Images for first photograph. Report images. Below this
Lexical line a grid of images. Image one: a roof. Image two:
A roof. Image three: a roof. Image four: a selection of roofs,
A street, so a different image, perhaps not the first, not
Really, but we won’t go into that here. Let’s concentrate
On the most common result in the computer’s vast,
Luminescent archive. How it glows. Also the image
I was asked to consider, so reproducible, so here, with its
White tilted plane of roof shook out—a pale sheet
In the middle of the darker, sooty image. Images. Chimneys
Or buildings rise like shadowed, hatted figures on both
Sides. Or dull, rusted, occluded knives. Guards. Sentinels. Pear tree.
Chimney. The image might have been taken out a window.
(The title insists this.) 1Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, La cour du domaine du Gras [View from the Window at Le Gras] (c. 1826). Certainly it provides the context
For one, suggestion of window. Also its form. Window as
Aperture, monitor, field, painting, mouth, world, language,
Window. In the research I was conducting earlier, a filmmaker, 2Michel Auder. Born in Soissons, France, in 1945; lives and works in New York and Oslo.
Also French, trained his camera on the windows of his
Neighbors. For decades. Grids of buildings, grids of images, grids of
Windows not like the dark eye sockets of Middleeuropean ruins
But like the glassy, reflective surfaces of—what. Of
Monitors. As the filmmaker’s video camera switched
Windows like frequencies, like channels on the radio,
It became apparent that there are only a finite number
Of things one can do inside a window—that is, inside
One’s interior. These include: Cooking with friends, eating
Alone, undressing, fucking, sleeping, masturbating, dressing,
Sitting unmoving inside the artificial glow-field of television
Or computer, such technology dependent on the year of filming. 3Ibid. See Auder’s film Untitled (I Was Looking Back to See if You Were Looking Back at Me to See Me Looking Back at You) (2012), color, 15 min. These then
Become subjects. Add to this, after Joseph Nicéphore Niépce:
Making images. “A fence around a franchise,” 4Brandon Shimoda, “The Grave on the Wall,” in Portuguese (Ottawa: Octopus Books and Portland: Tin House Books, 2013), 5. says my friend,
The poet. “That which is not yet a subject in the world,” 5Irit Rogoff quoted by Julian Stallabrass in “Rhetoric of the Image,” Artforum 51, 7 (March 2013): 72. says a critic,
The stranger. Thus subjects arise also in the exterior, beyond
The frame of window and the house and subjects it keeps.
Oh interior: Was roof a subject before Niépce caught it.
Pale as the shiny white stomach of a fish, fluorescent atop
The pewter shore of his document. Represented it. Reproduced it.
Sent it up river into the future, my illumined monitor?
Another critic once noted that: “Epic poets and pop artists
Have to work with the mythical material as it is given.” 6From Michael Fried’s parenthetical aside in his review of Andy Warhol’s 1962 show at the Stable Gallery, cited in the fourth footnote in Anthony E. Grudin’s “‘Except Like a Tracing’: Defectiveness, Accuracy, and Class in Early Warhol,” in October 140 (Spring 2012): 139–164.
Given by whom? And what of the early photographers?
The fish’s fluorescent belly glitters in the sun, baking like a
White roof among pastoral architectures in the provinces.
A field of salt, a sky of salt. Sky as white as roof or field
As fault. Well. The aforementioned French filmmaker, with whom I
Shared lunch today, appears to have interpreted his mythical
Material as heads, skyscrapers, bodies, ruins, beaches,
Televisions, paintings, airplanes, drugs, beds, babies,
Temporality. These, then, are some of the things you could
Have photographed, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, had you been born
Later. Bred earlier by some century, however, you began with a roof.
This seems practical.
Here, a roof. There: A roof. Like a body, a slide or grit, it comes
Back again, at an angle. Sloping, we say, to others or in sleep.
If one doesn’t dream of roofs, why not. If one does, the question
Remains. The roof like the top of our thought, like the poem
The poet said should take the top of your head off. 7Emily Dickinson in a letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?” Your
Photographer was sane or a dreamer. Or a bureaucrat
By nature. Not very talented at drawing, it’s said. See
That river, said his father. Draw that. He couldn’t. Pewter
Was his photograph, then, not paper. Not very reproducible at all.
If he couldn’t draw, the “scientifically-minded gentleman
Living on his country estate near Chalon-sur-Saône,” this detail
Strikes me again and again, like a clock, its delicate
Swiss hammer. In the upstairs rear window of his home
In Burgundy, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce set up his camera
Obscura, “placed within it a polished pewter plate coated
With bitumen of Judea (an asphalt derivative of
Petroleum), and uncapped the lens.” Eight hours later
He removed the plate and washed it tenderly with oil
Of lavender and white petroleum. His hands flashing
Like fish. Dissolution. Some redness. Away came the bitumen
That had not been “hardened by light.” Light is hard—
We are all hardened by it, but perhaps not so beautifully
As Niépce’s pewter plate. Perfumed with lavender and gas.
The Royal Society was unmoved by the hardness
And delicate odor of his underexposed plate, picture,
“Process.” 8Barbara Brown, “The First Photograph,” first printed in the WAAC Newsletter 24, 3 (September 2002) with the permission of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin. Retrieved from http://cool.conservation-us.org/byorg/abbey/an/an26/an26-3/an26-307.html (accessed 3 May 2013). Which he called, wonderfully, “Heliography.”
