The eye, its powers and the photographic camera: 19th century ideas of "automatism" Versão para impressão E-mail
Autor: Margarida Medeiros   
The eye, its powers and the photographic camera: 19th century ideas of "automatism"
The ophtahlmoscope
The eye as a camera
Body automatisms
Works cited


The History of Photography has been selecting photographs that in some way fit within western erudite cultural tradition. They correspond to patrons of reception, organization and cataloguing, which depend upon that tradition. This patrons tend to underline representational tradition centered in renaissance perspective, and are supported by a rationalist discourse that also selects rational discourses about photography, locating this last one in a sort of continuum within the history of "art".

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Meanwhile, what we could nominate as the photography imaginarium, had been improved far beyond the reasonable, with a prolixity and a reception that largely overcame the positivist and rationalist circles within it was (also) born. If we just read specialized newspapers and magazines from the years that followed the invention of photography, we can see the wide range of publics they were addressing to, which collaborate and contribute to them. It was also very evident in scientific newspapers, academic reviews, and popular magazines, and just after the 50’s of XIX century, that photography was not just a matter of art or of ‘pictorial’ representations that would overcome painting.
To Bill Jay, the reading of early photography periodicals reveals a whole world that is not usually reported in the traditional historical accounts, because authors are generally worried about “art” and its patterns of representation. The reason for this ‘effacement’ lays in the fact that these historians share common point of views:
They look back at the past in order to discover people, processes, images and events which act as direct precedents for contemporary attitudes. (…) The past is used to justify the present. Inevitably, the rigid and restrictive selection process eliminates the mistakes, human foibles, and false avenues of enquiry and abortive enthusiasms of the early practioners while creating a lineage from then to now. This is what I call the outside-in view of history.[1]

Also, in the History of Photography’s culture there are not just photographs. A lot of expectations, fantasies, deliriums, inspired in a so impressive technology have come along. It was reading Bill Jay’s book that I became particularly interested on optography. ‘Optography’ means the photograph that (hypothetically) is made by the eye itself, and that gets imprinted on the retina in a way that can be observed postmortem or even photographed. It was an idea that came along the last half of XIX century, although the term was not used generally, except in a scientific context. It’s about these "impossible photographs" that I would like to write here.
Optography trough its different names has been feeding popular and more erudite minds over decades. Scientific papers, entertainment journals, popular almanac, national daily newspapers, with broad distribution over the five continents, have been publishing notes more or less expanded, more or less ‘scientific’ about it, sometimes barely sustained except in commonsense superstitions.
Coming across all these kind of ‘sources’ we found ourselves recalling Michel Foucault’s ‘discursive formations’ concept, naming the proximity of enouncements that come from very different places, or spaces, but which, in its contents, share the same theme but not necessarily the same ‘object’. It means that sometimes these narratives configure deeply different discursive natures (from scientific to commonsense, from literary to ideological ones), although, apparently, they are speaking about the same thing [2].
Actually, in a certain way, they are. I this paper I will follow the different forms this narrative took inside the nineteenth century culture, the distant places from it was brought out, the ways it interacted with so different forms of constructing reality, in their appearance and dispersion: literature, science, rumors, forensic science…

[1] Bill Jay “Cyanide & Spirits/ An Inside-Out View of Early Photography”, Nazraeli Press, Munich, 1991, p. 2

[2] As Foucault says, in Archéologie du Savoir (1969), the discursive formation as a relation between enouncements that sometimes “are not identical trough time”: “But perhaps one might discover a discursive unity if one sought it not in the coherence of concepts, but in their simultaneous or successive emergence, in the distance that separates them and even in their incompatibility. One would no longer seek an architecture of concepts sufficiently general and abstract to embrace all others and to introduce them into the same deductive structure; one would try to analyze the interplay of their appearances and dispersion.” (p.52)

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