From where are the artistic work’s lights coming ?

This question requires qualified answers.

The French word « lumière » has several English correspondants : light, knowledge, ideas, wisdom, 1 « Lumière » means both

- personnal qualities, talents, creativity and the skills of the author,

- spots and touches of colours which, in a painting, convey what is enlightened or meaningful, and representation or presentation of the light source itself,

- that opens the way to an intelligence, to a knowledge, a new sensibility and electromagnetic radiations, emitted or reflected,

- creation or making processes and lighting arrangement.

The question of the origins of the lights of artistic works generates interrogations about relationships between aesthetic and technical spheres, between creation and reception.

The power of the metaphor

Beyond the painting or the artistic installation, « la lumière » (the Light) in our western societies is a worth for oneself : it works as the necessary condition of visibility, legibility, knowledge and enlightened judgment. For Plato : « The Good in the field of intelligible concerning the thought and its objects corresponds to the Sun in the field of visible concerning the sight and its objects. »

Depending on times, the Light (« la lumière ») symbolized national unity, republican dynamism, equality between human beings. Metaphorically, the Light draws too the way to the progress, the good, the better. The power of the metaphor is so strong that it bases antagonistic systems of government : solar myth used by the French king Louis the Fourteenth,  fixes the French revolution which overthrows monarchy. The French word « Revolution » is the same to name social renewals and the earth circulation around the sun.

In the religions history, the duality between darkness and lights seems to be a universal character. In the Bible – of course this example is retrictive – the creation of light is the first act of God. By contrast, the darkness  is disgraced. The night became equivalent to the absence. The light, connecting the understandable and the legible, would prevent us not only from seeing but from knowing too.

The blinds were often mixed up with the ignorants. In ancient Greece, to be deprived of his eyesight was equivalent to be deprived of his life : when beeing by a blind man, death’s payer had to be recited 2.

In the heart of cultural relationships between Occident and Orient

In occidental societies, Light means knowledge, visibility, progress : in the 18th century, the metaphor bases the Age and the Philosophy Enlightenment whose Aufklärung is the german equivalent. Regulae philosophandi of sir Isaac Newton’s Principia set up the scientific grounds of such philosophies. Famous for his work about solar spectrum, Isaac Newton was striving to establish a connection between the sensible and the intelligible, binging out laws from scientific experiments.

The question of « Light » is in the heart of cultural relationships between Occident and Orient. Etimologically, « The Occident » points out the place where the sun is plunging in the sea ; the « Orient » points out the place from where it arises.

The adjective « occidental » qualifies, as for it, non only what is located in the West but too the value system of this West. A short time ago, the « occidental bloc » pointed out the whole formed by United States and Western Europe whose economy was contrasting with the socialist countries and with the People’s Republic of China. The last geopolitical reorganization relegated the expression « occidental bloc » to an historic position. We have to admit that we are the Occidents of our Orients, the Orients of our Occidents. To underline the difference between Orient and Occident is certainly useful but remains not very productive because their frontier itself reveals uncertain.

Remains the dream from elsewhere. During the year 1858, eleven chinese harbours were being opened to the Westerners and the first treaty of « peace, trade and friendship » has been signed in Edo between France and Japan. It is enough to invite writers, painters and european photographs to travel. 3 The artistic works are circulating : a japanese exhibition of watercolours paintings was staying in National School of Art in Paris. Still today, for the Westerners, the Orient is invested by  symbolic qualities which war tragedies have not spoiled. We have a wonderful memory of the occidental accounts of chinese lanterns which were swinging to the rythm of the walkers, their unanimous praise of the exceptionnal beauty of the oriental starry nights and the autumnal moon.

Nevertheless at the same time, during the first year of the 20th century, italian futurists were clashing vigorously with the Romantic. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti was crying out : « Let us kill the moonlight ! » and Giacomo Ballà was painting his famous large picture of the source of light itself, the violent brightness of the electric bulb.

In his book « In praise of shadow’s » written in 1933 or 1934, the japanese author Junichirô Tanizaki 4 juxtaposed Western harsh light and the « muddy » japanese complexion. The book was translated in French language during the seventies. Since, it became a French bestseller : we like to see ourselves through another eye. We are desiring to discover the anti-value of shadow. « When Westerners talk about the  oriental mysteries, said Tanizaki, they undesrtand the quietness, which the umber exudes in a little disturbing way.