Which brings up the question of temperature. Well. What fever
Is his strangeness, what temperature? What year, what his?
What yore. What her. Why this change to the photographer’s
Gender? Not sure. Salt somewhere. Something else: There is a French poet
Whose poems are so good in translation that I am afraid
To learn the language. (An empty, vainglorious fear: I am lazy
And terrible at languages.) Nevertheless, who do I love then,
The poet or his translator? 9Emmanuel Hocquard, The Invention of Glass, trans. Cole Swenson and Rod Smith (Ann Arbor: Canarium Books, 2012). Perhaps the person who blurs
Between them, that writer, their winter. Their shared estate.
Its country. You can love lovers like this too, your ardor
Centering between them like some ancient, impractical,
Impassioned instrument to measure the universe (that which is
Also a roof). It looks like a comma, this instrument, is made
Of ivory. Worn from the hands that wielded it, the instrument
Is found by screeners at the airport. Your bag open sadly
Like a mouth. Smell of lavender. They threaten and sigh:
You cannot take it with you. They toss it. Or somebody
Keeps it. Brings it home and places it in the glass cabinet,
Next to the decorative plates depicting country homes
In southern France.
At lunch today, the French filmmaker said: “Being
Under the empire of this thing,” his silver bracelets
Shining, distracting, becoming, as though developing
Upon our white tablecloth, a kind of photographic
Paper or plate, the pale roof of our very fine lunch. Two
White persons eating: one French, one not. I was not
Sure if his empirical metaphor was about drugs or
Making images. Both empires, their evidence, involve
Chemical reactions, as the nineteenth-century “scientifically-
Inclined gentleman,” Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, surely
Understood. To increase the comparative linguistic
Complexity, taking images can also be like a drug. Its addiction.
One wants to take more and more. Or make, as we say
In European-inflected English. Make images. What
Did Niépce’s syntax sound and step in as he explained to the
Royal Society what he had taken, what made? What verbs
Rinsed in lavender and white petroleum did fall
Off his tongue. With his plate rinsed by light, his suspect
Heliograph, did his mouth bloom this same red-yellow
Sun—nineteenth-century lumière filling his red-blue mouth,
Its siren, with illumined nouns and adjectives, blazing,
Sun-drenched declaratives? No, he was in London.
There was no light. But it’s a pretty set of questions,
And I apologize for them. Their purple
A man stands at his studio’s window, surveying
The architecture that describes him: country. He does not
Know how to draw but his eyes do not know this, delineating
Contours of roof and farm buildings so finely.
The roof like the flag of his intelligence, waving
Blindly. As white in the sun as a flag: its poverty.
Outside, fields of lavender dip and wave in the heat,
Their oil developing like an image under the sun, scenting
Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s sensibility with an ache
For alchemical transformation. To witness nature—
Our own, and others—is to be gifted the need, like salt,
To record it. To record our record of it. Everyone
Knows this. The banality and brilliance of this sentiment
And requirement. To burn the thing we see, our seeing it,
As if from a window, into the consciousness of others
By something other: a metaphor. Or pewter. Your barn,
My flag, our fish, its salt. Sky some white some roof. Or paper.
Each as phosphorescent as a photograph, burning bright.
Thus is the subject of Niépce’s photograph not a roof
But a window. We are viewing not a provincial country
Spread but the sprawling estate of an imagination. See
Then Niépce’s tremendous opacity, his sensibility—so
Specific and general, simultaneously—as represented by
The landscape that describes him. If he is “scientific”
It is only because the word is so beautiful. Particularly
When partnered with the “19th century.” Such “early” science
Conjures so much. He knew this, what language could point
To, what kind of similitude. The title of his heliograph suggests
As much: View from the Window at Le Gras. Not a roof
But a window. Not a landscape but a view. How sad for him
That his own viewership was so few. Well. Things do
Sometimes come to us later. Exits and on-ramps spiraling
Like country roads in the dusk-blue of a lithograph.
Too bad he partnered with that French artist, Louis
Jacques Mandé Daguerre, in 1829. That didn’t work out.
Niépce died four years later, producing “little more work,” 10Brown, “The First Photograph.”
It is said. I picture this. He stopped sitting at the window, drawing
A roof with his eyes. The sun went out, “like a light,”
As it were. There was no light. The pewter pastures
Of his estate browned. Lavender fell. Blooms brittle
And then dust. Purple specters like bruises. Darkness
Like dust, not water. No scent. Still his plate remained.
A face thinking like a pewter mask at the window.
Now cold to the touch. His view. His view. Here, search it.
Images for first photograph. Report images. Below this lexical
Line a grid of images, without weather. Only technology
And something other: ardor. So. Image one: a roof. Imagine
One: a roof. Image two: a roof. Imagine two: a roof. Image
Three: a roof. Imagine three: a roof. Image four: a selection
Of roofs, a street, so a different image or imagination, perhaps not
The first, not really, but we won’t go into that here. That is for
This text was commissioned as part of Between Seeing and Believing, a symposium, which took place at Witte de With on March 30, 2013. Eschewing the idea that a single image holds a single narrative, three literary writers – Maria Barnas, Angie Keefer, and Quinn Latimer – were tasked with composing replies to a shared source image independently. The image in question: the first permanent photograph from nature, View from the Window at Le Gras, 1826 by Nicéphore Niépce.