Posted by: madeleinerolson | October 10, 2018

Binh Danh’s Daguerreotype: A Contemporary Project of Making the Reproducible Unreproducible

          In my recent visit to Mount Holyoke’s Skinner Museum, I discovered Binh Danh’s daguerreotype, Ghost of Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum #3, from the series In the Eclipse of Angkor: Choeung Ek, and Khmer Temples (2008) mounted in the Conflict and Commemoration exhibit. Dinh’s photo is a translation of a print photograph onto a daguerreotype medium.  

          Daguerreotypes were commonly used in early photographic portraiture during the mid-1850s in the Victorian period. Unlike  paper photographs, daguerreotype photos are processed onto copper-silver plates using an iodine and bromine light sensitive process. The actual material is heavy and glass-like, and because of its fragility, these photos were often enclosed in a frame case. Because of the time consuming process of preparing the copper-silver plate as well as the danger in dealing with mercury chemical elements, daguerreotypes are not commonly used anymore. I became intrigued as to why Danh decided to use this early photographic method for the piece.

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Example of two daguerreotypes in case housing, courtesy of U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services

          Acknowledging Dinh’s photograph as a commemoration work, we can arrive at various possibilities for justifying the use of this medium and understand why this early photographic practice earns its relevance for his contemporary project. It seems Dinh is able to represent memorialization, reflection and the ghostly tainted aura of the subject, which is managed only through the particular qualities that the daguerreotype medium intrinsically employs. 

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   Ghost of Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum #3  

         Ghost of Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum #3  represents a child of the Tuol Sleng genocide (1975-1979). The actual piece in the museum is reflective and comparable to a mirror, much more so than this digital representation here shows. What stands out the most is the boy’s black hair and shadow around his lower left jawline. The rest of the body is barely noticeable. In person, the pattern details on the shirt as well as the arms blend into the glassy surface of the copper-silver plate. His neck outline is also barely recognizable, making the face appear disembodied from torso, which gives subject a haunting presence. In order to capture the boy’s outline, one must constantly shift their body from left to right, and so the viewing experience becomes a mobile, rather than static one. It is difficult to capture his entire outline as the body disappears by the slightest change in viewing angle. Here Dinh captures a fleeting quality of the eradicated Tuol Sleng population and its vanquished history by utilizing the daguerreotype’s inherent ability to allow subject to vanish in the frame.

         One can achieve a clearer of  the boy’s full outline by standing directly below the frame while looking up at his face from above. Such an angle further engenders the haunting quality as the subject becomes a ghostly figure floating in space above the viewer. At the same time, this ethereal quality projects a fragile and delicate aura. Dinh simultaneously captures the fragility and preciousness of the child subject. The medium is able to contain such special rarity because the photograph itself is a non-replicable object. Daguerreotypes are “one-offs,” meaning there exists no negatives to reproduce the photograph from.

Daguerreotypes were cherished similarly during the Victorian period for their quality to render the singular individual through portrait photography. Family members often referred back to loved ones and revisited the deceased in these sacred momentos. Here Dinh utilizes the daguerreotype’s characteristic of singularity for his project of humanizing the subject as non-reproducible. This articulation of individuality further disturbs any acceptence of genocide and instead elicits reflection on tragedy. 

         Though we may think Dinh sustains the Victorian daguerreotype’s act of humanization, Dinh actually amends this photographic occasion to swerve away from early conventions of staged portraiture. 

         In essence, portraiture is meant to illuminate the individual. Sitters in the Victorian era would often choose their dress, props, and scenic backgrounds to represent an image of who they wanted others to believe they were (part of the bourgeoisie status, a skilled tradesperson, an artist, etc.).

 

 

Example of staged Victorian daguerreotype portraiture

          Logically,  we can acknowledge the boy in Ghost of Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum #3 did not go to a portrait photographer as such leisure and privilege would not have been unrealistic during his state of captivity. We hardly get a representation of his individually here. Unknown-2

         The clothing is barely able to provide the sense of personality as the shirt’s polka dot pattern gets obscured like fog into the glass. He stands in front of a blank background, which also eradicates any idea of landscape or cultural setting. Notice how the numbers 373 stand out just as the black hair does. What does seem important is this tag on his chest, positioned in the lower center part of the frame, which is the only hint of identification we can gather. The title of this photograph does not include a name, but identifies the boy as a “ghost,” labeling him as an anonymous, unliving, unhuman subject. We are not permitted a full view of the body. Instead the body seems to be in a more restricted, rather than open display, as if regulated to contain expression. By conforming the body to fit within a tight photographic frame and reducing his identity to a number,  this photographic “portrait” employs a repressive, rather than celebratory function.

