Hybrid reproduction

Friedrich Tietjen

On second thoughts, “hybrid reproduction” is tautological. Any process of reproduction produces hybrids—since the format, materiality, appearance, or location of anything subjected to reproduction will be altered in some way. In light of Walter Benjamin’s influential essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, such translation or transformation of an original has in the past often been understood to be reductive (even though Benjamin’s discussion of the loss of aura does not necessarily point to this interpretation); and the reproduction itself has likewise been considered reductive as well as deficient in comparison to the original. If anything, it is argued, the reproduction can be no more than a necessary crutch when the original is not available.

More recently, however, this view of the reproduction has shifted thanks to reflection not only on the material differences between originals and reproductions but also on the options that reproductions afford us. It turns out that in the sciences as well as in the humanities, in professional research as well as in popular literature, reproductions convey both more and less than that which they reproduce. And it is both of these, the more and the less, that researchers look for when they make use of reproductions. Reproductions may lack the luster of authenticity and have ersatz written all over them. And yet much of what is undertaken in research would not be possible with the originals, be these paintings, anatomic specimens, or live animals.

The five chapters compiled in this part have in common that photography as a means of reproduction is approached in each from this perspective. And the respective authors are aware that to apply the photographic technique is to immediately deviate from any notion of conceptual purity (as in “the technical image” or “painting with light”) and enter the hazy realm of hybridity. Photographic reproductions are never only photographic; to be produced, circulated, and made useful they need also to be combined with other media and other concepts. The status of the resulting images—if images they are—is dubious. And this dubiosity is the primary prerequisite of their usefulness.

Estelle Blaschke’s chapter deals with a branch of photography whose products perhaps cannot be claimed to be images at all—but certainly they are reproductions. Introduced first around 1870, as a tool for storing and indexing data, microphotography exploited photography’s capacity to standardize forms and formats, thus assuring the flexibility and mobility of such data, be it images or text. The author sketches the hitherto largely unwritten history of this field, highlighting its advantages and drawbacks too. Students and researchers alike used microphotographs in the pre-digital era as carriers of latent information; for they appreciated having at least some access to those documents and images stored in locations inaccessible due to geography or institutional restrictions. However, rival enterprises in the sector could never agree on using one standard format of film or plate, each preferring to launch a proprietary format; and libraries and other institutional users were therefore obliged to purchase the relevant viewing device for each type of microphotographic product.

Friedrich Tietjen deals with what may be described as a kind of dead end in reproduction. In his chapter he looks at the illustrations in one of the most prominent German introductions to the history of art, Wilhelm Liibke’s Grundriss der Kunstgeschichte, first published in 1860. As was common with textbooks of the period, the first editions were illustrated with numerous wood engravings. Liibke died shortly after editing the eleventh edition and a younger colleague, Max Semrau, then took on the editorial and authorial work. The Grundriss thereupon grew in size, from an admittedly massive single volume to five volumes. And while Semrau continued to re-use many of the wood engravings from the earlier editions he also introduced the autotype, which was based on a photograph, drawing, or other source. In comparison to the wood engravings of the earlier editions, this mechanical, albeit often manually retouched or cropped type of reproduction certainly did not assure a better quality of epistemic surplus. The author argues that, even though by and large ignored in the text, illustrations were included in increasingly large numbers on account of the technical flexibility and cheap price of autotype processing; and they thus came over time to constitute a visual argument that ran parallel to the text.

Among the photographic industry’s most successful mass products rank the encyclopedic series of stereoscopic images published in the nineteenth century, which allowed their users to exclude the outside world and sink into a world of simulated spatial vision. However, as much as stereoscopy was used for entertainment it also had educational and scientific applications. Kelly Wilder, in her chapter deals in particular with the stereoscopic atlases used in medicine, asking what exactly editors and users gained by looking at the cards in an anatomic stereo atlas, for instance. Bearing in mind shifts, in the nineteenth century, in the sciences’ approach to their working objects, she argues that the stereographic image—be it photographic or graphic—had the benefit of training students not only in what to look for, but also in how to look. In a close reading of the performance enacted by looking at one such card, Wilder further posits that even images with little or no 3-D effect were appealing enough to prove indispensable for self-directed learning.

That photography is, or at least ought to be, true to nature is a notion probably nowhere more often asserted and disputed than in relation to photographs of what we habitually call nature, i.e., those areas full of luxuriant vegetation and untamed animals. Yet in particular the latter present photographers with a specific set of difficulties that—as Alexander Gall’s contribution demonstrates—generated a number of approaches interlacing graphic and photographic techniques. For most of the nineteenth century, and even many decades after the introduction of photography, images of animals in nature were made by means of graphic processes: Brehms Thierleben—first published from 1863 to 1868—included a vast number of often dramatic scenes of animals, executed in woodcuts. As few artists had opportunities to watch their subjects in the wilderness, the majority had to repair to zoological gardens to study movements and expressions. When the first instantaneous photographic processes became available in the 1870s they were used also in animal photography. Gall sketches the relation of these processes to earlier graphic images. He describes

Hybrid reproduction 131 how the conceptual design of such photographs owed much to earlier prints; not surprisingly, since most photographers, like the graphic artists before them, were obliged to work in zoos and used retouching to make the artificial scenery there look like a real wilderness. Even if certain photographers did not resort to retouching they nonetheless staged the setting, arranging flowers or leaves, or setting fledglings on a branch to obtain a better shot of how the parents fed them. And even when cameras were taken to the wilderness and animals triggered the shutter by means of tripwires, the scenes were staged. However, none of these interventions made the photographers doubt their pictures’ fundamental quality of being “true to nature”.

Jimena Canales’ chapter “The Fantasy of a World without Humans” offers a closure of sorts to this volume. The author begins with a simple yet profound observation: most of the reproductions and representations that we see and thereby take to be reality, i.e., to be depictions of the real world, are read in light of the tacit assumption that they show no one’s view—that they exist, namely, even without anyone looking at them. Recorded by apparatuses, they appear to have no author, and their apparent objectivity sets them apart both from nature and from culture. The author traces the history of this peculiar interest in representing the world and realities as if no one were there; and she also discusses another strange concurrent phenomenon: until the nineteenth century pictures without humans were relatively rare but they proliferated upon the introduction of recording apparatuses. Canales draws parallels to how the sciences likewise eliminate the human observer, by either reading it as just another kind of recording device or replacing it by seemingly objective and infallible sensors. And the disembodiment of sensing, more specifically, of seeing, does not stop there. In fact, the bulk of images made today are not primarily destined for human consumption—in traffic control and surveillance, machines make images for machines, and only the few they define as aberrations will eventually be looked at by human controllers. Moreover, all these measuring and recording machines simultaneously vanish behind whatever they permit us to see. They churn out reproductions that bear but little trace of the mechanisms of their production—and yet which we are so used to seeing this way, we rarely realize that we are in fact looking at a world without us.

 
Source
< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >