The Negative at Work

Michel Frizot

In the beginning was the negative

In making this assertion, which was still taken for granted by photographers thirty years ago, it is striking that it is now perhaps regarded as no more than a reference to the foundations of photography, because nowadays the term “negative” has disappeared from the photographer’s standard vocabulary. Digital pho-tography no longer generates the characteristic material objects of the analogue process that was an inex-tricable part of the medium for 160 years (from 1840 to 2000), shaping our imaginative world despite the apparent awkwardness of the technique.

When Arno Gisinger digs out a collection of glass negatives at the Kunsthalle Mannheim that are the prod-uct of a systematic logging of the museum’s objects and exhibitions, he goes beyond their status as “documents” and carriers of information. His idea is to reactivate their original functions, and even to surpass and, where necessary, transgress them by looking at them in their concrete material form as objects of thought. They form a work in which their hitherto hidden—and ever latent—properties are made manifest for contemporary viewers.

The unwieldiness of the negative

In almost every pre-digital photographic process—of which there are an inconceivably large number of instances—the negative was the disconcerting image that every camera produced: an unclassifiable object with a somewhat off-putting appearance that is nevertheless immediately regarded as the original photo, as the primary product of the act of recording, which contains in a sense, unbeknownst to the person being photographed, all the data that has been captured, and thus represents the archaeological equivalent of the digital RAW-file.

For the inventors of photography, the negative was an absolute prerequisite for obtaining an acceptable image, but at the same time it was also a disappointment. In the experiments with silver substances that turn black when exposed to light, any relationship to the colours of the motifs being photographed (landscape, portrait, or painting) was lost, with only a single brown or grey tone remaining. An image is thus solely made up of different brightness values, of variations in the luminosity of the average value—however, these tonalities are the inverse of those of the motif that has been photographed. Dark areas in the image correspond to light areas in the motif and vice versa. The negative is thus characterized by the inversion of the brightness values and the elimination of colour (this, at any rate, was the case for many decades). In 1835 William H. Fox Talbot had determined that, by reapplying the photographic principle to the negative, “the first drawing may serve as an object to produce a second drawing, in which the lights and shadows would [once again] be reversed.”1 The print—the final image, that is—is the result, therefore, of a re-inversion of the light values by virtue of the action of light on another photosensitive surface through the values of the negative.

But this unwieldy object, which, although it is not conceived of as a photo, is completely photographic in nature and an integral part of the photographic process, does not in perceptual terms accord with our natural patterns of visual recognition.2 The eye struggles to discern a relief, a space, or a face in a negative, because the system of shadows that helps us to recognize space and volumes and gives structure to visual form is cancelled out by the inversion of values. No negative can be directly and completely decoded by our visual apparatus. The negative image remains something alien that can only be interpreted bit by bit: it is possible to make out that the image is of a person without being able to really determine his or her facial features; it is possible to “recognize” the arrangement of forms in the image of a painting (Manet’s The Execution of Emperor Maximilian) without getting at what constitutes the essence and interest of the picture. It is only the phantom of the work—what remains when all the life has disappeared from it.

Arno Gisinger, Gespenstergeschichten, historische Ausstellungsräumlichkeiten der Kunsthalle Mannheim während des Umbaus, Edouard Manet, Die Erschiessung des Kaisers Maximilian, Farbfotografie 2017 © Arno Gisinger

Transparency and projection

When Talbot invented the paper negative, he found that the re-inversion of values could only be achieved efficiently with transmitted light passing through the base and the photosensitive layer. This led him to apply a wax coating to the paper negative that he typically used for his calotype process to make it more translucent. But it was the collodion-coated glass negative produced by his rival Scott Archer that gave a crucial economic boost to photographic practice after 1851 as it offered the advantage of complete transparency. Glass negatives were still in use until after World War II, even if they started to be replaced in around 1890 by celluloid, which was easier to handle.

The transparency of the negative is a sine qua non for “projection”.3 The production of a print from the negative by putting the two surfaces in contact inherently involves the process of light projection, where one surface is traversed by light, while the other surface receives it, with the values inverted.

