"This triumph of human ingenuity is the most audacious, remote, improbable, incredible,--the one that would seem least likely to be regained, if all traces of it were lost, of all the discoveries man has made," Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in the June 1859 issue of The Atlantic.
"It has become such an everyday matter with us, that we forget its miraculous nature, as we forget that of the sun itself, to which we owe the creations of our new art. Yet in all the prophecies of dreaming enthusiasts, in all the random guesses of the future conquests over matter, we do not remember any prediction of such an inconceivable wonder... No Century of Inventions includes this among its possibilities."
What "audacious, remote, improbable, incredible" invention was he talking about? The steam engine? The telegraph? No, the technology that sent Holmes into raptures was photography.
We're going to explore the rest of Holmes meditation on the meaning of photography in four parts. I think this piece is worth this amount of "ink" because it works on so many levels. It comes just before the Civil War, every argument taking on some of the charge of the times. It's also beautiful science writing, precise and informative. As technological analysis, it's unusually and finely observant of the changes in culture that swirled around "the mirror with a memory." The development of photography didn't just change the way people thought about the world, but it made us reevaluate our own visual apparatus and even our own ways of seeing. And finally as futurism, it's totally sold on that early 3D technology, the stereoscope, as the technology that will emerge important. The photograph was a thin, marginal competitor at best. Even the finest minds at their finest moments can't read the future. So, stay tuned.
Now back to Holmes, and this first installment, The Negative.
After introducing us fair readers to his subject with a digression into Greek philosophy, he breaks into a fascinating sequence, alternating precise descriptions of chemical processes with gorgeous descriptions of the effects such elemental combinatorix create. ("Where the daylight was strongest, the sensitive coating of the plate has undergone such a chemical change, that the mercury penetrates readily to the silver, producing a minute white granular deposit upon it, like a very thin fall of snow, drifted by the wind.")
The greatest of the descriptions deals with the negative from which photographic prints are made. After detailing the colloidon development solution, he writes:
Here, then, we have essentially the same chemical elements that we have seen employed in the daguerreotype,--namely, iodine, bromine, and silver; and by their mutual reactions in the last process we have formed the sensitive iodide and bromide of silver. The glass is now placed, still wet, in the camera, and there remains from three seconds to one or two minutes, according to circumstances. It is then washed with a solution of sulphate of iron. Every light spot in the camera-picture becomes dark on the sensitive coating of the glass-plate. But where the shadows or dark parts of the camera-picture fall, the sensitive coating is less darkened, or not at all, if the shadows are very deep, and so these shadows of the camera-picture become the lights of the glass-picture, as the lights become the shadows.
Again, the picture is reversed, just as in every camera-obscura where the image is received on a screen direct from the lens. Thus the glass plate has the right part of the object on the left side of its picture, and the left part on its right side ; its light is darkness, and its darkness is light. Everything is just as wrong as it can be, except that the relations of each wrong to the other wrongs are like the relations of the corresponding rights to each other in the original natural image. This is a negative picture.
Extremes meet. Every given point of the picture is as far from truth as a lie can be. But in travelling away from the pattern it has gone round a complete circle, and is at once as remote from Nature and as near it as possible.
There is truth in perfect wrongness.
And this is a little crazy, but on the margins of Holmes piece about photography, I think we can see the looming Civil War. I won't make you suffer through my close-reading, but the "extremes meet" sounds like a story about North and South. Let's read the photographic negative as the South.
His contemporaries probably would have recognized some of the Manichean moral language he surrounds photography in from the anti-slavery discourse. Compare, for example, the language of the American Anti-Slavery Society in the 1840s in the journal Voices of the True-Hearted, which featured John Greenleaf Whittier, who later worked on The Atlantic with Holmes. Or farther afield, Charles Elliot, who wrote of American slavery, "It has recourse to darkness as its stronghold; and darkness, by retribution of heaven, becomes the deadliest plague of those who wrong and oppress their fellow-men."
For Holmes, the negative is "totally depraved." Yet it's also necessary for the creation of the "perfect harmonious affirmation of the realities of Nature." The depraved is an intermediate step to perfection. Is there a parallel between the partially mechanized Southern system, still beholden to a nasty, old form of labor and the negative? Both are infused with a dark morality waiting to be be transformed.
And what's going to do that work? Progress of mind and material. For it is chemicals -- and their newly conceived control by humans -- that do the work here, both literally and metaphorically.
"The negative picture being formed, it is washed with a solution of hyposulphite of soda, to remove the soluble principles which are liable to decomposition, and then coated with shellac varnish to protect it," Holmes writes. "This negative is now to give birth to a positive,--this mass of contradictions to assert its hidden truth in a perfect harmonious affirmation of the realities of Nature. Behold the process!"
Behold the process!
It is chemistry, its predictability and rationality and precision that convert the dark into the light. Progress is process and vice versa.
Now watch as the photographic process transmutes into a parable of hope for the Union, perfected. Unity is the goal.
"Out of the perverse and totally depraved negative,--where it might almost seem as if some magic and diabolic power had wrenched all things from their proprieties, where the light of the eye was darkness, and the deepest blackness was gilded with the brightest glare,--is to come the true end of all this series of operations, a copy of Nature in all her sweet gradations and harmonies and contrasts," Holmes thundered.
And then the photographic process alchemically transforms again into a story as big as Genesis. We get to hear the theory of a character ('a great wit') who is almost certainly Chauncey Wright, the ill-fated talker of Holmes' acquaintance.
"We owe the suggestion to a great wit, who overflowed our small intellectual home-lot with a rushing freshet of fertilizing talk the other day,--one of our friends, who quarries thought on his own premises, but does not care to build his blocks into hooks and essays,--that perhaps this world is only the negative of that better one in which lights will be turned to shadows and shadows into light, but all harmonized, so that we shall see why these ugly patches, these misplaced gleams and blots, were wrought into the temporary arrangements of our planetary life."
Evil is necessary not just to the functioning of this world, but to that of the next as well. Only compared with the imperfections of "our planetary life" will the glory of heaven be manifest. Holmes' world is one in which evil must exist -- and it so happened that one of the greatest evils in history actually did. Faced with the intractability of such a situation, who wouldn't hope that some addition (of chemical, of transcendence) could effect a perfect conversion?
That's where Holmes took a tech story about introduction of photography. That was his gloss for the lay Atlantic reader. Now, what were we saying about Facebook again?
I am, of course, indebted to the great Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club in thinking about Holmes and this time period.
Read the rest of Holmes' "The Stereoscope and the Stereograph."
Revisit more pieces from The Atlantic's archives with the Technology Channel.