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Vampire Mythology and the Photographic Process

Recently I have started to teach as Visiting Lecturer at the Photography course of the Royal College of Art in London.

As a result my thinking swerved ever so often around the fundamentals of the phenomenon of the photograph. It’s history, processes and general involvement in the human condition. In broad strokes I tried to explain to myself what a photograph actually is?!

Here now I want to follow one train of thought about its past. It came to me, while thinking about the photograph as coming into existence only in darkness, on the dark side of a two-way hole. In the photographic process the image of something in the world is projected up side down into a small dark chamber. In one of its earliest forms on a glassplane covered with light sensitiv silver salts . It’s a delicate matter to create a photograph as it is destroyed to blackness when exposed to long to the violent bombardment of photons send out by our nearest star.

The earliest photographs are taken by Niepce and later by Daguerre and Fox-Talbot. Curiously the period of swift inventions of different photographic processes falls in exactly the same period as the popularisation of vampire stories in Europe . The first one being “The vampyre” by the physician John William Polidori in 1819. The vampire in his story is a middle aged count that seduces young women to then drink their blood , which helps him to prolong his undead existence. No photographic processes are showing up in the story, but this can’t be surprising, because the first photograph will be taken only 1827 by Niepce and then 1835 in much better detail by Daguerre. Only after the invention of the photograph certain characteristics seem to infuse the vampire mythology.

The processes I have in mind are the extreme sensitivity to light by both : The photographic film and the Vampire. If any of them is exposed to light too long, they are destroyed. Another aspect concerns the appearance. The ghost character of the photograph: showing in effect the imprint of something that has been and is no longer. In its own way it is undead. On the more material side, silver plays a role in both contexts . In vampire stories as poisonous to the creature , in photography as the element that is crucial for creating a light sensitive substance out of its salts.

The upside down character of the photographic image , projected onto the back of the camera box correlates with the upside-down as a signifier for evil . Language and symbols upside down or backwards have been used to signify evil. The vampire incorporates the upside down character in its animal form in some of the mythology :The bat. In Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” he descends a wall of a castle head down like a lizard.

The hole and the act of piercing a hole is a central part of the vampire narrative and at the same time the hole is crucial for the process of photography. The vampire leaves small holes in its victims, who it empties out. In effect it creates Camera Obscuras made of hollow bodies.

Some of the inter relations might seem far fetched, but in its accumulation and in respect to the similar historic timeline I suspect a cultural cross fertilisation from the knowledge about photographic processes into the mythology of the vampire story. The open source character of Daguerres method created a surge in interest and involvement in making photographs. It rose into the public mind. The French Gouvernement had asked Daguerre and Isodore Niepce to publish all their findings without patent in return for a state pension. They took up the offer and many interested citizen started to reproduce the process Daguerre had developed.

At the same time in 1835 the first modern mirrors were invented by Julius von Liebig . He had found a way to apply a thin layer of silver to a glass plane. When turning the plane around a highly reflective surface had formed. The first photographs with their layers of silver iodide were very closely related to mirrors.

As it’s well known the Mirror also found its way into the Vampire myths.

The Vampire Mythology was and is arguably so successful as it allows reinvention and development of new aspects. So it’s not surprising that in its beginnings it had been infused by the very popular semi magical processes of the just invented medium of photography.

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The unforgiving pull of death

Some thoughts on cushions

With age comes an appreciation of good cushions. They must have qualities opposing the unforgiving pull of death. They make you forget your body through distributing the pull of gravity onto such a large area that it is barely noticeable. They devide gravitational force in a very large  amount of small quantities. They try to beat gravity and in this they are machines that turn the person using them into a simulated angel : Life embracing, with a pain free mind, floating. They are a key to the shackles of reality. Dream maker, womb imposter. Utopia has been build probably on a foundation of soft cushions……

Projection of “Passanten” , video, 12min, 2008

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Some thoughts on vases and cups

A short article on the important role cups and vases played in human culture, technology, economy and understanding.

A cup is an universal object. Something ancient with qualities to be found in almost every living thing. As a form it resembles the cell. The body. It’s opening is facing up to the sky . Always. Often when filled with fluids it mirrors images of the sky.