Projection was born of the wish to produce larger prints from the negatives. The “enlargers”4 devised in the 1880s led simultaneously to the construction of “projection lanterns”, which enlarged diapositives on glass (obtained by reversing the negative).5 The diapositives projected onto a white screen—a process that was also greatly appreciated by amateurs when photo clubs were started in the 1890s6—were called “photographic tableaux”.7 When the device is aligned, the light travels from the back of it through the diapositive and the lens—both transparent—until it is stopped by a surface, which produces the image by intercepting the rays of light. For the viewer, the reflected light from this surface, which can be read as an image, is predicated on the transparency being a positive “tableau”. Projecting a negative would be nonsensical.


The negative is a purely technical image: the first to be made by a machine without the intervention of human agency. Here the configuration of forms does not depend on any artistic input. However, owing to the properties
of optics, the negative is characterized by a rigorous exactness and scientific precision: nothing escapes from it, and all the nuances in luminosity emanating from the space that is photographed are inscribed in its surface. The negative thus also contains unintended or trivial information, invisible traces that can only be discerned later by looking with a more sophisticated eye and an attention that is more finely trained.
Nevertheless, in practice, photographers tend to opt for a certain surplus as a precaution. Generally speaking, when selecting a motif and determining the framing, they allow for a larger field of view than the area they want to capture so that they retain some latitude for reframing the image at a later date. The negative thus contains more than it should. The scenic arrangement for the shot, the object’s environment at that moment, the conditions of natural or artificial lighting are thus present on the negative in no more than a provisional capacity, as they are destined to disappear on the print. When looked at today, the edges of the negative are likely to show signs of damage inflicted by time or traces of human handling: paper borders, stickers, annotations in ink. The professionally produced glass negative thus appears in twin form and in two temporal stages: first, there is a kind of intangible base containing every item of information both wanted and unwanted—this base is preserved so that the information can be accessed later on. On top of this there is a stock of meta-information, which makes processing easier or reduces the amount of surplus with retouching and masking. The negative imposes its own anachronism on the photographed painting or sculpture because it includes two temporalities: the time when the particular work of art was created and the moment of the photograph, which places this work in a new time and, from a temporal point of view, copies it against the flow, as it were.

Art, in the negative’s snare
Today we take it completely for granted that we can use the Internet to access a wealth of artworks—or rather their photographic reproductions—or save a memory of an exhibition we have visited on our mobile phones. In our almost ecstatic infatuation with the screen, the photograph has unexpectedly replaced the work, while at the same time contemporary art has often become photographic.
In the process, we have completely forgotten that it is photography that made the evolution of art history possible and has thus given visual consistency to the passage of time. Since the 1850s, photography’s speed and precision have been instrumental in recording paintings in museums and churches. And this trend became more pronounced in the 1870s with the creation of extensive collections of photographs circulated in large quantities by firms like Alinari and Braun. The comparative approach on which art history is built was spawned by an extraordinary opportunity, the ability to put a number of reproductions of original works that were scattered all over the world next to one another on a table or a board and combine them in one glance, thus making it possible to verify the formal fidelity of the copy (one thinks here of Aby Warburg’s famous Mnemosyne Atlas). Educationally speaking, the artists, painters, and architects of that time drew much more heavily on this accumulation of photographic documentation than on sacrosanct journeys to Italy. In the late nineteenth century, the projection of diapositives in the standardized format became the preferred tool of instruction, making it possible for works to be viewed by the audience on a screen, and in the 1960s colour slides were introduced. Art in all its forms fell so far into the snares of photography that André Malraux wrote in 1947, “For the last hundred years […] art history has been the history of that which can be photographed.”8

In this process of replacing originals with reproductions, which was legitimized on grounds both of conservation (as in Mannheim) and of dissemination, art had lost some of its intrinsic qualities: its colours (no trivial matter), its format (universally adjusted to a paper size of 20 × 25 cm or a slide measuring 8.5 × 10 cm), its spatial and architectural context. The subsequent advent of colour only served to confuse things, offering a rather approximate sense of fidelity, whose shortcomings were amplified in book illustrations. What is laid before us as documentation is thus reduced to a symbol taken from the original, while the original, if you can observe it in
, turns out to be impossible to visually grasp in its entirety, because of the limitations of the eye. The negative was often responsible for any subsequent anomalies and aberrations. The difficulties of aligning the negative, duplicate positive, and diapositive in the projector often
led to a characteristically photographic phenomenon—the (left–right) inversion of the image.9 An irreversible breach of the very notion of a work.

