I visited Austin for the first time this weekend. Besides the music, the food, and the people watching I found time to go to the Harry Ransom Center. Not knowing what would be on display, I took my chances and hoped for something photo related. My main goal was to finally get a chance to see Niepce’s first photograph from his window.
On display was the life and times of Edgar Allen Poe in honor of his 200th birthday this year, images from the history of star gazing, the Guttenberg Bible, and Niepce’s photo. The photo is encased in what appears to be a semi permanent installation near the entrance. The photo is basically inside a box and lit from above. The lighting isn’t the greatest for viewing the photo as it is hard to see from straight on, you have to move around to all sorts of angles to get a glimpse. Sadly it actually renders better in some of the pictures you have seen of it in books than it does in person unless you catch just the right angle.
I came across other photos in the gallery, a Dagurreotype of Poe, a Julia Margaret Cameron portrait of Herschel, and some large photos taken moon, but I kept returning to look at Niepce’s photo. In fact I went back five times. I wanted to understand how this one object became what it is today, how before this photo, there were no other photos. It is hard to imagine a world without photography as we have become so utterly dependent on it to display everything we cannot see in person. It has in essence become our roving eyes of the world. I remember quite clearly life before digital, but I talked to a teenager the other day who couldn’t remember cell phones that did not have cameras. So how then did we go from nothing to utter dependency?
I know when I ask most people why they take and keep photos, the common response is for the memories. Most people want a visual reminder of the things and events that were important in their life. Who doesn’t like to look through old photo albums from their families? More than that though we have become almost addicted to what the image has come to represent. The image has come to stand in for our memory and has become a document of proof, the proof that we were there or took place in an event.