On Daguerreotypes and Heirloom Harvest
from the Afterword by M Mark
Photography, the art and science of drawing with light, has a paradoxical impact on the passage of time. In fixing and retaining an image, the photograph can stop time, freeze it, but also conserve it, gather it, pass it along. The fixed image captures a moment. In that sense, photographs are acts of historical preservation; they reshape memory as well as light.
The daguerreotype, photography’s original form, has been described as a mirror with a memory, and in fact the technology announced by Louis Daguerre in 1839 depends literally on a mirror. Because the daguerreotype plate is a sheet of copper coated in polished silver, viewers encounter both an image and a virtual image, a doubling that leads to depictions of almost holographic clarity and depth. Holding a daguerreotype in your hands allows you to see the subject—let’s say a cabbage or a peach—in splendid detail, but if you move the plate even slightly, you see instead a reflection of yourself and your world. This is an intensely intimate form of time travel.
As the foremost daguerreotypist of our time, Jerry Spagnoli has mastered the art of leaping centuries. Along with a few other artists in a group known as the antiquarian avant-garde, he has resurrected the complex technology of creating daguerreotypes and adapted that process to the twenty-first century. Jerry also writes about photography, investigating the ways we see, the ways we think about seeing, and the ways photographs represent and misrepresent the world. Although the precision of his daguerreotypes can give viewers an illusion of intense, unmediated connection with the image, he reminds us in his essays that photography is a medium, and that its mediation includes the decision a photographer makes about where to point his camera: “Photography is about the frame around the image: what is cut off. And yet the story doesn’t end. It’s told beyond the frame by a kind of intuition.” Jerry understands that stories give continuity to our lives. He understands that memories are acts of creation, stories we tell ourselves to make sense of a dizzying influx of information. History, he believes, exists in everyone’s individual memories.
Both Jerry Spagnoli and Amy Goldman are deeply engaged with history and with the small specific stories that constitute it. In their life’s work—his photography, her gardening—they commit themselves to historical preservation and to the specificity of their mediums. Every heirloom vegetable has its own story: The dainty, fragrant Queen Anne’s Pocket melon in your hand has a lineage that can be traced back a thousand years; its ancestors were carried by women who wished to smell sweet in the days before deodorant. The seeds of this particular melon are drying in the kitchen until planting time next spring. Every daguerreotype tells a story, too. In a handmade medium, artists inevitably leave traces of their work (chemicals mixed in idiosyncratic proportions, varied exposure times), and the portrait of a pocket melon you hold in your hand is different from every other daguerreotype because your mirrored reflection shines back at you. Each daguerreotype and each heirloom vegetable evokes the history of a medium, revises that history, and carries it into the future. By bringing parallel practices together, Jerry and Amy’s collaboration sheds light on what it means to preserve.