From Image as Trace: Speculations about an undead paradigm


Elegy for a Fly

( extract From Image as Trace: Speculations about an undead paradigm, Peter Geimer, Differences, Vol 18, No1 2006.

Around the year 1870 a fly flew around the towers and battlements of a citadel south of Cairo. During its flight, it circled the photogra- pher Antonio Beato, the director of a photography studio and older brother of the famous Felice, and the person who had presented the European public with the first photographs of the Crimean War fifteen years earlier. Antonio had been living in Luxor since 1862 and was known for his pho- tographs of archaeological sites, architectural monuments, and Egyptian villages. The fly, however, was nothing but a fly, a nameless insect among thousands, which flies about for a few days and then disappears forever, unnoticed and without a chance of being delivered into the afterworld. While Beato was taking this picture, however, the fly had gotten inside the camera and landed on the photosensitive glass plate coated with collodion. And thus it was photographed, together with the citadel towers, the Cairo sky, and the Mameluke graves in the foreground of the shot. The fly remains motionless in the picture. As Hubertus von Amelunxen writes, “[I]t determines the image, fixes it in time and removes it from its time. The fly is a contemporary” (“Tomorrow” 17). The fact that the photo is dated “around 1870” also points to the historical existence of the fly. The moment that Beato fixed the image of the stone buildings, the fly also emerged from anonymity. It is the only trace of a living creature in this scene devoid of human life. The photograph shows that it existed and that it was present at this location when the shot was taken.

A casual glance at the picture might initially suggest that one is looking not at an insect from the past, but rather at a fly that is alive and present, ready to move across the paper. This real fly would linger for a time on the surface of the picture, move jerkily from one spot to another, and finally fly away, buzzing around and disappearing into the depths of the room, rendering Beato’s photo an “Egyptian Landscape without Fly.” In this respect, the iconography of the image resembles the old art historical tradition of the trompe l’oeil, especially those deceptively realistic flies that are familiar to us from the fifteenth century.6 Giorgio Vasari writes in his Vite that one day Giotto came before his teacher Cimabue’s paint-ing and painted a fly on the nose of the figure in the portrait. Later, when Cimabue returned to finish his painting, he tried to shoo the fly away from the canvas.7 The triumph of painting is complete.

The painted fly [. . .] augments the painting’s capacity to deceive the eye in that it brings forward a detail of the image towards the spectator, making it appear as if it were coming out of the surface of the painting [. . .]. By painting an insect on the canvas or the panel, the painter gives proof of his mastery. (Arasse 80)

The painted fly thus tells not of the realism of painting, but, on the contrary, of how it facilitates illusion. The viewer is left to marvel at this “as if” quality of painting. If the deception were so perfect that no one could expose it, there would be no praising the art of painting. The trompe l’oeil unfolds precisely when the illusion is recognized as such: in the moment that the viewer wonders at this feat of mimetic mastery. The painted fly withdraws from the realm of the seemingly real and makes its way into the artistic, illusory world of painting.

It is by now quite clear that the fly on Beato’s photograph belongs to a mode of representation thoroughly different from painting. Even if it might have tricked the eye for a few moments, it is nonetheless not the sort of trompe l’oeil that I have been describing. For what sort of virtuosity, what kind of representational “as if” could become an object of awe in this context? This fly was not “made.” It happened to be present when the photograph was taken and literally inserted itself into the picture.

Its presence in the image is in this respect an example of the sort of “unmo- tivatedness” that Sybille Krämer has described as a feature of the trace: “Traces are not made; rather, they are (involuntarily) left behind.”

