• Realising the unreal: Swedenborg, photography and vision(s)

Smith, Bridget, 2022, Thesis, Realising the unreal: Swedenborg, photography and vision(s) PhD thesis, Royal College of Art.

Abstract or Description:

In this practice-led PhD I ask how might an allegorical reading of the eighteenth-century scientific and visionary cosmologies of Emanuel Swedenborg elucidate new readings around the invention, practice and reception of photography in the 1830s to 1850s? How might these readings ‘speak’ and act as an agent to impact a different, secular knowledge and understanding of contemporary photographic practices and theory?

My connection to Swedenborg comes through the archive at Swedenborg House, London, and my role there as artist in residence (2015-19). Swedenborg lived during the height of the Enlightenment, a prominent natural scientist fascinated by instruments of vision, turned seer and visionary. This latter occupation placed his thinking in the undercurrents of his time, as he dispassionately recorded things heard and seen up above the earth’s atmosphere. He formulated his theory of correspondences, whereby the knowledge (visibility) of an immaterial world corresponds with and affects the physical world, in a dynamic, interactive dialogue. My research project is an experimental visualisation of how Swedenborg’s scientific and visionary theories might correspond with contemporary photographic practice.

I find and trace Swedenborg’s connection to photography (as medium, apparatus and process) through looking back to its origins and associated theories: Walter Benjamin’s ‘Little History of Photography’ (1931), Rosalind Krauss’s ‘Tracing Nadar’ (1978) and Kaja Silverman’s The Miracle of Analogy (2015), as well as her earlier Flesh of My Flesh (2009). Benjamin’s seminal essay on the intelligibility of photography seen through the ‘fog’ that surrounded its ‘beginnings’ is the touchstone for Krauss and Silverman. Krauss identifies Swedenborg’s influence in an atmosphere of science and spiritualism. Silverman in her reevaluation asserts that photography is not index but analogy, the world’s predominant way of revealing itself to us, and that the atmosphere surrounding its origins has reappeared due to photography’s recent obsolescence as an industrial medium. If we accept Silverman’s theory then it follows, I assert, that Swedenborg’s theory of correspondences and analogy is brought to the fore, and might usefully propose a model for contemporary photographic

Through knowledge of the archive and Swedenborg’s methods and methodologies that can be seen as analogous with photographic practices, I assert my concept of Swedenborg as camera. A dynamic, associative, ‘virtual’ tool that I pick up and add to my existing toolkit: a past/present/future instrument of vision that prompts a diffraction methodology, as identified by Karen Barad, whereby, the apparatus, what is seen through it and the images it generates are inevitably entangled.

The PhD encompasses three research outcomes in photography’s expanded field: ‘The Eye Needs a Horizon’, Frith Street Gallery, London (2016); ‘Thinking Light’, Beecroft Building, University of Oxford (2018); and ‘Let Us Record The Atoms As They Fall’, Swedenborg House, London (2019).

Photography’s obstructive ‘fog’ becomes an enabling atmosphere. Its expanded field becomes relational. Camera obscuras are deconstructed, reimagined and spatially reconfigured. Throughout it all a single beam of light evolves and reforms as it moves through the research project.

Qualification Name: PhD
Subjects: Creative Arts and Design > W600 Cinematics and Photography > W640 Photography
School or Centre: School of Arts & Humanities
Funders: Techne [AHRC]
Uncontrolled Keywords: Photography; Swedenborg; Camera Obscura; Light; practice based
Date Deposited: 22 Jun 2022 17:57
Last Modified: 22 Jun 2022 18:14
URI: https://researchonline.rca.ac.uk/id/eprint/5079
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