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Curious Frame - Issue #20 - Photography is Magic part 2

Curious Frame
Curious Frame - Issue #20 - Photography is Magic part 2
By Leanne Staples • Issue #20 • View online
One of the underlying themes in Curious Frame is my attempt at trying to imagine the world before photography. In part, I have this idea that somehow I might gain a fuller understanding of how photography has changed the way that we think and see the world through this process. 

I’m not a scientist. In fact you could call me the opposite of a scientist. Curious Frame is less about the idea of solid facts and more about those things about photography that influence us on a deeper and more personal level. 

Perhaps the journey itself will be more interesting than providing any clear cut answers to the questions posed. It is likely that there will not be universal agreement on my thoughts on photography. 

Regardless, I have set myself out onto this journey with my books my feelings and experiences and internet searches in search of gold. If Curious Frame manages to cause you to be curious about photography, whether you agree with me or not, I welcome your comments. That’s what the newsletter is about.
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Readers comments
Don’t keep those thoughts to yourself. Curious Frame is about dialogue and I’d love to hear your comments or even questions or inspirations. And it’s easy. Just hit reply in your email.
Your opinions are valued. No advanced degrees or education required. Comments below are from Issue 19 Photography is Magic part 1.
One reader wrote:
Yes, photography is magical but not every photo has the magic of being magical!
And what makes a photo magical? What elements does she need to have us park in front of her and bring us memories, make us smile or cry?
And look, I think that a photo that is magical for me may not be for you and vice versa, and there is the magic that art causes.
Does the Mona Lisa cause the same feelings and reactions in each of us? I think not!
Thanks for your comment on photography is magic. There isn’t just one answer or method of looking at any of the issues discussed in Curious Frame. 
Life on Mars, New York City, 2012.
Life on Mars, New York City, 2012.
Photography is Magic - part 2
There is another world, only it is in this one. Paul Eluard

In the previous issue of Curious Frame I wrote about how photography is magic for me and about it in our current time. In this issue I am stepping back to some of the earliest days of photography to look for magic there.

Louis Daguerre referred to his invention of the daguerreotype, as having the ability to capture a “spontaneous reproduction” of the image in front of the camera.

While the idea of spontaneous reproduction sounds like magic to me, Daguerre thought of it very much as science. Perhaps it can be seen as being a combination of science and magic at the same time.
Cottingley Fairies, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffith, 1917.
Cottingley Fairies, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffith, 1917.
The Cottingley Fairies is a series of photos taken by two British girls and they have been described as one of the greatest photographic hoaxes of all time.

So seeing is believing is back! The above photo is from 1917. However it took more than 50 years for the photos to be publicly announced as manipulated. And still people want to believe in fairies and other forms of unexplained phenomena.

If you believe in magic, come along with me
We’ll dance until morning till there’s just you and me.
John Sebastian and The Lovin’ Spoonful, 1978

Perhaps I’ll do an issue on aliens in the future. The truth is out there, but can it be captured by a camera? Even so, it hardly matters that the Cottingley Fairies photos were admitted to be faked by the two women, people still want to believe. Maybe that’s magic enough for the viewer to suspend their disbelief.

Since the beginning of photography there has been somewhat of a battle between the written word and the photographic image. The battle is over which medium more faithfully represents the Truth. In reality, both are equally capable of telling truth or lies.
Alice Liddell as “Queen of the May,” Lewis Carroll, 1860.
Alice Liddell as “Queen of the May,” Lewis Carroll, 1860.
“Curiouser and curiouser!” Cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English). Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

On a side note, very often the word curious immediately reminds me of this phrase from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Nevertheless, when I was a child, Alice was one of the most popular children’s books. It was also so for my mother’s generation and the book has been in print since 1865.

Lewis Carroll was born Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898) and he is most well known for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but he was also many other things including an accomplished amateur photographer. He created more than 3,000 photos in the collodion wet plate process.

Before he took up writing Alice, Carroll took many photos of Alice Liddell who became the inspiration for writing the book. His photos of her led to him creating the story.
Lewis Carroll, self portrait, c. 1856
Lewis Carroll, self portrait, c. 1856
One pill makes you larger
And one pill makes you small
And the ones that mother gives you
Don’t do anything at all
Go ask Alice
When she’s ten feet tall.
Grace Slick & Jefferson Airplane, 1967
The book has provided inspiration in so many ways. And to think that it curiously began with photography. But before moving on from Alice, Carroll had a rare neurological disorder that caused strange hallucinations and affected the size of visual objects that he saw.

