The Material Construction of an Extra Large Format Camera: Its Historical Implications and Its Neighborhood


6 Nisan 2018

30x40 2017 1 1 Elio Montanari, <i>the 30x40</i>, 2017
Fotoğraf: Mustafa Hazneci
Elio Montanari, the 30x40, 2017
Fotoğraf: Mustafa Hazneci
Let us start with the acknowledgements. I would like to express my appreciation of SALT for realizing the project of the 30x40 (2017) with special thanks to Vasıf Kortun and November Paynter, as well as Meriç Öner and Onur Yıldız, for their concern and inspiring proposals. Last but not least, all my respect goes to the production team, directed by Sani, who implemented the tool whose construction we are celebrating here this evening.

What you will hear is nothing but an attempt at communicating a composition of heterotopic materials including different topics, efforts, reflections, intuitions and notions, simply because I like them for what they are in themselves and for themselves. I am also grateful to you all. I appreciate your presence here as this talk allows me to elaborate on a topic I have never thematized.

An object, as an object, is nothing else but itself, close to itself and silent like the image which belongs to it. On the other hand, the word is aperture to things, it opens to their senses. When we talk about a material object, we give a meaning to it.

I am not a thinker. As a photographer, I limit my interest to the show of the world, in other terms, the phenomenology of the sensible. But the show is contemplated only when it is meaningful. And what is meaningful does not come after what is seen but the sensitive experience.

Assuming the semiological language in the Saussurean sense of the term, we may say that “something” we call signified, which finds its concrete correlate in the signifier, comes into being with the language. And by the fact that the language implies the other, socializing drives the technique of the inner discourse into an ethical dimension. Only the one who speaks or listens really understands something through a word, and the act to signify that way is brought back to its natural seat: the person pursuing her/his understanding of “things” through the use of words.

But to what extent does this discursive technology help us get closer to the object? In our case, to the 30x40 folding camera. Is it possible to describe the way a machine works in words? If so, to what extent, and with what success?

Portraying a machine in words and with few drawings is rather a difficult task. Many competencies are required, once we go down to details. You may find my description difficult to understand just as I found the descriptions I came across during my research at archives and libraries challenging. They always lack some information, and often do so on purpose, providing a very small part of the details we need. Actually, what is needed is found through experimentation.

At this point, we enter a very delicate and complex discourse, which is rarely dealt by historians of technique. This is “tacit knowing” as Michael Polanyi calls it.1 “Tacit knowledge” is the area “of the skills that are not communicated either because there is not awareness of possessing them or because they are given little importance.”2 This is a field in which the tacit powers of the mind are found to be decisive. What are they? They organize our experiences in order for us to reach our goals. For instance, they help us orient ourselves in an unknown city when we do not have a map and maintain our equilibrium on a bicycle or a rope. They also facilitate a blind person to extend the limits of his/her body to the tip of the white stick. We find the tacit knowledge in action in all our daily actions like eating spaghetti or using chopsticks. To sum up, we may say that we know more than we think.

Coming back to the concrete reality of the 30x40 and its construction, we may question the meaning of building an extra large format wooden camera in the contest of technological innovations.

Following the magnificent examples of the ancient Greeks and Romans, I prefer turning my back to future, not because I am not progressivist, but simply because I prefer focusing on the past, the beginnings, and the origins.

I, myself, do not blame theoretical work but believe that a theory or an idea, if not verified empirically, is precarious and uncertain. They do not satisfy the eternal need of men for certainties. The necessity to consider the link between practice and theoretical knowledge becomes evident at this point, and it has often, at least since Galileo, been seen as a difficult and complex one.

To better articulate my point, I would like to focus on the relationship between scientists and those technicians, who were entrepreneurs and constructors of machinery with concrete applications, such as urban irrigation or optimization of existing machinery’s functioning. Let us try to get an idea of the history of that complexity through the work of John Theophilus Desaguliers, who died some decades before the outset of the Industrial Revolution. He was a member of the Royal Society, a pupil of Isaac Newton, and a philanthropist like many Newtonians. He held courses in experimental physics at Oxford. A so-called “good” engineer, convinced that the knowledge he possessed was socially useful, Desaguliers was concerned with the need to link theory and practice, teaching and experimentation. He was not a pure theorist without practical engineering.

