The Night Albums: Visibility and the Ephemeral Photograph
University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2021
168pp., illus. 17 b/w, 17 col. Trade, $85.00; paper, $29.95
ISBN: 978-0-520-38152-0; ISBN: 978-0-520-38154-4.
Studying the early history of photography, one at some point comes to a poignant realization: for several decades, prior to John Herschel’s application of hyposulphite of soda as a photographic fixing agent in 1839, light-based images were being made but could not be preserved unless they were kept out of sight, literally in the dark. For them to be visible required exposing them to light, which paradoxically had the effect of rendering them progressively invisible. These fugitive proto-photographs, lost to us now, have played the role of failed experiments in the history of photography, paving the way for the successes of the late 1830s and beyond. Photography, in contrast to these evanescent images, came to be defined as the achievement of something enduring. In William Henry Fox Talbot’s memorable phrase of 1839, photography is the “art of fixing a shadow,” a term used 150 years later as the title of a sprawling historical survey of the medium. In this foundational formulation, photography by its very nature arrests and makes permanent the fleeting phenomena of light. In the “dogged aspirations of the inventors to fix the image,” Kate Palmer Albers notes in this intriguing study, “the goal became the definition” (p. 5).
Taking a contrarian approach, Albers focuses on ephemeral photographs, broadly conceived. Her thesis is that disappearing images are not marginal but rather central to photography, whether by fault (photographs are notoriously unstable) or by design. The term “night-album” used in her title comes from a disparaging remark by a critic skeptical of Louis Daguerre’s early claim to have secured images made by sunlight—if such were the case, the critic imagined, they would have to be kept in light-proof albums and only viewed by moonlight. This, in turn, conjures, for Albers, a way to positively reconceive the photograph as a participatory event, a “fleeting experience,” rather than a fixed material object (p. 10). What, she asks, would change if we removed the idea of permanence from photography and instead embraced the transitoriness of photography as a kind of performance art?
Albers begins her discussion with Robert Heinecken’s 1973 Vanishing Photographs, unfixed images designed to disappear over a number of hours or days when on display, or else needing to be kept in light-proof envelopes. The idea of photographs as objects of lasting aesthetic and growing financial value is undermined by their inevitable self-destruction in Heinecken’s series, which draws attention to the chemically reactive and physically dynamic quality of traditional photographic media. In a later permutation of the vanishing photograph, Los Angeles artist Phil Chang in 2012 produced a series of unfixed photographs entitled Cache, Active. Featuring an array of typical photographic genres, the images all eventually faded to a uniform monochrome when put on display. Conceptually, the project interrogates how we understand the significance of the photographic medium. Albers writes that “Chang suggests a shift in our understanding of where the importance of photographs lies: Is it in our minds, with the object, or in the image?” (p. 17).
The book pivots to the historical quandary of disappearing photographs a century and a half previously. In the 1840s and 1850s, despite the rhetoric of eternal preservation attached to the nascent medium, the reality was far different especially for paper photographs, which were universally susceptible to fading in daylight. Albers discusses the establishment in 1855 England of a “Fading Committee” devoted to collecting data on best practices to avoid the inevitable blanching of photographic prints (p. 22). Even today, the exhibition of vintage photographs is limited by exposure to ambient light calibrated in terms of acceptable “candle hours.” In sum, despite extensive efforts to combat impermanence, photographs were fundamentally “objects and images of variable duration” (pp. 11-12). The sun that created them also destroyed them, a problem that resurfaced in the later twentieth century with the rise of color photographic prints—vulnerable to fading and drastic color shifts—as a collectible art form.
Albers then turns to a series of case studies of contemporary artists who engage with fugitive imagery as a strategy to deconstruct the institutions around fine-art photography and to dramatize the limits of visibility and representation in society. She highlights examples of photographs that literally, or figuratively, come in and out of being, emphasizing the dynamic role of the viewer in the life of the image. A key example, Aliento (Breath), 1995-2002, by Colombian artist Oscar Muñoz, consists of polished metal discs whose mirrored surfaces reveal photographic portraits only when the viewer exhales directly onto them—the visibility of the images, and of the subjects, is contingent upon the viewer’s physical involvement. This contingency is also true for Albers, in a different way, of the “live photographs” of the work of the transgender performance artist Cassils, whose Becoming an Image series features images of the artist in action directly impressed on the viewer’s retina by a flash of light, and destined to fade quickly.
