The first and shortest iteration of this brief essay was composed for “One Image, One Minute,” an event organized by Austin Thomas and hosted by Hyperallergic in the summer of 2010. An extended version, more or less identical to the version below, was published in Juncture: A Writerly Newspaper in February 2011.
Boulevard du Temple, Louis Daguerre, 1838 or 1839.
My first encounter with the writings of Giorgio Agamben, a contemporary Italian philosopher, took place in the spring of 2004, as I was putting certain final touches on my doctoral dissertation. It was one of those beautiful accidental finds in the library as I chanced across his book Man Without Content, whose title alone I found enthralling, devastating, defining. That text became of crucial importance to me as I completed my arguably unimportant work. I have been a devotee of Agamben ever since.
In one of his more recent books, Profanations,* in a chapter titled “Judgment Day,” Agamben discusses Boulevard du Temple, a daguerreotype from late 1838 or early 1839. From the point of view of his studio, Louis Daguerre, still very much in the wondrous throes of experimentation with this new medium, forged a glimpse of the eponymous and generally very busy Parisian boulevard during the bustling midst of a day. The result is considered, though not without some contention, the first photographic image to feature – for it is there, it is present, a sublime and haunting figuration, a well-delineated wraith in an otherwise nearly deserted streetscape – a human figure.**
Unidentified, unidentifiable. Absolutely anonymous, quotidian. This figure, this person, is momentous. He should not, by all accounts, be there. He should not be documented. Save for a few other phantom forms one might intuit, though surely with lesser certitude, as human, all the other persons and carriages and variable traffickings of life that also passed by during that long exposure – during the realization of that seemingly alchemical conjuring through interactivities between a treated copper plate and light – have disappeared into the blur of the past.
And yet, this person, this figure.
Having paused long enough, supposedly, to have his shoes shined.
There he stands.
Agamben calls this a consummate representation of the Last Judgment: a single person “captured” in the vanishing of all else, “immortalized,” “charged with the weight of an entire life,” an instant of insignificance configured as “the meaning of an entire existence.”
Far more than the one I spoke of before, this capturing might also be called a most beautiful accident.
And enthralling, and devastating, and defining.
And if somehow representative of Last Judgment, this immortalized image, in short writ, is rapture.
Or in large writ, and properly so-called, Rapture.
Or in terms less metaphysical though perhaps equally, by way of etymology, dramatic, this first photographic figuration of man is eternally rapt, everlastingly raptured.
In these past participles from Latin rapere, this figure is caught, taken up, seized, captured.
Past participles, passed judgments.
* Giorgio Agamben, Profanations, trans. Jeff Fort, New York, Zone Books, 2007. “Judgment Day,” pp. 23-28.
** Look for him, in the image above, in the lower-left register near the curve of the curb.