Like Galileo, Desaguliers also expressed his contempt for those who built new machinery without having any training in theoretical mechanics. Despite this criticism, he admitted that there were “projectors” with such strong natural genius on the subject matter. They performed great works and built rules upon facts and observations without any previous knowledge of maths and philosophy. There were many “men of practice” who called themselves “engineers.” Although most of them were incapable of calculating, they estimated the force of water stream by sight, and Desaguliers recognized that the one who had the most practice was likely to succeed. Those were the days of “engine makers” -smiths, plumbers, carpenters- who plagiarized each other like poets and writers. He criticized this generation of entrepreneurs thirsty for money and lacking professional responsibility.3 It would not be difficult to provide more examples of such a general mistrust between scientists and artisans.

Desaguliers wanted to have a better understanding of the technical practice of artisans, yet he realized that this was not easy. He affirms that “[…] it is a combination among most workmen to make a mystery of their arts” and “they look at him as a false brother.”4 The same difficulty was also encountered by Denis Diderot, when he was compiling Encyclopédie. In the third volume under the entry of “Arts,” he invited the artisans to take part in his project advising them not to let their discoveries die with them or subordinate the interest of all to the interest of one.

After this short historical excursus underlying the general mistrust between scientists and artisans, we now move to the core of the 30x40’s construction. What is the purpose of building a camera with the largest format plates available in the market? We will see it in a moment. Before that, some considerations must be made. The photographic technique we are considering here is the traditional one: chemical photography. I prefer “chemical” not “analog” simply because “analog” is not the correct term to use in photography. It is acquired from the music recording terminology, as in recording the analogical figure of live sound. Instead, “chemical photography” produces a miniaturization of reality, so it cannot be said that what we see in a picture is an analogical figure of the real. That is why we can say that reality and its own image share the same ontological statute.

In order to emphasize this statement, it would be interesting to look at what Alexander Dorner, an American pragmatist and the pupil of [John] Dewey, says about the notion of “magic art,” which I will briefly summarize. In his book, The Way beyond “art,” (1958) Dorner observes that the pre-Hellenic magic reproduction does not make any distinction between the living thing, such as beings, animals, plants, clouds, planets, the sensitive impression of the rain, the ways followed by a nomadic society, and its image. Imagine, for a moment, the nomadic prehistoric man with his instinctive mentality. He faces objects moving by an unstable energy. Such form of thoughts and actions, whose mental processes are limited to the sensitive experience, are called “magic.”

The objects of magic “art” are alive; they act. This has nothing to do with aesthetic pleasure. The image of living things appears alike to the eye, ear, and touch. There is no difference between an object and its behavior, between the event and its symbol. Let us look at the buffalo drawn on the walls of a cave. The man with magic mentality could feel the smell or anticipate movements while looking at its image. Here the image is neither a symbol of the idea of the buffalo, nor an allegory. Instead, it evocates a previous sensitive experience of the living animal.

We mentioned earlier that reality, or what we mean by that term, and its image share the same ontological statute. Nevertheless, between reality and its own image, there is a distance, an interval, a void, a nothing. This, I believe, is the substance of the mechanical reproduction of reality as well as a metaphor of life. I see an analogy between that and my experience in Edirne during the last Kurban Bayramı [Feast of Sacrifice]. While listening to the sabah ezanı [morning azan], one could not help but notice that the extremely skillful imam rose the volume and tonality of his voice at the end of each sentence and how he waited until the echo of his voice completely faded into silence before he continued. In that pause, that empty space without words, one could feel all the power of God.

Now, let me submit to your attention what Walter Benjamin writes in a dense passage in his book Kleine Geschichte der Photographie [A short history of photography] (1931) This will lead us to another path towards the theoretical understanding of the image. He states that photography reveals, with its materials, hidden, secret, intuitive visual worlds in such a way they find a shelter into dreams with open eyes, but when they become evident reveal how the difference between technique and magic is only an historical variable. Assuming the Lacanian interpretation of reality partially, in spite of the symbolic form’s despotic hegemony, not all is disappearing in the signifier; only something, a tiny bit of the real, is captured by it. Nevertheless that enigmatic, inexpressible, opaque something, which cannot be reduced to the signifier, is missing there, in the image. It is a rereading of the Freudian “thing” originally lost, something that is already beyond of the signified, which is not language. What we see in a photographic image is neither representation nor presence of what is figured. It is just an echo, a reflection of what got lost of the real. What is left of reality is not representation, which is like a dream that is masking reality; it is that “something” which is there in the form of loss. We may say that there is a sense of oblivion of “there is” or the Heideggerian da-sein [existence]. That is what is displayed in the image: something which is there in the form of loss.