At the same time, one does not of course see an actual fly, but rather a copy that this historical insect left on the sensitive collodion film of the photographic plate “around 1870.” The fly is thus an artifact, like all the other objects in the picture. Its method of reproduction nonethe- less differs from that of everything else in the picture. From a purely technical point of view, the question arises whether the image of the fly is even photographic—like all the other depicted objects are—or whether it is not, rather, a photogram. As is well known, a photogram is made not by projecting rays of light through the lens of the camera, but by bringing the image-medium and the object into direct physical contact. Photograms were the earliest historical examples of photographic images; they were made by placing a plant or a swatch of lace on a piece of photosensitive paper (or leather) and exposing it to the light of the sun, as in the work of Thomas Wedgewood, Ann Atkins, or Talbot.8 Similarly in the case at hand, the fly was not actually photographed, but instead rested directly on the collodion film. Its body is dense and black, since no light shone through there; its small wings appear in transparent filigree.

Accordingly, the fly is the only object on the twenty by twenty- six centimeter albumin print that is not adjusted for perspective, but instead appears in its actual size of a few millimeters.9 Its place in the picture is not immediately clear. In which space does it dwell? Is it in the picture, together with the graves, the Cairo sky, and the towers of the cita- del? Presumably not. Though the insect measures but a few millimeters in size, as soon as one compares it to the towers and battlements in the middle ground of the image, what is tiny seems monstrous. To the viewer, the fly now seems to be nearly as big as the spires of the mausoleum and could easily fill up the entire area framed by a window. The fly appears together with the landscape, but at the same time separated from it. It seems to occupy a space on the image or in front of it; but this “in front” itself con- stitutes an entirely flat surface and is thoroughly unperspectival. This also applies to the original glass negative, which has not been preserved (and of which this picture is a print)—that is, the historical unicum upon which the fly landed one nineteenth-century day. The fly was preserved there in the sticky substance of the collodion emulsion, however this time not as a shadow, copy, or trace, but as “itself.” A specimen, perhaps? Or a mummy?

Beato’s photograph is a remarkable example, as far as histories of the photographic trace are concerned. The fly collided with the pho- tographic shot. It brought something from the real world into the repro- duction and transferred it to the picture in the form of a trace. A peculiar tension thus arose between the status of the fly and the reality content of the other objects in the image. As has already been noted, the photographic image is repeatedly described as a trace of reality, an index, a material reflection of the depicted objects. If, however, the towers and battlements in Beato’s photograph are optical bundles of light rays from afar, what pos- sibility remains for describing the outline of the fly, which is also produced by physical contact? The rendering of the fly and the rendering of all the other objects in the picture take part in two different techniques of repre- sentation. Judged against the optical projection of the remote landscape, the fly was by all accounts physically closer to the photographic medium. Beato’s photograph is so captivating precisely because in it two techniques of registration come together in one picture.

There is also a third form of inscription to be seen—the sig- nature of the photographer, who wrote his name in fine strokes on the photographic paper: “A. Beato.” It is an uncanny coincidence that the fly appears to be moving toward this writing. Or perhaps Beato quite con- sciously wrote his name next to the silhouette of the fly. In any case, it is hard to say whether the image of the fly is circumscribed by the artist’s enthusiastic signature. Can the flight of an insect be authored? The fly lingers in the picture, a detail that was not “made” by the photographer and of which he was initially most likely unaware. This detail was the result of a collision in the moment that the photograph was taken. Ever since, it has served as a second, laconic signature.

The Conductibility of Truth

These considerations have further complicated the question of the trace. Should we reserve the term trace for the “contact shadow” of the former fly and refrain from using it to speak of the far more indirect registration of the citadels, the desert sand, and the Cairo sky? For when we optically project an object onto a medium, is there actual physical contact? Or must we differentiate between two kinds of trace production, two unequal degrees of immediacy?

Clearly, it is easier to assimilate the photogram of the fly than the optical projection to the paradigm of the trace. Indeed, as Christoph Hoffmann has written, the example of the photogram, rather than the stan- dard case of pictorial transmission through an optical system, has often served as the starting point in theories of the trace.  For instance, Krauss has writ- ten that the photogram exhibits “the ghostly traces of departed objects.” She adds, “But the photogram only forces, or makes explicit, what is the case of all photography. Every photograph is the result of a physical imprint transferred by light reflections onto a sensitive surface” (“Notes” 203). The photographic image rests on a “physical relation to the referent” (“Marcel” e7).

