Review: Burning With Desire by Geoffrey Batchen

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I’ve been meaning for some time to expand my reviews beyond conventional photo books and exhibitions and into the realm of theory and criticism itself. What better place to start than with what is one of my favourite books on the theory of photography, Geoffrey Batchen’s Burning with Desire, a fantastically conceived and executed overview of the conceptual origins of the media.

Nothing so crude as a simple history of photography, Batchen is less interested in exploring the chronology of photography’s invention or attempting to settle the debates about the exact nature of the media’s paternity (although he does touch on both subjects). What interests him about the invention of photography isn’t whether Talbot, or Niépce, Daguerre or Herschel invented it first, but the almost more remarkable fact that they and dozens of other inventors were experimenting with extremely similar ideas within a very small time frame.

This Batchen takes as evidence of an underlying desire to photograph that was linked to philosophical and artistic ideas that were already in common circulation. For example late eighteen century views of the natural world, long existant technologies like the camera obscura, and newly emerged ones like light sensitive chemicals. Exploring and combining these things Batchen quite convincingly argues that there were already people ‘burning with desire’ (Daguerre’s words on hearing of Niépce’s experiments) to see the world in the particular way made possible only by photography.

Burning with Desire also explores the uncertainty of early inventors about exactly what it was that they had invented, and their struggles to articulate the purpose and limits of this new technology. In one section Batchen discusses the difficulty that almost all found in naming their new invention (with a few exceptions like Daguerre who modestly slapped his name on the new process). Batchen notes for example the intrinsic contradictions in even the most popular term for the process, photography, which is a portmanteau of words with basically incompatible meanings. ‘Photo’ (light, nature, god) and ‘graphie’ (writing, culture, history, man)’.

Constantly at the core of the various topics discussed is Batchen’s main concern, the question of exactly what photography is. As he probes questions of genesis, naming and use, he is repeatedly asking which of the two dominant views of photography makes sense in light of what he is revealing about its history. Whether the post-modern view of photography as a media with meaning entirely implied by the context in which it finds itself, or the formalist view of it as something that has a consistent and inherent identity, ultimately prevails. His conclusion is that the two are in fact not so diametrically opposed as they at first seem.

I came to this book when I was grappling with lots of difficult questions about what photography is, and what that means it is able to do, and it helped me both to come to terms with some of these questions and to move on to new ones. For anyone interested in the origins of the media, whether out of simple historical curiosity or because they are searching for deeper insight into exactly what this strange media is, Burning with Desire comes very, very highly recommended.

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