York Observer of 20th April in the same year. It was originally written as a letter to his brothers Sidney and Richard Morse, who were the paper's editors. In the first part of his report, which I cite here, Samuel Morse describes his visit to Daguerre's "Diorama" building at the corner of rue Sanson and rue des Marais on 7 March, where he was shown examples of Daguerre's work.

Morse was especially taken with Daguerre's famous image, Boulevard du Temple, a view of the northern end of the street whose remains, post-Haussmann, now lie underneath roughly the middle of the place de la République:

The exquisite minuteness of the delineation cannot be conceived. No painting or engraving ever approached it. For example: In a view up the street, a distant sign would be perceived, and the eye could just discern that there were lines of letters upon it, but so minute as not to be read with the naked eye. By the assistance of a powerful lens, which magnified 50 times, applied to the delineation, every letter was clearly and distinctly legible, and also were the minutest breaks and lines in the walls of the buildings, and the pavements of the street. The effect of the lens upon the picture was in a great degree like that of the telescope in nature.

Objects moving are not impressed. The Boulevard, so constantly filled with a moving throng of pedestrians and carriages, was perfectly solitary, except an individual who was having his boots brushed. His feet were compelled, of course, to be stationary for some time, one being on the box of the boot-black, and the other on the ground. Consequently, his boots and legs are well defined, but he is without body or head because these were in motion.

Morse also included in his newspaper essay descriptions of some other works by Daguerre. Again, it was the daguerreotype's revelatory access to the invisibly small which stirred him:

One of Mr. D's plates is an impression of a spider. The spider was not bigger than the head of a large pin, but the image, magnified by the solar microscope to the size of the palm of the hand, having been impressed on the plate, and examined through a lens, was further magnified, and showed a minuteness of organization hitherto not seen to exist. You perceive how this discovery is, therefore, about to open a new field of research in the depths of microscopic Nature. We are soon to see if the minute has discoverable limits. The naturalist is to have a new kingdom to explore, as much beyond the microscope as the microscope is beyond the naked eye....

Reading these words reminded me simultaneously of the spider which I unfortunately but very deliberately drowned in the shower a few days ago and of "Zeitgeist", a recent essay by another treasured friend-colleague-scholar of Romanticism, Denise Gigante (European Romantic Review, April 2007). "Zeitgeist" does not mention Morse, being concerned primarily with the correlation between organicist scientific theories of life and Romantic poetry. But Gigante's observations there are acutely relevant to an understanding of Morse's encounter with Daguerre.

She argues in her essay that there was an epistemic shift in the scientific idea of "life" occurring at the very time when Morse met Daguerre in Paris: "cell theory... transformed biological investigation in the 1830s." Previously, scientists had defined life in terms of "larger systems composed of fibers and atoms, but these basic units were considered mere subdivisions of organic matter, not independent units of life." However, in 1839, the very same year in which Morse encountered Daguerre and his work, the German zoologist Theodor Schwann published his Microscopial Researches in Berlin. There Schwann drastically rescaled the conception of what life is by announcing that the single cell was the basic living unit. Gigante again: "Schwann explicitly likened the cell to a person: 'Each cell is, within certain limits, an Individual, an independent Whole.'" Suddenly the essence of life itself was reframed on a, literally, microscopic scale. Morse's wonder over the "the minutest breaks and lines in the walls of the buildings" and his quasi-religious reverence, as he contemplated the picture of the pinhead sized spider, over "a minuteness of organization hitherto not seen to exist" are firmly bound up with his awareness of contemporary science's new, minute, optically disclosed field of focus. To gaze at an image of something very small was to contemplate something close to the basis of life itself. For its first audience the images obtained with a camera, as Walter Benjamin said in his most famous essay on film and photography, brought "to light entirely new structures of matter."

Morse and Daguerre met again the next day on 8 March 1839, when Daguerre visited Morse's lodgings to inspect the American's electro-magnetic telegraph. (Morse was in Paris to seek a French patent on the device.) Himself no stranger to adversity, Morse ended his essay about Daguerre on a traditional sic transit gloria mundi note, commenting that there was:

a melancholy close to my account of this ingenious discovery. M. Daguerre appointed yesterday at noon to see my telegraph. He came, and passed move than an hour with me, expressing himself highly gratified at its operation. But while he was thus employed, the great building of the Diorama, with his own house, all his beautiful works, his valuable notes and papers, the labor of years of experiment, were, unknown to him, at that moment becoming the prey of the flames.

On 8 March 1839, Daguerre's Diorama and his adjacent studio and house at the corner of the rue Sanson and the rue des Marais caught fire, destroying many of his scientific and technical writings, as well as much of his own work in the new photographic medium. (As a result, very few daguerreotypes made by Daguerre himself survive.) Daguerre arrived back from seeing Morse just in time to direct the firefighters to abandon the Diorama and to try and save above all else his studio, the experimental and intellectual nucleus of his work, on the 5th floor of No. 5 rue des Marais, his home next door.

The long exposure time necessary for the early daguerreotypes (anywhere from five to 60 or more minutes according to Daguerre's assistant, Hubert) meant that the early photograph was not able to capture contingency and flux of the everyday in the ways with which we have now come to associate at least the popular, snapshot uses of the medium. Early photography could not assimilate, at least within a single image, the "moment" at all. It could only be "impressed by" whatever was relatively lasting, static and, at least figuratively, fundamental, like buildings, walls and trees. Hence, the eerie cleaning-out of people in Daguerre's image of a bustling street as well as the uncanny fidelity of its reproduction of even the tiniest cracks and irregularities in the walls. Morse remarked, only the outline of a single, semi-surreal looking figure is captured because this man happened to be standing still having his boots shined: "his boots and legs are well defined, but he is without body or head because these were in motion." At least as far as Morse was concerned, the boot-shiner who was doing this for him was evidently moving swiftly back and forth around his customer and had thus disappeared from the image. If true, it is a striking encapsulation of life and the occluded place of labour in the modern metropolis to think that absolutely no one else aside from this leisured stroller, on what was, in reality, a street filled with humans, stood still for about 10 minutes. Mobility in the city was, and is, almost compulsory, and, seen through the lens of Daguerre's new device, mobility is a path towards total vanishing, towards death.