Like Krauss, most theorists of the trace have described the actual process of producing traces as something that takes place when the ray of light “touches” the photographic plate (or the celluloid). Peirce writes that the photograph has an “optical connexion with the object” (Col- lected 359). Arnheim notes that “the physical objects themselves imprint their image by means of the optical and chemical action of light” (“On the Nature” 108). And Sontag speaks of “the registering of an emanation (light waves reflected by objects)” (“Image-World” 154). Her words are strongly reminiscent of a frequently cited passage in Barthes’s Camera Lucida:

The photograph is literally an emanation of the referent. From a real body, which was there, proceeds radiations which ulti- mately touch me, who am here; the duration of the transmission is insignificant; the photograph of the missing being, as Sontag says, will touch me like the delayed rays of a star. (80–81)

But how exactly does this “emanation of the referent” work? There is another passage in which Barthes seems to invoke a model of touching and imprinting: in photography, he writes, “the referent adheres” (6). The motif of touching is common to all the descriptions of the photographic trace that have been mentioned here: pattern and ground come into direct contact, as do the face of the dead and the death mask, and the foot and the sand; there is also contact between the nail and the hand that it pierces, between the weathervane and the wind that blows it. Indeed, this “continuum of material” represents an essential condition of the production of traces. “What makes it possible to leave traces and to read them is the material continuity, physicality and sensuousness of the world” (Krämer). And yet, in the case of photography we must be careful to speak of continuity and touching in a rather narrow sense of the words. Or does the appearance of a ray of light qualify as direct physical contact, even perhaps as a material “extension” of the light source? Does light “touch” the object upon which it shines? Is a lit surface the “imprint” of something? Christoph Hoffmann


has problematized these metaphors from the point of view of a historian of science. What these modes of reproduction have in common is that they “imply a direct registration of the image and eliminate every linking step from our thoughts—which is to say, what is medial in photography, namely the process of transmitting and producing a picture” (356). Joel Snyder has also pointed to the presence of such a “mediator,” which has a life of its own whose status lies somewhere between object and recording:

Much of the apparent explanatory power of impression derives from what appears to be the transfer of formal properties from the impressing object to the receiving medium. Even if impres- sion by means of physical contact does work that way, there is no comparable contact in photography. Objects are not active in the photographic process, rather it is light that effects a change in the photosensitive medium. Thus, even if “impression” is the right term to characterize the changes effected on photographic film, what impresses the film is light. (508)

Compared to such complex issues, the transmission of the object to the picture (and subsequently to the eye of the beholder) in the cited passages seems to be a surprisingly unproblematic process: the shutter is released and immediately the objects appear to rush forth as emanations of light that settle onto the photosensitive surface. Barthes is also strangely imprecise on this point (or perhaps simply uninterested in the technical side of these questions): an “emanation” takes place, “the duration of the transmission hardly matters” (80–81). But do pictures pro- duced in this way demonstrate the “conductibility of truth” (Latour 216)? Is a photographic trace a material “part” of the object, as Sontag writes? Or is it merely an emanation of light originating from the object and thus a transmission into another medium, as Barthes—but also, again, Sontag11— claims? Can we then say that the photographic trace represents an object? Or is the trace an extension of its presence? This question remains open. The authors quoted above describe the photographic image as something that involves touch and impression, but they are unable to elaborate on how they envisage the details of this process. Of course, it also remains unclear how one might answer the question of the material production of the photographic trace to any degree of satisfaction. Undoubtedly, the notation of a chemical formula that accounted for the interaction of silver salts and light would not bridge the gap between object and image: it would simply serve as a new metaphor in need of explanation.

What Photographs Are Not

It is altogether possible that we might discover what is special about photography in the very realm where we have been searching for it all along: in negation, that is, by recalling what it is not, no longer, or not only. “Most modern accounts of photography pl