In photography, the abandon of representation is due to the interpretation of photography as an index by the American philosopher and semiologist Charles Sanders Peirce, who observed that the photographic image is a special kind of sign. It is a sign in which the signifier brings in itself the symptoms, the physical traces of the signified. In other terms, we should consider the photographic image as an imprinting similar to footprints on sand or traces of flame on a burned piece of wood. Did we forget that the enlightened jury of the Biennale di Venezia (1988) awarded the Golden Lion for sculpture to the Beckers?

We finally return to our basic question: “Why did we build an extra large camera?” In his Kleine Geschichte der Photographie, commissioned in the late summer 1931, Benjamin considers the loss of the aura (the feeling we get when we look at a photograph shot with long exposure) as a consequence of technical innovations -a wide aperture of the diaphragm and a fast sensitive emulsion- making the instant shot possible. In the same passage, Benjamin uses the term “object” to designate what we see in the picture. The use of the term “object” here reveals a misunderstanding due to his lack of photographic practice, being himself a pure theorist. Instead, what we actually see in the picture is the “subject.” That semantic shift of object/subject underlines the question of “authoriality” among others. In almost all creative fields, the author is the one who carries the responsibilities of the project. At the same time, there are objects, products of the people’s phantasy that bring them to their final shape in a diachronic process. Just like what happened to the old stool found in Constantinople by Le Corbusier, who then sketched it in his journal, and to the gondola in Venezia, for instance.

What helps us here, in order to clarify Benjamin’s misunderstanding, is William Henry Fox Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature (1844), known as the first photographic book in history. The images, captured in the garden using extremely long exposures, which Benjamin believes to be the cradle of the aura, brought Talbot a step further through his empirical experience. Talbot explored the role of the photographer, who set the conditions for realizing what we may call the “narcissism of nature.” In his view, the photographer does not belong to the author figure.

To further explain my point and why we have realized the 30x40, we should recall here that chemical photography is the result of two different actions: the physical and the chemical. During the first phase, we observe that the differences of light carried by the rays physically touch the sensitive surface of the plate, forming what is called “latent image” that cannot yet be seen. The chemical used in the second stage of the procedure reveals the “latent image,” transforming the salt of silver nitrate into silver metal once fixed with hyposulphite. This is briefly how the negatives are produced. When we want to print the positive image “by contact” in the darkroom, we superimpose the sensitive side of the exposed plate over that of the paper. Doing so, we allow the rays of light, which originally touched the surface of the negative image, to meet the paper surface carrying the positive image. When we touch something, we are touched by it.

In light of this consideration, we may affirm that the contact print is the only condition to preserve the emanation of nature, understood as subject, and the atmosphere of “what has been.” Only something is captured by the signifier; that something essential to the image is the reason of its existence. The rays of light are present there within the photographic image whose indexical value regenerates the presence of the aura completely freed from Benjamin’s belief.

Thank you all for the kind attention.

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This text is an edited version of the talk that Montanari gave in December 2017 at SALT Galata.
  • 1.
    Polanyi studied chemistry in Budapest and Berlin. He taught physics of chemistry in Manchester, in 1933. In 1948, he started teaching social sciences at Manchester University and lectured at several American universities. He concluded his career at Oxford University.
  • 2.
    Carlo Poni, "The Silk Milk. The Factory before the Industrial Revolution in Early Modern Europe." (date unknown)
  • 3.
    I similarly criticize the new artists, not all of them of course, which I call the "CV" generation, thirsty for fame and success with little sense of professional artistic responsibilities. For instance in today's photography, the conception of "photography as art" prevails, which is very dangerous for the "art of photography." It is the belief of those opportunistic photographers who follow the liberistic neo-colonialism of a degenerate bourgeoisie. "Photography as art" prefigures selling more than knowledge.
  • 4.
    Carlo Poni, "The Craftsman and the Good Engineer: Technical Practice and Theoretical Mechanics in J. T. Desaguliers," History & Technology, vol. 10, 1993, 215-232