Daguerreotypes – photographic images on silver plate – were at the height of their importance and popularity for a little more than two decades in the nineteenth century. Rough estimates for the output in that relatively brief period reach into the millions. Yet few photographers working in that medium have been treated by historians as significant photographic artists, certainly not on the level of the French paper negative photographers. It’s as if the novelty of the medium and its rigid strictures (no negative or print to manipulate) ruled out the choices that signaled expressive intention. There is only “a mirror with a memory,” as Oliver Wendell Holmes called it. What you see is what you get.
Then there is Girault de Prangey (1804-92). Through the jewel box images in this exhibition, we follow de Prangey in the early 1840s as he lugs his cumbersome equipment through the Middle East, Greece, and Rome to produce what are surely among the most stunning views of ruins and monuments ever made, in any epoch. The long exposure times of the process seem to etch each image as if it were itself inscribed in stone. And the over-exposure that turns areas of the daguerreotype plate blue lends a hallucinatory attraction to these distant images, dense and ephemeral. But the effect is not merely the byproduct of the process. De Prangey was a great innovator, using outsize plates, shooting multiple exposures on them, cutting his plates to dimensions that emphasized his subjects, developing strategies to reduce point-of-view distortions. In his vertical pictures of towers, columns, minarets, and a few street corners, there is almost no foreshortening. De Prangey conducted his tours in the interest of architectural history. His remarkable sense of how to characterize mass, volume, formal regularity, scale, and surface detail seems inspired by a desire to convey not simply how these monuments appeared but how they were experienced.
It’s not easy to blow the dust off an antique medium like the daguerreotype, and the colonial convention of depicting unpopulated ruins (and the by now cliched familiarity of those ruins) makes it doubly difficult. The curator Stephen Pinson argues, in the beautiful catalogue for the show which is on view at the Met through May 12, that de Prangey’s enduring attraction lies precisely in photography’s intrinsic bond with the archival impulse: it saves things beyond the limits of memory and makes them available for contemplation as rich evidence of time’s passage. These photographs – like so many others in the nineteenth century – surely do that. But because de Prangey was such an innovator, his images subvert nostalgia and exceed historical description. They create a place elsewhere in time and space, as if ruins were not at all an artifact of time’s passage but were, from the very first moment of their distant origins, always just like this.