Work of perception
Everything that comes out of photography and especially the negative is governed by a basic antagonism between the recording capacities of a technical device and the way human perception works. These images have
no life of their own but merely lend themselves to being reanimated by the proper lighting equipment and thereafter enjoying a new lease of life in the questioning eye of the beholder. For the act of viewing takes place visually
and mentally; the viewers attempt to relate what they see to their knowledge and opinions, even if they can be misleading. Gisinger’s work with the stock of negatives at the Kunsthalle Mannheim prods us out of our
retreat into an ongoing state of photographic voyeurism. By reactivating the earlier purpose of the negative, which here applied to the reproduction of works of art, Gisinger multiplies the visual and mental aporias, which for their part all refer to imaginary anomalies. The object projected on a wall becomes, contrary to its primary function, a chimera that lapses here and there into mimetic reminiscences.

The visual quality of the Mannheim projection wall, which consists of bricks and joints—i.e. alternating light and dark rectangles—subverts the basic homogeneity of the negative image by underlaying it with positive fragments, like an outlandish puzzle that invites us by turns to believe what is sham and to refute the real.

Gisinger’s installation breathes new life into the devitalized and disfigured phantoms of the museum’s original works by invoking the ancestors of the technology he uses. In this way, he responds to the ambition of any work “to be included in the exhibition” and, what is more, to renew its status. In this process, the overall concept of the work (the photographically recorded artworks, the work of Arno Gisinger) finds itself caught in the net of representations, or rather of representative functions. The acts of painting, sculpting, retouching, and archiving by hand are mixed up with hotography’s function as an artefact (negative, recording, inversion, projection), which profoundly destabilizes our need for visual understanding: what I see before me does not reflect what I imagine has been photographed.

1 “Notebook”, 28 February 1835, in Larry J. Schaaf, Out of the Shadows: Herschel, Talbot, and the Invention of Photography (New Haven, 1992), 41–42. (“In the Photogenic or Sciagraphic process, if the paper is transparent, the first drawing may serve as an object to produce a second drawing, in which the lights and shadows would be reversed.”).
2 Michel Frizot, “Negative Ikonizität: Das Paradigma der Umkehrung”, in Ordnungen der Sichtbarkeit, ed. Peter Geimer (Frankfurt a.M., 2002), 413–33, and “L’image inverse: Le mode négatif et les principes d’inversion en photographie”, Études photographiques 5 (November 1998): 51–71.
3 Until the first projections of photographic views, the term applied exclusively to geometry. See Michel Frizot, “Un dessein projectif: La photographie”, in Projections: Les transports des images, ed. Dominique Païni (Paris, 1997), 73–93.
4 Albert Londe, “Des agrandissements et des réductions”, chap. 10 in La photographie moderne, 2nd ed. (Paris, 1896), 513–43. 5 In Greek, dia means “through”.
6 H. Fourtier, La pratique des projections (Paris, 1892).
7 Ibid., chap. 2, “Tableaux photographiques”, 12ff.
8 André Malraux, The Psychology of Art: Museum without Walls (New York, 1949), 30.
9 Heinrich Wölfflin, “Über das Rechts und Links im Bilde”, Münchner Jahrbuch der bildenden Kunst, n.s., vol. 5 (1928): 213–24.

Michel Frizot (1945) is a French historian and photography theorist. He was previously director of research at the Centre national de la recherche scientifique and wrote and published the highly influential book A New History of Photography* (1994). His research is focused on photography’s foundational processes, from its production in a technical sense to its reception as images.