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Anthony Enns (Dalhousie) Vibratory Photography: Integrating the Psychic, Perceptual and Photographic Apparatus

In the nineteenth century, physiologists frequently compared the eye to a photographic camera. Hermann von Helmholtz, for example, famously described the eye as a black box with a lens that perceives points of light just as individual grains are recorded on photographic plates. British physician Robert Hanham Collyer similarly argued that optical information is transmitted from the retina to the brain via the optic nerve in the same way it is recorded by a photographic apparatus, yet he also emphasized that its mode of transmission was vibratory. The notion of the eye as a camera thus led to speculation that the method of recording photographic images might also parallel the transmission of electrical impulses through the nervous system. This notion of photography as a form of vibratory transmission was reinforced by claims that the photographic apparatus was capable of recording phenomena invisible to the eye. In his 1844 book The Pencil of Nature, for example, William Henry Fox Talbot suggested that infrared and ultraviolet rays might be employed to photograph objects invisible to the eye, and this claim encouraged many photographers to conceive of photography as a form of extrasensory perception. In 1862, for example, German chemist Carl Ludwig Freiherr von Reichenbach claimed to have recorded photographic evidence of an invisible energy field, which he called “od light.” In France, Darget, Hippolyte Baraduc, Edmond Duchatel and Lefranc similarly claimed to have captured photographic images of etheric vibrations and cerebral radiation, which led to an explosion of interest in “effluviographs,” “electrographs” and “thoughtographs” in the late nineteenth century. In the twentieth century, Hector Durville also claimed to have recorded photographic images of “fluid bodies,” and similar experiments conducted by Semyon Davidovitch Kirlian in the Soviet Union resulted in a postwar boom in “aura” or “Kirlian” photography. By extending its mastery into the invisible rays of the spectrum as well as the electrical circuits of the nervous system, vibratory photography appeared to blur the boundaries between interiority and exteriority, visibility and invisibility and materiality and immateriality. This practice thus illustrates a broader reconfiguration of materiality and perception that occurred in the nineteenth century. As scientists discovered that certain light rays had a physical presence that remained invisible to the eye, for example, people became more aware of the limitations of their own sensory organs and the degree to which visual perception was the result of corporeal conditions of seeing. And because these invisible light rays could be recorded on photographic plates, the camera also appeared to serve as a prosthetic device that simulated the physiological functions of the eye while simultaneously compensating for its perceived limitations by increasing the range of human vision to a seemingly limitless degree. The ultimate effect of this new mode of perception was a shift from Cartesian perspectivalism, in which the act of seeing was linked to the notion of an interiorized subjectivity, to the realm of the “optical unconscious,” in which the act of seeing becomes a highly subjective and hallucinatory experience. The history of vibratory photography thus reveals not only the fundamentally unreliable nature of optical media, but also the function of consciousness as an interface between the psychic, perceptual and photographic apparatus. Through a closer examination of this history, therefore, my paper will explore the ways in which vibratory photography was conceived as an integrated media system that directly connected brain physiology and communications technologies, which makes it an early precursor to contemporary virtual reality technologies and neuroelectronic links.