Yolaine Escande 5 talked to us about the brilliance of the ink in the Chinese scholar Arts (« les arts lettrés chinois »), about the black which discloses behind the linkage between the ink and the brush, the richness of personnal experience of the artist. While it leads from the inner chaos and emptiness to the only brush line (« l’unique trait de pinceau » 6), the light of the ink is the primeval blow and reveals the artist’s taking part in the cosmogenesis. For the spectator, for the reader, this brilliance is a source of a real awakening.

That nature which is speaking about itself 

Between 1816 and 1826, the French man Nicephore Niépce, achieved in a little village situated in the middle of Europe, the permanent fixing of a picture obtained at the focus of the camera obscura. He named his discover  « heliography » 7, from the ancient greek Helios (the sun) and Graphein (writing). So was born what the english astronomer Herschel will call later « photography ». A research team from the Art and Language Research Center, in Paris, is rebuilding the conditions of the discover, trying to undestand its « hic et nunc » (« here and now ») to seize the meaning and the stakes. Why was this permanent picture born at this time near the French town of Châlon-sur-Saône 8?

The discover came as the result of the sunlight being used to copy spontaneously the pictures inside the camera obscura, with gradations from white to black. For Nicéphore Niépce and the contemporaries of photography’s birth, the new picture is the nature itself, the speech given to a world kept out of the human sphere. A few years later, the scientists will say that the photography is « that nature which is speaking about itself ».

Niépce was taking a deal of interest in lithography which has just been discovered in Germany. He thought that linking lithography and heliography will allow to make pictures not only  without the engraver – the specificity of lithography - but too without the hand of the drawer.  

So is speaking Louis Figuier 9, author, at the end of the XXth century of « The wonders of science »  : « We have substitued the robust strenghts of the natural agents for the shaky hands of the artists, for his uncertain glance (…) So the natural blind power is going to take the place of the hand and almost the intelligence of the human being. 10».

 The removal of the hand and the gesture by the nascent photography is going with an exclusion : human being is cast out a trium made of the object of the picture, the light which this object is reflecting or sending out, the sensitive matter.

But the removal is not complete : to a large extent the photographic picture is built in accordance with rules of the Renaissance perspective’s projection. Logically, its reception by the Westerners has been made easier.

Nevertheless photography is often mixed up with its object. We know that the picture of a dog doesn’t bite but… we often behave as if the photograph itself is dangerous. This evidence, this « indexicality » 11which bases it, imparts always to it a document’s and testimony’s value, even in its most personnal artistic expression.

The permanent picture is resisting to « the most powerful sun » 12. This memory is stronger than its object. « Photographs are solider than monuments », said Prosper Mérimé 13, the Director of « The Ancient monuments », a few time after the French Revolution. The post revolutionnary age, at the beginning of the XIXth century, was marked with obstructions and unsteadiness of the government’s system. At this time, photography came undoubtedly bearing great merit. The world seemed so fragile that we bothered about the quickness of the mountains erosion. The French Aimé Civiale 14took systematically, during more than ten years photographs of alpine and pyrenean massifs. He wanted, he said, « to keep memory of what the two mountains were in the past »15.

A memory  stronger than its object

This stabilization of a nature, in essence fluid and ephemeral, allows new exchanges between men. So do this new form of memory, this new visibility, this simplicity of reception, this new mobility. The nascent photography brings the germs of universality : it allows dialogues about objects which are too small, too far, too fluid or even, disappeared.

This externalization of human eyesight by the camera reinforces still the objectivization of the new picture. Its author, the photograph becomes creator of representations. He gets a new power as inventor of a new world.

In 1840 the invention of an intermediate negative 16 made the pictures reproducible, « scatterible », in a word, travellers. The strangeness of this negative made it a full art work, a full aesthetic stage 17. The automatisms of cameras required to put the qualities of the art work, somewhere else than in the human gesture or skillfulness. In the first exhibitions, to touch up a photograph was forbidden : its lack signed the talent of the artist.

So, by five specific characters, the emerging photography quarrels the aesthetic boundaries : its automaticity 18 , its « indexicality » 19, its reproductibility 20, its memorizibility.

At the beginning, this « writing of nature by the nature itself » 21 doesn’t get a status, nor scientific, nor artistic. No patent was requested for it by Nicéphore Niépce : so photography doesn’t get even the status of a technical invention 22.

