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The Pencil of Nature

ENGL 790.301

We are used to thinking of the camera as a controlling and even aggressive device: a mechanism for “shooting” and “capturing” the world. And since most cameras require an operator, and it is usually a human hand that picks up the apparatus, points it in a particular direction, makes certain technical adjustments, and clicks the camera button, we often extend or transfer this power to our look. Photography consequently seems another chapter in the history of what Heidegger calls “modern metaphysics”--a history that begins with the cogito, that seeks to establish man as the “relational center” of all that is, and whose “fundamental event” is “the conquest of the world as a picture.”

However, photography’s earliest practitioners and viewers had a very different understanding of the medium. They saw it as a new kind of image-making—one whose agent was Nature, whose goal was self-disclosure, and whose intended viewer was man. They also conceptualized this image-making in graphic rather than ocular terms, and stressed the differences between it and their perceptions. Surprisingly, they did not question its veracity, nor did they attempt to resolve the discrepancy between what they saw and what the photograph showed them by doubting their own sensory perceptions. They understood what Descartes was unwilling to grant: both opened onto the same world, the one they inhabited. For a brief time, at least, this world seemed inexhaustible. 
Although these ideas disappeared with the industrialization of photography, they continued to reverberate in other domains: in philosophy, psychoanalysis, literature, painting, sculpture and drawing. Artists and writers also began making photographs “by other means,” and the obsolescence of the medium has now freed it to become again what it was in 1839.

We will begin this seminar with a discussion of selected texts by René Descartes and Martin Heidegger, and some early writings about photography. We will then turn to a number of psychoanalytic and philosophical texts that are about photography, informed by photography, and/or include photographs (Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way, Walter Benjamin’s “Little History of Photography,” Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida, James Agee and Walker Evans’s Now Let Us Praise Famous Men, and W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz). We will conclude the seminar with a discussion of some contemporary artists who work in, or with, photography: Gerhard Richter, Vija Celmins, Roni Horn, and Vera Lutter.

Admission to this seminar is by permission of the instructor.