Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Dags at Christie's

This morning, I accompanied RL to Christie’s auction house at Rockefeller Center to see the exhibition of photographs going up for sale tomorrow and Thursday. There are nearly 300 items in the one sale, with work by everyone from Carleton Watkins (1829-1916) to Richard Avedon (1923-2004). We were most interested in the daguerreotypes though. Dags (as I will hereafter call them) are copper plates that have been sensitized to light with a combination of mercury, silver, and iodine. (RL, pardon my oversimplified explanation!) They were first announced to the public in Paris in January 1839 as the invention of Louis Daguerre (1787-1851) based on his experiments with Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (1765-1833), and thus are considered by most today as the first stable form of photography. The incredible details that dags captured had critics declaring they were mirrors with permanent reflections. Their one deficiency was that it was a one-off. William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877) in England announced that the same year the invention of the calotype, a paper-based negative from which he could print positive prints. This easier reproducibility of images eventually led to Talbot’s process becoming the model for photography thereafter. But dags were still extremely popular because of the incredible clarity and detail seen in the shiny plates. Dag portraits were popular up to about 1860 because of the "photorealistic" quality seen in the portrayal of the sitter. Curiously though, because a dag is the negative of an figure or object, when you look at a dag you are actually seeing a mirror reflection of the subject as it truly appeared. In other words, a flower held in a woman’s left hand will appear in her right hand in the dag.

The image above is the cover of the catalog for the auction on October 7th of 73 dags by the French aristocrat Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey (1804-1892). An artist interested in architectural details and landscapes, he used dags on his trips to Italy, Turkey, Greece, and the Middle East to capture beautiful images with his own custom sized plates. He then would create drawings and watercolors and use them to make lithographs. Most remarkably, all of his dags were put in storage by him and only rediscovered in 1920, complete and intact. About a decade ago the owners began to auction some of this material off, and it’s only since then that photographic historians have been able to examine his dags and acknowledge Girault de Prangey’s place in the history of early French photography. (I owe a debt of thanks to RL for his photographic genius and for teaching me all about Girault de Prangey today!) Among the dags I particularly liked were this 1842 image capturing a large house and palm trees in Egypt, and this vista of the Villa Medici in Rome from the same year. What are their estimated selling prices? $30,000-$70,000.

My personal taste in art leans more toward figurative work, so the inclusion of a few portrait dags in the $2000-$3000 price range for the October 6th sale were of interest to me. Admittedly, they may not be perceived as great works of art, but they fascinate me as products of visual culture and social history. One in particular that interested me was the work you see here from ca. 1855 by an unknown photographer. It shows two young women holding a dag in their hands. Because the women wear the same dress, seemingly homemade in its design, it stands to reason they are working class or lower middle class. They are probably Americans and sisters. The dag they hold is surely that of a relative, perhaps their mother, whose absence is recreated in their lives using the "photorealistic" dag held firmly in their hands. Undoubtedly their dag shows someone who is deceased. It was not uncommon in the 19th century to capture the dead in photographic form so as to remember them as they appeared. Such was the power of photography once it was made widely available. But remembrance here is not just about the dag-within-the-dag. It is also present in the image of the two women themselves. This is layered memory in action, a photorecording of two sisters who are preserving their own existence, just as their relative before them had attempted to do the same at an earlier date. And yet, ironically—and sadly—, we know nothing about who these women were. They are nameless. This dag as we see it today thus becomes false memory, unsubstantiated remembrance. It presents to us simply what we see: two women from the mid-1800s trying to hold on to a glimpse of their past and preserve it for their future. It makes me wonder: should we dwell so much on recording the facts of our own past, or is it simply enough to leave behind a visual recording of our existence? I don’t know the answer, but I’m suddenly tempted to bid on the dag just for thinking about it this much.

If you want to know more about dags and the power of memory, read Geoffrey Batchen’s brilliant exhibition catalog Forget Me Not: Photography and Remembrance (2004).

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