So although Grace Slick, Jefferson Airplane and many during the 1960s and the age of psychedelia took his book as cue for taking drugs, he didn’t need drugs to hallucinate. It’s possible that he saw Alice as being ten feet tall.

Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees. Paul Valéry

Part of the magic is how more than 150 years later, the book still inspires and the inspiration to write it came from the experience of photography. It’s easy to forget or not even be aware of the origin of things that began through a kind of magic. We are transfixed by images and words.
Julia Margaret Cameron, I Wait, 1862
Julia Margaret Cameron, I Wait, 1862
Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) produced a very large portfolio of portraits of famous and not so famous people. She was very determined to create her photos in her own style.

Cameron and Carroll were contemporaries and both worked in the collodion photographic process. Photos from the Victorian Era (1837-1901) tend to be much softer in focus than later forms of photography.

That said, Cameron went out of her way to add motion blur, long exposures and more soft focus to her photography. Her style is very distinguishable and she often used her photography to portray images from literature and the bible.

Her photos often had a rather ethereal and magical look and she was criticized by many in the photography world for her style. Many photographers were trying to work against the limitations of the technology at the time.

Some photographers are intentionally working backwards now and attempting to recreate her style for the magical appearance of many of her photos. There is a poetic quality to her work that begs the viewer to create a story that goes with the image. Sometimes the story is one that is well known to many.
The Alchemist Michał Sędziwój, a painting from Julian Tuwim’s collection, 19th century, photo: Museum of Literature / East News
The Alchemist Michał Sędziwój, a painting from Julian Tuwim’s collection, 19th century, photo: Museum of Literature / East News
At it’s essence, art is an alchemical process. Alchemy is a process of transformation. - Julia Cameron. (Note - This is not Julia Margaret Cameron, Just a coincidence,)

So here we are at alchemy. You wonder how I have arrived here? What is the process of collodion photography, if not a sort of alchemy?

Photography captures moments in time, freezes them out of context and reveals things to us that would likely go unnoticed otherwise. Sometimes it captures gold that has the ability to move us to experience a kind of magic. To transport us to another place and time or to stir memories that we’ve forgotten about.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that just because we no longer need to understand how a camera captures an image, doesn’t discount that there’s something magical in the act of both taking and witnessing photography.
Windows to the Future, New York City, January 2021
Windows to the Future, New York City, January 2021
We can’t expect that all of the photos that we take or view will be magical. If that was possible we would no longer think of them as special. That would be a truly boring day. It would be time to quit photography.

Photography like all of the arts has the underlying goal of opening a window into another world or simply a different view of it. The magic happens when we least likely expect it. Expecting it or seeking it out maybe actually have the reverse effect not the desired one.

It is very likely that we will once again return to the idea of magic in photography in another context at a later date. Meanwhile, I would love to hear about your experiences of magic and photography.

Further Viewing:
The black art: wet plate collodion photography
The black art: wet plate collodion photography
Photographer Adrian Cook uses one of the oldest photographic processes to make unique images on aluminium plates. Guardian Australia’s picture editor, Jonny Weeks, joins him in his portable darkroom for a shoot on Sydney Harbour. Cook talks through his processes and explains the appeal of wet plate collodion photography in the digital age.
In Our Time - Alchemy - BBC Sounds
Also, if you’re interested in listening to a podcast produced by BBC Sounds on alchemy, I do suggest it. It takes the spooky occult ideas out of alchemy and puts it into perspective.
Further Reading:
  • Brunet, François. The Birth of the Idea of Photography, The MIT Press, 2019.
  • Kozloff, Max. Photography & Fascination, Addison House, 1979.
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Leanne Staples

In a world that is overpopulated with images, Curious Frame is where I share my thoughts on photography. It is always about ‘seeing with new eyes’.

I’m Leanne Staples, a photographer, artist, and writer living in New York City. Street photography and lens-based art are my passions, and Curious Frame is where I’ll be sharing my thoughts on these passions.

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