Picture a history of photography freed from the tyranny of the photograph. No longer confined to static objects or specific technologies, this history would instead engage the photographic image in all its various manifestations, wherever and in whatever form they have appeared. As a consequence, dissemination, rather than production, would become our study’s guiding logic. In taking this expanded view of its territory, the history of photography would at last fall into sync with its own story. The earliest sustained photographic experiments were motivated by a desire to develop a mode of automated reproduction, and this continued to preoccupy photography’s pioneers. Several people attempted to turn the otherwise unique daguerreotype plate into an engraved matrix capable of generating ink-on-paper prints. This effort found fulfillment in the efforts of English inventor William Henry Fox Talbot, who spent the last 25 years of his life developing a photographic engraving system in which a metal plate could be imprinted with a photographic image—the system that came to dominate 20th-century publishing. But even before this became possible, early commercial photographers frequently had their work published as wood or steel engravings or as lithographs, allowing that work to appear in multiple copies in the illustrated press and to be seen all over the world. For this to occur, the photographic image had to be divorced from the photograph itself, a conceptual displacement of form from substance. This displacement is of course now central to our everyday experience of photography; indeed, it is what photography is.
A shift in focus from the photograph to its dissemination would have any number of effects on how we understand the practice of photography. In the short term, it would do away with a lingering art historical bias that privileges origins and originality, innovation and invention, over ordinary and vernacular practices. More importantly, it would acknowledge that the same image has the capacity to come in many different looks, sizes and formats, and, even stranger, can appear in many places at once and exist simultaneously at many different points of time. Equally complicated is the way its capacity for reproducibility ties photography to the processes and social implications of capitalism, making any examination of its effects an unavoidably political issue. But perhaps the most significant consequence of this new history would be its necessarily critical engagement with the identity of its subject. Dissemination both divides and multiplies, complicating our grasp of photography but also of identity of any sort—including our own.
GEOFFREY BATCHEN, a former resident of Brooklyn, teaches the history of photography at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. His most recent book is a co-edited volume titled Picturing Atrocity: Photography in Crisis.