I would have liked to be this man, the first ghost ever photographed.
I would have walked up the Boulevard du Temple; I would have stopped long enough to fill my pail at the fountain, stopped amidst the hubbub of Parisian streets on that April or May morning in 1838 when Louis Daguerre opened his window and turned his camera toward the street.
It is said that this image is the first photograph taken of a living person. It is also the image of a shadow, alone in a deserted world; the image of a survivor after a catastrophe – or of a ghost wandering in a parallel world, one identical to the world he lived in, but now deprived of his fellow humans; and one where he would remain forever, alone. I would have been this man, and I would have thought I saw the crowd; I would have believed I was chatting with those I met; I would have imagined the cars around me, the shouts of the drivers, the clattering of iron-banded wheels on the cobblestones, the ushers clamouring for passers-by to their theatres’ shows, the bells ringing noon – would I have ever known that I was that shadow?
How many of those first photographs elicit a world after catastrophe, a deserted world, bodies fading into white light, faces eaten by the shadows, erased into paper?
Those ghosts are everywhere.
They are in these large negatives on glass plate that Gustave Le Gray took in 1859, where the buildings figure as white sleepwalkers in the middle of fabulous darkness — and in this strange night, a grieving shape is waiting for the morning to come, seated on a trunk.
They are in the streets of Paris as captured by Charles Marville starting in 1850, but most of which in 1865. Marville’s work was commissioned by the Bureau of Historical Works at the Paris municipality to keep a visual record of the “old streets that have been, or are to be, demolished”, before, during and after the huge works orchestrated by Prefect Haussmann.
Some of these streets are about to disappear, and that might explain their deserted appearance. But not only that. These are streets shot in early summer mornings, when the light is already bright, but people are still lost in their dreams and the early walkers’ steps resonate on the stones without waking the dogs; he listens through open windows to the breath of a city asleep; he sets up his equipment in the middle of the crossroads, capturing sleep together with the reflection on the walls and, slowly, between two streets, he counts the minutes until the image is ready.
But maybe the opposite is true: we find ourselves in the midst of a busy day, and it is the exposure time alone emptied the streets of its denizens.
In those dark spaces emptied by the photograph’s exposure time, shadows of passers-by sometimes leave their imprint, in the way light suddenly reflects on a facade just before dusk, when the street is already overcome by darkness: the ghost of a white dog on rue Mondétour; two men fading into a wall at the dead end on rue Sainte-Croix (long since gone); a woman stepping into a shop, a little girl behind the basket cart, rue des Prêtres Saint-Germain; a man hiding behind the grocer’s cart, as two faces peek from inside the shop.
Charles Marville, Rue des Prêtres Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois (the buildings on the right are the only ones that remain), Paris, c. 1865.
Then come those faces that are only ghosts to us, first because they disappeared so long ago that we can only see them as dead; then because the white shadows, the dark spots, the blotches of the daguerreotype transform these portraits into surreal images of beings that maybe only ever existed in our sight or our dreams — portraits faraway both in the space of the world explored and in the time of photographic experiment.
Faraway in space? This man from the Canaries counts among the very first non-Europeans to have been photographed, probably in Paris. His portrait illustrates the first scientific publication offering daguerreotypes to visually appreciate the anatomic characteristics of human skulls. The Botocudo Indian from Brazil was photographed in Lisbonne, in 1844, but he visited Paris; his name was Manuel, and his wife was Maris. They lodged with some man called Porte, who brought them to the Museum. There, people wanted to make casts of their faces, their torsos, their arms and legs.
Manuel and Marie walked across Marville’s Paris – across that city that was to disappear; they walked on the Boulevard du Temple and might have even visited the theaters.
Actors, spectators? Dressed, costumed, naked? Under applause, mockery, examination, or measurement?
These too were photographed in Paris. Twenty years after the conquest of Algeria, the Arab horsemen have stopped fighting, and are but the shadows of those who for years thwarted the French army. They came to Paris for a show set up by the Museum, Children of the Desert, a fantasia on the Champ de Mars in June, 1851. They too are photographed, and casts of their bodies taken for science - but as popular artists, these horsemen leave their names under their portraits and are paid to pose.
The daguerreotypes by Joseph Philibert Girault de Prangey, which were found in 1920 in a forgotten room of his home, are the oldest photographic images of the Near East; they too look like ghostly bodies to us, from the blurring and fading of the picture’s lines. This fading, the melt of the picture in a pervasive blue, recall to memory other faded images, disappearing into the wall they were painted onto: the Cimabue frescoes in the Upper Basilica of Assisi, of which, only a kind of yellow and black negative on a background of blue survives.
The white ghosts shrouding those East African bodies do not come from the same place. Charles Guillain travelled from 1846 to 1848 on the brigantine Du Couédic. On an exploration mission, he landed in Zanzibar amidst a war of succession. As the longboat passed the rip tide, a wave sent seawater over all the photography equipment. The salt and water did not, however, render the plates fully unusable, but it hindered their ulterior preparation. Despite the cloudy look of the prints, Guillain resolved to keep them; allowing us to contemplate those many portraits.
Individuals, personalities whose names sound like spoken talismans, names like Aziza, the niece of the Zanzibar governor. Solemnly draped in her finest attire, covered in gold, silk and jewelry, adorned in glass pearls and rings; she fades into a greyish lump, while a blot, similar to a mask, mutes the face that Guillain inscribed onto the metal plate.