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Photography’s Immaculate Conception

“The immaculate conception of photography”, a term used by the writer Paul Levinson, conveys the unique nature of the camera’s ability to capture a piece of reality.


Raffaello SANTI, dit RAPHAËL (Urbino, 1483 - Rome, 1520)Portrait de Baldassare Castiglione, écrivain et diplomate (1478 - 1529)H. : 0,82 m. ; L. : 0,67 m.Collection de Louis XIVINV. 611
Raffaello Santi, dit Raphael (Urbino, 1483 – Rome, 1520) Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione

Sean Sheehan


Photons bounce off things – our eyes’ optical nerves process them to give us pictures – and a camera can fix the same picture through a photo-chemical process onto light-sensitive material.

Early photography seemed like a form of magic.

It possessed a transparency that undermined a painting’s ability to pictorially render the world.

This visualizing of the visible gave photography its power, an act of reciprocity rooted in an apparent showing forth of objectivity.

The painter’s imagination and empathy brings an authentic and emotional quality to the depiction of real moments – think of Goya’s “The Third of May 1808”– but photos of Jewish men, women and children, taken moments before they were clubbed and machined-gunned to death in eastern Europe by the Einsatgruppen and their collaborators have an ontological force that cannot transfer to a canvas.

This force is based on a physical, photon-based connection between the photograph and its source. Kenaan refers to the meeting of Odysseus with his mother, Antikleia, in Hades to convey the power released by such image-making.

Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People

For Odysseus, she is present and he converses with her but the condiion of her being is pervaded by absence.

Kenaan’s book is an extended discussion of questions about photography raised by theorists like Barthes in “Camera lucida” and contemporary practitioners of the art.

For Henri Cartier-Bresson, photography’s foundational allegory is the Greek myth of Antaeus: his tremendous strength made him invincible but only if he remained in touch with the earth.

The question now is whether photography is losing this connection with the earth and Kenaan quotes a friend who tells him, “Today, there’s no such thing as photography –there are only images”.

Looking at the work of Antonio Pérez Río in “Masterpieces”, the friend has a point.

His photographs of visitors to the Louvre are alarming: the people come not to see the paintings but to take photos of them. Their pictures, he says, ‘are an act of affirmation before the world, a kind of social behaviour’.

Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa

The perspicacious text of his photobook, also in Spanish, is a series of heartfelt notes and observations arising from particular paintings in the Louvre and the experience of seeing visitors more intent of using their camera phones than contemplating the works of arts.

He stands before the “Mona Lisa” and the crowds of people taking selfies before it: “the culminating moment of a pagan pilgrimage… The important thing… not to feel, but to obtain”.

With sadness he sees “paintings and sculptures that have survived several centuries face people who visit the museum for once in their lives and refuse to look directly at them.”

What started as a virgin conception has dismayingly gestated into something terribly maculate.

“Photography and its shadow, by Hagi Kenaan, is published by Stanford Universty Press.

“Masterpieces Obras maestra” by Antonio Pérez Río, is published by  LENS Books

(Photos provided by the photographer Antonio Pérez Río)

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