The Birth of the Idea of Photography



Half synthesis and half essay, François Brunet’s seminal book, translated into English for the first time, is devoted to the invention and history of photography as the birth of an idea rather than of a new type of image. This idea of photography combines a logical or semiological theme—that of an art without artistry—and the democratic political promise of an art for all. Officially endorsed by the 1839 French law on the daguerreotype, this idea reverberated throughout the nineteenth century. The book shows how emerging image technologies and practices in France and Britain were linked to this logical/political construction of photography, from the earliest research of Nicéphore Niépce, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, and William Henry Fox Talbot up to the turn of the twentieth century. The parallel development of the Kodak camera and Alfred Stieglitz’s “straight” vision in the United States then fulfilled (while also depreciating) the utopian promise of a photography for all. This history reached a provisional climax with reflections on the medium by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Hippolyte Taine, Sigmund Freud, Henri Bergson, and Charles Sanders Peirce—reflections that both demonstrated the utter novelty of photography and forecast many later debates on its technology and aesthetics.

By: François Brunet 
Translated by: Shane B. Lillis

Co-published by: Ryerson Image Centre and the MIT Press, 2019

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