Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. – the noted poet, essayist, and physician – offers a set of reflections on the emerging technology of photography in this 1859 essay. Apparent here is the intricate reliance on complex technology for rendering the 3-dimensional world into a 2-dimensional fixed representation of that world. With the novel ability to produce such accurate images easily, Holmes sees a transition occur: even though the photograph is a quintessential example of a material object, Holmes sees form “divorced from matter” in the photographic image. Undoubtedly, the complex relationships between people and photographic imagery has helped to shape subsequent attitudes about object, materiality, and information “divorced from matter.”
This essay relays an intelligent observer’s impressions at the advent of the technological age. Holmes’s notions and language are enough like ours to be sensible, but just different enough so that his topic – the capturing of light – is refracted in uniquely creative way. It is worth considering how the digitization of images – in their production, manipulation, and transmission – departs from this earlier era in which a different set of materials and procedures was necessary to accomplish these processes. Now, more than ever, visual imagery may be divorced from its material underpinnings, and exist as a flow of information connecting, for instance, a live camera feed, linked to a satellite, communicating with a station, broadcasting the imagery on a news channel, to the flickering screen of a television, and ultimately, to the eyes of the viewer – all in real time.