Ephemeral images proliferate in the world of social media and online imagery in the present day, when the popular Snapchat application is premised on the very idea of photographs that briefly appear before they disappear altogether. Albers ventures that such self-erasing images may in fact have appeal to a generation supersaturated with photographs. She further reminds us that the existence of photographs in the networked era is highly contingent. Images are called up into visible form and then vanish back into digital code; fleetingness is a defining feature of photographs viewed, increasingly, on mobile devices and lacking conventional physical presence apart from the momentary occasion of viewing.
The flow of transient imagery characterizes Astronaut.io, a web-based art project that features seemingly random clips from YouTube videos. Designed by Andrew Wong and James Thompson, it culls videos algorithmically on the basis of their recentness, their sparse viewership, and their lack of a title other than their raw file names, indicating no intent by those who posted them to provide a narrative context or indeed to have them be searchable. The result is an endless sequence of anonymous, quickly sampled video segments that for Albers stand in opposition to the conditions of mainstream visibility on YouTube and elsewhere on the internet, characterized by repeated viewing, searchability, and image commodification.
The specter of oblivion and ultimate invisibility haunts the digital archive (mirroring, in a curious way, those lost first photographs of 200 years ago). Data-artist Trevor Plagen has noted, “Pictures form the visual atmosphere of our daily lives. But our pictures are fleeting and elusive” (p. 98). In response to this ubiquity yet ephemerality, Plagen conceived The Last Picture Artifact (2013). For the project, which nods to Carl Sagan’s 1970s-era interstellar plaque and Golden Record, the artist etched 100 pictures onto a silicon wafer that was carried into space on board the communications satellite EchoStar XVI. Potentially enduring for billions of years in the earth’s outer orbit and designed to outlast humanity, the project highlights the relative transience of images in general. As Albers writes, “it’s all fleeting” (p. 97). What gives images meaning, Plagen seems to say, is not their long-term physical existence but their activation within a system of communication; lasting for eons but never seen, they are ultimately absurd.
Albers ends by showing that the idea of photographic permanence, on which the notion of photography’s invention rests, is a myth. In fact, the handful of photographs on which the history of photography is traditionally founded are today barely there, whether they were originally extremely faint, as in the “first photograph,” the Untitled “point de vue” (1827) by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, or they have subsequently faded or outright disappeared, as in the first Daguerreotypes and Calotypes. Indeed, she argues, the images of the earliest photographs as published in standard histories of photography are either visually exaggerated or long outdated—while the actual objects as they exist today are (or, in the case of Niépce’s View, have always been) scarcely legible. Rather than being permanent in any physical sense of the term, Albers notes, “images persist in reproduction” (p. 13). The original object itself may no longer hold the image, but the image becomes “permanent” through a process of reenactment and replication.
An unexplored avenue here, but one which certainly plays into Albers’s thesis, is the surge of recent photographic work being done in historic and alternative media characterized by the inherent impermanency of the chemical and physical processes involved. The work is decidedly analogue. To take a prominent example, Meghann Riepenhoff has in the past decade produced an entire corpus of deliberately unstable (what she calls “dynamic”) cyanotype prints, developed in sea- and rainwater and subject to change over time. The last few years have also seen a resurgence in the archaic technique of the anthotype, invented by Scottish scientist and mathematician Mary Somerville, along with the aforementioned Herschel, in 1842. In this DIY process, plant-based dyes taken from vegetables or flowers form the basis of an emulsion that bleaches when exposed to the sun, registering the impressions of objects placed on it. The resulting images, in an array of colors, remain light-sensitive and so would be effaced by subsequent exposure to sunlight. The contemporary Swedish-American photographer Linda Maria Thompson has worked extensively with the anthotype, as well as using contemporary digital technology to preserve and reprint her ephemeral images. For these photographers, the choice of fugitive processes is in a sense political (as it had been for Heinecken and others), but also ultimately aesthetic. Sigmund Freud wrote of the “transience value” of fleeting beauty. Though not the main focus of her argument, Albers too suggests the unique pleasures afforded by disappearing photographs.