In 1839, the French democrat deputy, François Arago stood up photography vigorously 23: he had sensed its heuristic and aesthetic importance.

Man in progress, fruit of the  « Enlightenment Age », Arago thought that photography will bring some happy social evolutions. He said he is waiting a stroke of luck from the new technical picture.

Before members of the Science Academy and the fine art Academy put toether, he unveiled the secret of the daguerreotype making in exchange for a life annuity given to the inventors. By this way, the deputy didn’t want only to help the finders but too, to make the French state owner of one of the three great inventions of he century with « electricity and steam » as it was said then.

The accounts of this historic session which took place during the year 1839, on the 19th of August, were distributed to the newspapers, what it is to say « to the whole world ». « The public, said Arago, can do nothing to these who don’t done him a good turn. » 24

He handed over to the painter Paul Delaroche who maintained that, in a photograph, « the exactness of the lines is as complete as possible and we can recognize simultaneously a vigorous, sweeping relief. » He concluded with theses words : « the wonderful discovery is a huge service brought to the fine arts. » 25

A civilization of copies

The discover of Nicéphore Niépce resonates today as a kind of misunderstanding because what it has produced is a good deal important that pioneers had expected. The children of these « pictures of light » are named « cinematography, video, television, scientific or medical scanning, numerical pictures ». They all helped to build this civilization of copies which is ours for better or for worse.

This disruption is as important as the upheaval brought about by the modern science in the 17th century. Antoni van Leeuwenhoek’s and Robert Hooke 26microscopes, Galileo Galilei’s telescope 27, gave access to unbelievable worlds : so they participated to the human being exclusion from the center of the universe.

The birth of the picture « come from the light », as a new technology of representation, echos to the cultural disruption of European Renaissance.  The albertian perspective’s laws, were then unifying the artistic, scientific fields and the different guilds : exchanges became easiness.

Nevertheless, our classic system of vision is challenged. The « View of Boulevard du Temple » a very early daguerreotype made by François Arago and Jacques-Louis Mandé Daguerre 28 or by  in 1840, is emblematic. We need a very powerful magnifying glass to detect a lightning conductor, a broken window, an advertising inscription in the picture .They were not seen by eyes but seen by the daguerreotype. Contrary to that, the boulevard, lively at the time of the photographic shot, was empty on the picture. All the people, the horses, the horse-drawn carriage disappeared : the exposure time was too long. Moving the border between visible and invisible, photography questionned the boundaries between the knowable and the unknowable.

Quickly it appears that the different colors of Newton ‘s spectrum obtained from white light don’t affect the photographic plate in a same manner 29. At last the sensitive plate keeps tracks from infrared and ultraviolet rays, which are invisible to the human eyes. Paradoxically the birth of photography energizes the researches about invisible rays. The ondulatory theory of light whose François Arago is an unsheakable supporter, ends the unification : a wave lenght is awarded to each radiation, visble or invisible.

Then came a double interest for spectrums. In French language, the word « spectrum » is the same to refer to the decomposition of the white light and to designate a ghost.

The interest of the new picture stays in its truth, said its contemporaries.

If its naturality brings it closer to the scientific field, at the opposite, it moves it away from the artistic domain 30.  For a long time photography will bring such a mark. It is still often taken as a pseudo-art. This fact is still increased by its reproductibility.

A unprecedented « coming before »

From 1881, the French physiologist Etienne Jules Marey, whose the year 2004 is the centenary of the death, tried to obtain a photographic track coming directly from the bodies themselves 31. White balls, white animals…are moving in front of a black screen 32: the sensitive plate keeps the track of their movements. Then Etienne Jules Marey put reflective, metal strips along the members  of people dressed with black clothes, walking, running, jumping before the black screen.

The procedure was remarkable : it results from it a « coming before »33  of the track : reality is put on stage according to its future photography. The aesthetic of these pictures is unprecedented, perhaps because they are the result of scientific procedures. The physiologist used them to quantify the speed of the bodies, the work spent in theses movings. Marey wanted to establish a compared animal physiology as Cuvier did whith the compared animal anatomy.

Photography again quarrels the art boundaries.

Beyond it reorganizes the division between art and knowledge, ephemeral and permanent, subject and object, human and device, technique and nature.

