Mimesis and Photography

Greek philosopher Plato (424-348 BC) compared humans to prisoners in a  cave, sitting by a fire while watching the shadowplay of distant objects on the wall, and listening to the echo of the world passing by. Separate from the world, and unable to ever really understand the truth about it.

According to Plato only the philosopher was able to see through the false layer of the particular to grasp the idea behind it; the truth, which reality could only imitate. This train of thought can be compared with the more contemporary idea that we live in a kind of matrix of simulated reality.

Plato’s student Aristotle also had abstract, universal forms as ideal, but argued that a greater understanding of universals had to come through particular phenomena. This was also the aim of art. Aristotle considered all art to be based on the essential human urge to imitate, and the joy of recognition one felt upon seeing a clever imitation:

“To imitate is instinctive in man from his infancy. By this he is distinguished from other animals, that he is, of all, the most imitative, and through this instinct receives his earliest education. All men, likewise, naturally receive pleasure from imitation. (…) Hence the pleasure they receive from a picture: in viewing it they learn, that they infer, they discover, what every object is.”

Imitation could improve, worsen or be accurate. Imitation did not necessarily have to be through image or poetry; it could be through rhythm, melody, word, colour, shape, action and dance:

“with respect to the arts above mentioned, rhythm, words and melody, are the different means by which, either single, or variously combined, they all produce their imitation. (…) In those of dance, rhythm alone, without melody; for there are dancers who, by rhythm applied to gesture, express manners, passions, and actions.”

According to Aristotle, the poet could imitate the same objects either by narrating through a different character or using his own voice, or he could imitate by dramatizing, using actors who stood forth in his place. Performing mimetically meant placing action in a narrative. A narrator (using both speech and gesture) could have an audience of both listeners and viewers, and preferably a combination. Aristotle’s mimesis was not a realist imitation as later times came to understand it, but rather an interpretation of the world – the outer world as well as the inner world – feelings, actions, ideas, religion etc, expressed and enjoyed by humans.

To these ancient Greek philosophers, art was an imitation of the human experience, and an interpretation of divine ideas. Since reality was considered a kind of flawed reflexion of divine ideas, it follows that art would be as true and real as reality, if not more so.

During the Renaissance the Greek art ideals were readdressed in Europe, albeit in a Christian version as a realism full of signs and symbols. Mimesis was now understood as an artistic copy of nature. Perspective was rediscovered as a scientific method, where the eye was thought of as the receiver of light waves, and the artists canvas was compared to a window. The first description of a camera obscura (literally “dark room,”) as an aid to a draftsman was made in the book Natural Magic from 1553. In the camera obscura light travels through a hole and onto the back wall, appearing as a moving image, a reflection of the scenery outside, but up-side-down and mirror reversed. By the 17th-century the camera obscura system had become advanced enough to be a common piece of equipment amongst painters.

Albeit a century before the industrial revolution, it was the time of the invention of the first robots (automatons) like Vaucanson’s Canard Digérateur, from 1738. The bourgeoisie had a strong wish for a device which could help them create good portraits, and several of this type of devices saw the light of day. One of them was the Camera Lucida invented in 1807 by W.H. Wollaston. Placed above a piece of paper the Camera Lucida made it possible to see both the paper and the thing you were drawing simultaneously.

In the beginning of the 18th century the French inventor Nicéphore Niépce (1765-1833) was experimenting with fixing the image of a camera obscura, using different combinations of substances and mechanical techniques. In 1827, Niépce met the painter Louis-Jacques- Mandé Daguerre (1787–1851), who specialized in scenic paintings for theatre sets, and who also experimented with capturing the camera image. Niépce and Daguerre formed a partnership and received financial support from the French government. The earliest surviving photograph (daguerreotype) is from 1837.

If Aristotle was right in claiming that humans are mimetic beings and that our noblest sense is sight, then the camera and the photograph had to be the fulfillment of a highly important ideal. However, the official reason for the investment in photography by the French government was for copying ancient inscriptions. The first use of photography was thus officially for print-making and copying: not for the production of images, but for the spreading of words. It seems there was a conflict between the official wish for copying and spreading books and information and the unofficial public desire for mimesis and magic. This conflict is echoed today in much of the literary criticism of photography.

The invention of photography was a result of the search of an accurate mimicking of nature, as well as the result of a mixture of scientific and artistic endeavors, which was part of the age of mechanical reproduction and the industrial revolution. Right from the beginning, the photographic process was used for artistic means, which to a varying of degrees showed something very far removed from reality; for instance painterly staged situations featuring transparent, ghostlike characters, as seen in the photograph below.

In spite of much post-digital photography theory claiming so, the relationship between photography and the real was never a simple, innocent one. Photography was invented because of an unofficial desire for mimesis, magic and pictures, as much as for a scientific search for truth, or spreading of information. In my opinion this shows how, from the very beginning, photography managed to combine reality and imagination.

6 thoughts on “Mimesis and Photography

  1. Pingback: The blind spot of theory « Eyes Wide Shut

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