In his role as a businessman, a scientist and inventor (he was a trained painter too), Morse was more concerned with the conquest of distance. His first official message sent by telegraph (the sententious and grandiose "what God hath wrought") was transmitted in May 1844 between the Capitol and Baltimore. But his earlier article on Daguerre's work illustrates that he clearly recognized the burgeoning fascination and wonder of smallness in metropolitan culture: "this discovery is, therefore, about to open a new field of research in the depths of microscopic Nature. We are soon to see if the minute has discoverable limits. The naturalist is to have a new kingdom to explore." In April 1839, after returning to the United States, Morse received from Daguerre a copy of the pamphlet in which the process of making a photograph was described. Morse experimented with the technique, and, from a window in New York University, captured a postcard-size snapshot of the Church of the Messiah on Broadway, one of the first photographs taken in the United States. (The daguerreotype made of Morse in 1845 is often attributed to Daguerre.)

Morse was fully in the mainstream of educated reaction in his emphasis on the "exquisite minuteness of the delineation" which Daguerre's process achieved. Daguerre himself announced in early January 1839 that "without any knowledge of chemistry and physics, it will be possible to take in a few minutes the most detailed views, the most picturesque scenery." François Arago, the Director of the Paris Observatory and a member of the Chamber of Deputies, was Daguerre's principal political supporter in Daguerre's ultimately successful campaign to sell his photographic process to the French State in return for, amongst other things, a pension. On 9 January 1839, Arago made a statement about Daguerre's work at the Académie des Sciences: "the image is reproduced down to the most minute details with unbelievable exactitude and finesse." And an excited commentator in Le Commerce on 13 January 18939, marvelled that Daguerre was able to prove how far beyond the skills of a draughtsman the views produced by his invention went:

M. Daguerre answers by putting a magnifying glass into our hand, whereupon we perceive the smallest folds of a piece of drapery and the lines of a landscape invisible to the naked eye. With the aid of a spy-glass we bring the distance near. In the mass of bui8ldings, of accessories, of imperceptible lines which compose a view of Paris taken from the Pont des Arts, we distinguish the smallest details; we count the paving-stones; we seep the dampness cause by the rain; we read the inscription on a shop-sign.

Citing Daguerre's own descriptions from 1838 of the "sharpness of the image, delicate gradation of the tones, and above all, the perfection of the details," Geoffrey Batchen is right to say that Daguerre seemed relatively indifferent to whether or not his procedure captured realistic views. Instead he was intent on something else, something smaller and more phantasmagoric: "Detail he claimed for photography, but reality he left to others." It was as if photography were capable of producing a visual analogue of the contemporary redefinition of life as a matter of tiny cellular units.

Soon the traditionally auratic images of the "great" person or event — of the epical military action, of the large-scale public event, of the looming grandeur of a heroic personage — would be an apolitical fascination with the humblest spider's body, with the tiny amoebic cell, with the anonymous citizen. After watching the suicidal charge of the Light Brigade, an assemblage of British Army cavalry units commanded by Lord Raglan at Balaklava in 1854, Marshal Canrobert commented: "C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre." In Finnegans Wake, Joyce debunked that chestnut and caught the modern preference for the small over the large when he reformulated the Marshal's remark: "Say mangraphique, may say nay por daguerre!"

In my "Smallness" post last week, I had been thinking about the cultural and scientific prestige of the small, and implicitly of the vogue for the artistic gesture of reduction or subtraction, as phenomena which began towards the end of the 19th century. Post-Rovee and post-Gigante, I see that this was wrong, at least in part. Almost while the sounds of the thundering hooves, the explosions and the screams of Raglan's wounded and dying men were still echoing in the Ukraine, in Bethlem pschiatric hospital the insanely violent but percipient Richard Dadd would be obsessively producing images, such as The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke, begun in 1855, of a numinous, miniaturized world. But Dadd was very unusual. Perhaps he had to be insane in order to be prophetic?

The dominant scale of the later 19th century’s canonical painting, opera, poetry, fiction, and orchestral music remained titanic, its bourgeois preference was for endlessness, for prolixity, for enormity, just as its taste in sonority was for the oceanic and the deafening. Like Lewis Carroll (an enthusiastic photographer of course), Dadd and by extension Daguerre were precursors (licensed in Dadd's case by his insanity), able to ignore the dominant spatial protocols of his age's art.

Carroll and Dadd seem to belong spiritually to an epoch governed by different values — to the century of Satie and Webern, the early Pound, H. D., Quasimodo, Cornell, Beckett, Bishop and many others. These latter figures emanated from a period, now probably ended, in which, at least artistically, smallness was not equated with insignificance or ephemerality. The cult of the small came first in science and photography and only later in art.

The ideas and examples proffered by Rovee and Gigante about technical and zoological inquiry in the early 19th century illuminate a great deal. This, for instance: if it is true that, as the old saying goes, life follows art, it is equally true that art follows science... by a number of decades. And what does that say about modernity except that, in this era, science was and is the power which defines everything?

Thanks, Chris and Denise!

[For further thoughts on Daguerre's Boulevard du Temple, see my post "traces".]

Posted by njenkins at August 19, 2007 04:06 AM

With the exception of interspersed quotations, all writing is © 2007-09 by Nicholas Jenkins