For Junichirô Tanizaki, the Occident, inventor of ahead technologies would have followed the natural way untill today. The Orient, in front of a such civilization, would have been obliged to match one’s conduct to its principles. A lot of troubles would have come from that. « We are using the same films but the Westerners, because they have invented the corresponding devices, have adapted them to their own artistic expression. » 34

The writer seems right for the perspective’s rules of representation and for the photographic realism. Nevertheless, in Europe, the integration of the new picture inside the art’s domain is not straightaway obtained. A lot of people are amazed by the radical difference between painting and the new technical picture.

In 1840 a correspondant of the Science Academy in Paris 35 told the visite he made at Daguerre’s  workshop : « We went out of the almost magic Daguerre’s workshop. We were preoccupied with that we have just seen. We were in a strange moral and physical situation.

That we felt was very different from that we were feeling at the view of our painting exhibitions. We noticed that the difference between the two sensations came from the fact that the first one belongs almost entirely to the nature while the other one was the fruit of human work. The painting is inaccurate in its details, false in its whole. Inside it, all is art, all is monstruous. That comes from the fact that the artist has at his diposal only coarse means, mud and a broom, to create an art work which provides only torments for the eye and the spirite of the observer  without authorizing him to say other words than : « I don’t like this painting ». »

This testimony is isolate but it reveals the sentiment of a breaking predominating at this time. At the opposite, a lot of criticisms were levelled at the photographic pictures, because of the easiness and the quickness of its making which helped its democratization.

The works of Etienne Jules Marey, these of the photograph Eadward Muybridge who came before 36, influenced Marcel Duchamp and italian futurists 37; the first one would have imitated them, the others worked possibly against them. In the 19th century, a lot of artists used photographs at the beginning of their pictural work. But the exact influence of photographic representation technology stays, in a large manner, still to study. Possibly, the hypothesis of an autonomy of the two developments would be favoured.

Undestanding the photographic fact

In our works, photographic fact is still  taken in account in a european context, with specific technical evolution and symbolic history of light. What about others contexts than this of its birth ? What happened when the new picture arrived in other countries, sometimes very far from its point of departure ? Were the prime movers of geographic transferts, of an aesthetic or a technological charactere ?

   These research works favour more their object than a belonging to a scientific discipline. They oblige to circulate between aesthetic, epistemology, art history, science history. But this way is the only for this who wants to undestand the photographic fact in its whole length.

There are a lot of works about the birth of the picture of light. The circulation of these moving and effective pictures, their influences, their part in overstepping the borders, in travelling fom one continent to another one still remain to study. A huge field of researches opens.

1  About « light » as a metaphor, read  Sicard Monique (direction), Lux, des Lumières aux lumières, Gallimard, 2000

2  Beaune Jean-Claude (direction), Ferchichi Sami,  La valeur de l’obscurité dans la tradition occidentale, master attended in Jean Moulin Lyon III University (France), 2001.

3  Beillevaire Patrick, Le voyage au Japon, Anthologie de textes français 1858-1908, Collection Bouquins, Robert Laffont, Paris, 2001

Boothroyd Ninette, Détrie Muriel, Le voyage en Chine, Anthologie des voyageurs occidentaux du Moyen-âge à la chute de l’Empire chinois, Collection Bouquins, Robert Laffont, Paris, 1992  

4  Tanizaki Jûnichiro, « inei raisan », Tokyo, 1933/  Eloge de l’ombre, Pof, 1993 (French translation : René Sieffert )

5  Escande Yolaine, Lumières d’encre, Peinture et calligraphie chinoise in  De la lumière, Revue d’Esthétique n°37, Jean-Michel Place, Paris, 2000

6  The expression comes from the « Propos »de Shitao. It is reused by Fabienne Verdier, Cyrille Javary et Jacques Dars in the title of their book L’unique trait de pinceau, Albin Michel, 2001

7  Niépce Nicéphore Notice sur l’héliographie, novembre 1829, (Fonds Janine Niépce, Archives of the French National Library, Paris)

8  Jay Paul, Nicéphore Niépce, French National Center of Photography, 1997

9  Figuier Louis, Les Merveilles de la Science, Furne et Jouvet, 1867 - 1869

10  « A la main tremblante de l’artiste, au regard incertain, à l’instrument rebelle, on substitue les forces irrésistibles des agents naturels. C’est ainsi que les puissances aveugles de la nature tendent à remplacer la main et presque l’intelligence de l’homme. » « The compelling forces of nature are substituted to the trembling hand of the artist, the uncertain glance, the unruly tool. So the blind powers of nature aim to take the place of the hand, almost the intelligence of man. » Turpin Jean-François, French Science Academy (CRAS), avril 1840

