Art History: The Lens in 19th Century Photographic Cultures – School of Art Communication and English Art History: The Lens in 19th Century Photographic Cultures – School of Art Communication and English

Jean-Baptiste Sabatier-Blot, Louis-Jacque-Mandé Daguerre, 1844. Daguerreotype, likely made with an updated Petzval Lens. George Eastman Museum, Rochester, NY

Art History: The Lens in 19th Century Photographic Cultures

Andrés Mario Zervigón

Visible Yet Transparent: The Lens in Nineteenth-Century Photographic Cultures


Cohosted by the Art History Research Seminar & Photographic Cultures Research Group

In 1890, the famous Jena Glass Works of Carl Zeiss released the Anastigmat photographic lens to great fanfare. The nearly faultless mimesis it generated seemed to conclude a chapter in optical technology that had progressed in a predetermined manner since photography’s origins. But why exactly had Zeiss developed its expensive mechanism and what drove photographers to buy it? This talk proposes that the consistent focus and varied depth of field that the Anastigmat provided were not in and of themselves the desired goals of the new “corrected lens,” but that they were instead visible signals of a pictorial model that makers and consumers had been seeking since the public introduction of photography in 1839. The goal was a transparent realism that remained stubbornly external to the medium, an illusionistic standard that had largely been mediated by painting since the renaissance and was now apparently possible in photography as well. But this history of pictorial perfection and the Anagstimat was not inevitable. Other lenses developed around the same time answered to dramatically different technological and aesthetic imperatives. They tell an alternative story of photography’s identity that is untethered to mimetic fidelity, photographic transparency, and what we now call indexicality.

Andrés Mario Zervigón is Professor of the History of Photography at Rutgers, the State University in New Jersey (USA). He is author of John Heartfield and the Agitated Image (2012) and Photography and Germany (2017). With Tanya Sheehan he edited Photography and Its Origins (2014), with Sabine Kriebel Photography and Doubt (2017), and with Donna Gustafson Subjective-Objective: A Century of Social Photography (2017). His current book project is a history of Die Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung, for which he received a CASVA Senior Fellowship (2013-14). Zervigón leads The Developing Room, an academic working group at Rutgers devoted to photography studies.

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