         And yet, Dinh’s daguerreotype does try to “celebrate” the uncelebrated original photographic portrayal through his focused act of memorialization. The motif of reflection is embodied in various ways: First, we understand reflection through its mirror-like silver-copper plate surface. Second, one encounters the self-reflexive act of confronting their own reflection in the voyeuristic act of looking. The photograph is hung about five feet off the ground, about face level, as if it acting as a mirror for any viewer. Additionally every time you look into the photograph  you acknowledge reflections as of the other artworks on opposing walls within the Conflict and Commemoration exhibit room. It is as though this installation is curated to be part of a larger conversation of reflection. Third, Dinh’s daguerreotype was made in 2008, about thirty years after the print it was based off of was taken. The act of revisiting a piece of historical documentation importantly initiates the move to reflect upon history.

         I want to acknowledge the original photograph must have been a reproducible print because Dinh was evidently able to generate a daguerreotype from it. In turning a reproducible print into this non-reproducible daguerreotype, I see Dinh actually halting the act of reproductivity.

         I reference cultural critic Walter Benjamin because of his discussions on visual reproductivity in his essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Benjamin describes the lost value of an artwork’s “aura,” which is its authentic uniqueness when it is mechanically reproduced. If the original photograph of the boy was taken through a mechanically reproduced medium (a photographic print – which consequently loses its aura/unique/individual/sacred value because more positives can be copied from a negative), Dinh’s act to translate the original print into a daguerreotype forges the sacred value of this individual by remaking the image onto a medium that can not be reproduced anymore. With this understanding, Dinh is able to re-humanize the subject that has been originally dehumanized in many forms.

         What I find fascinating about this piece is its ability to negotiate this humanization while still maintaining a part of the dehumanized/anonymous/numeric identity that the boy was originally staked with. Sustaining these dehumanizing qualities perhaps is needed for the piece to incite pathos in the act of commemorating the Tuol Sleng tragedy.

         I further note that out in the open room of this exhibit, this daguerreotype is clearly not enclosed in a case as was the practice in the Victorian period. If this piece was left out indefinitely, its image would eventually tarnish due to light exposure. This means even its viewing existence must be temporary, which speaks to the inevitable temporary life of any individual.

          Does this humanize and make us value this individual subject, this boy and victim of genocide, even more? Or does the choice to use a medium expected to tarnish actually reiterate a vanished and faded remembrance of him? Perhaps it does both. But surely the photograph must assert and reify the subject’s importance as a physical piece hanging in the museum, does it not? There seems to be an negotiation between this photograph acting as a sustainable, yet also fleeting and slippery object for commemoration.

          All of these possibilities illuminate why the daguerreotype is the most fitting medium to problematize and illuminate a child of genocide in a contemporary repurposed photograph, as Dinh models here with the Ghost of Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum #3.

-Madeleine Olson

Sources

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of mechanical Reproduction.” Literary Theory: An Anthology,  edited by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan, Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2001, pp.1235-1240.

Martin, Amy. Victorian Literature and Visual Culture, Course Meeting, September 2018, Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, MA. Course Meeting.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Responses

  1. This is so interesting! If the Benjaminian aura can be reinstated in this way, is it the same aura that was attached to the original image before it was reproduced? Or is this a new aura of a new image entirely? (Also, does it matter?)

    • That’s a great question to consider! I love considering the concept of the “aura,” Benjamin discusses. I would say if print photograph Dinh based his daguerreotype off of was a reproduction hanging in the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, it that print reproduction would not have an aura, since. Benjamin claims once something becomes reproducible, it loses its authenticity. I’m thinking back to our discussion from last class about the famine photographs that circulated among the masses, which were reproductions, clearly reproduced for commercial means and mass exhibition means. But if the original photograph that Dinh’s Daguerreotype was based from was not reproduced and hung in the museum, say, like a painting, I think it held an aura until Dinh made a replica of it. It’s purpose in the Tuol Sleng museum was for commemorative purposes as well, but still had the potential to be reproduced because of its print medium. It seems the art medium has some influence in the reproducible potential of an artpiece. While another artist can reproduce the original print photograph just as Dinh did (therefore I suppose Dinh did not completely cease the reproduction of it), he made a declaration or symbol of halting reproduction by translating the photograph into a “one-off.” What an intriguing question. Thanks for probing this topic of thought even more!


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