11  Peirce Charles Saunders, Ecrits sur le signe, rassemblés, traduits, commentés par G. Deledalle, Le Seuil, Paris, 1978

12  Wlliam Henry Fox Talbot, Correspondence, website

13  Prosper Mérimée (1803 – 1870) became secretary of the French National Commission of Historic Monuments in 1837 then, in 1839, he became vice-président of this same commission. He kept this office until his death.

14  During ten years, from 1859 to 1868,  the French geologist Aimé Civiale travelled throuph the alpine range from the French town Grenoble to Austria with his mule and a heavy luggage.  During his long walk, he made a lot of photographs.

Read Civiale A., Les Alpes au point de vue de la Géographie physique et de la Géologie, Paris C.1882

15 Civiale A., Op. cité

16  This invention was made by the english pionnier of photography : William Henry Fox Talbot

17  Frizot Michel, Le négatif et les principes d’inversion en photographie, Etudes photographiques n°5, novembre 1998, Paris

18  Vilém Flüsser, Für eine Philosophie der Fotografie, Göttingen, 1983.

19  See Peirce Charles Saunders (Op. cité) et Schaeffer Jean-Marie, L’image précaire, du dispositif photographique, Le Seuil, 1987

20   Benjamin Walter, (Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit) L’oeuve d’art à l’ère de sa reproducibilité technique, dernière version de 1939, in  Walter Benjamin, Œuvres III, traduction de Maurice de Gandillac, Rainer Rochlitz, Pierre Rusch, Gallimard, 2000

21  Civiale Aimé, Op. cité

22  Frizot Michel, Nicéphore Niépce, inventeur : un Prométhée rétrospectif, in Flahault François (direction), L’idéal prométhéen, Communications n°78, Seuil, 2005, Paris

23  Voir Sicard Monique, La fabrique du regard, Images de science et appareils de vision, Odile Jacob, 1998, Paris/ Chinese translation : Borderland Books, Taïwan, 2005-2006

24  Arago François, Fixation des images qui se forment au foyer d’une chambre obscure, French Sciences Academy, 7 janvier 1839

25  Arago François, Fixation…. Op.cité

26  See Sicard Monique, La fabrique du regard,… Op. cité

27  Sicard Monique,  L’œil ou la lunette : Galilée contesté,  Sciences humaines hors-série n°43, Décembre 2003 – Janvier-février 2004

28   Most books about the beginnings of photography mention Daguerre as the author of this famous daguerreotype. But, the French Sciences Academy account of 1839 february the 4th and L’Echo du Monde savant, (n°412, 1839 February the 13th),wrote : « (…) M. Arago s’est assuré, en faisant une vue du Boulevart du Temple, qu’il n’est nullement nécessaire d’être peintre ou dessinateur pour réussir aussi bien que M. Daguerre lui-même. (…) ». (« By taking a picture of the « Temple Boulevard « , M. Arago checked that it is not indispensable to be a painter or a drawer to suceed as well as M. Daguerre himself. »

29  See the letter writtent by William Henry Fox Talbot, sent to M. Biot, then published by the French Sciences Academy on 1841, March, the 15th.

30  According to the French botanist Turpin Jean-François, Op. cité

31  Frizot Michel,  E. J. Marey, 1830/ 1904, La photographie du mouvement,  Centre Georges Pompidou Musée national d’art moderne, 1977, Paris

Sicard Monique, L’année 1895, l’Image écartelé entre voir et savoir, Les Empêcheurs de penser en rond, Le Seuil, 1995, Paris

32  Frizot Michel, E. J. Marey Op. cité

33  « Précession de la trace », « the coming before of the trace »

34  Tanizaki J., Op. cité

35  Turpin Jean-François, Op. cité

36  Sicard Monique, L’image comme preuve ; essai critique sur les relations entre la science et les images, Thesis attended in Nanterre Paris X University, 1996

37  Sicard Monique, La photographie scientifique, les académismes et les avant-gardes,  Alliage n°39, été 1999, pp. 67-78, article repris de Le arti e le scienze (revue d'esthétique), Il Mulino , Bologne, Italia, 1995