The size of a cup is related to the hand. When held together two hands can hold almost the same amount of fluid.

Bottles have a mouth . Drinking is like kissing. As kissing is a form of ritualised feeding through the mothers mouth. Their is a sexual aspect to touching something with your lips. In history cups and grails took on functions in rituals.

They combine three important aspects of life : they hold food or water, they face up to the sun , the light , they create order through membranes and resist entropy.

Cups and time

When cups came into existence time began for humans . A cup proposes a standard , a measure. The world becomes measurable. A cup connects visually time with space. It hands time to people away from the sky where it had been for millennia. Only the Sun and the Moon made time visible before. Now pouring out a cup is a measure for time, that works independently of the sky.

The cup as aggressive metaphor

In recent times the dominant economic structure has been the consumer society economy. Here the cup has become the metaphor that is applied on to everything. This happens on the background of trying to make everything measurable, consumable and therefore tradable. The qualities of the cup/vase have become an aggressive doctrine.

Human culture, technology and civilisation would be impossible without the existence of cups or vases, but we have to be careful not to fall under the dictatorship of the cup.

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Grave robbers

 

feat_grave-matters-5-cases-of-body-snatching-from-the-victorian-eraThe relative rise in living standards in the world overall since the end of the 19th century is due to the discovery and exploitation of different carbon energy sources. Specifically coal,oil and gas.

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Artwork by Richard Wilson (Installation at the Hayward gallery London)

The available energy surplus created wealth and stability after some of the greatest conflicts history has seen. Vast advances in technology, reduction in hunger, safer and longer lives for the majority of people are all the result of this surplus. The benefits were foremost noticed in countries with colonial power and subsequently in some of the former dependent colonies. The sustained exploitation of  some former dependent countries or small economy countries is in this context a cruel fact, that still has not been addressed and rectified enough.

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Our carbon fuel economies created carbon based products like plastics. They are used to create the containers and units as well as the metaphorical idea of the consumer product. Our economies have the tendency to apply the model of the containable and consumable unit into every area. To make everything countable , consumable and tradable. So the metaphor of the vase, jar or cup on the market stool filled with something is applied to everything possible.

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The ultimative metaphor for everything

The relativ abundance of fossil fuels created  prosperity , less hunger and more peace, but also pollution of the oceans and the prospect of a catastrophical change to the climate.

It is now absolutely necessary to replace our fossil fuelled economies on all levels with alternative sources of energy and raw materials.

The problem is that the large fossil fuel dependent industries ( like the petrochemical industry and the car industry) are not ready to seriously change their focus. Through 130 years of accumulating socio political and financial power as well as a deep entanglement with almost every level of the world economies and societies , it almost seems impossible to implement the necessary change.

It is clear that if these changes are not introduced fairly soon , we are looking at a century of unrest, death ,wars and struggle to survive.

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The human race will probably survive the coming catastrophe and the powerful leaders of our states and multinational cooperations probably count on the old historical reality that it will only hit the weak and underprivileged.

There can’t be any other explanation for the resistance to meaningful commitment by the leaders of the world. It is based on greed and egoistic ethics: “…it won’t effect me” . I know this stance well, as it is part of once behavioural repertoire and choice making criteria present in former colonial countries. In a way Ayn Rands neoliberal ego-centered philosophy could be seen as an answer to a psychological need to cope with the guilt we accumulate. Christian values are not able anymore to successfully console and help the souls of the guilty. Especially the New Testament stands in opposition to the lack of empathy existing in the decision making of captains of industry and states. Without this deep ethical change in their worldview it would be hard to live with oneself.

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When the bible was a book to help farmers to cope with the guilt to manipulate and exploit plants and animals through taking away the gods that inhabited all these entities, then our new neoliberal ethics of profit making, help to cope with the exploitation of thy neighbour.

I have lived in relative wealth and could make fairly self determined and satisfying life choices. But I realise that my freedom and wealth is based on structures of exploitation that root in colonial history. If we would be more honest we should openly remember the murderers and thieves that made our lifes possible : A murder and thief bankholiday.

To return to the obvious observation at the beginning : Our blessing and our demise are fossil fuels.

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We are grave robbers feasting now for a little more than a hundred years on the rotten corpses of  plants and animals,that have lived millions of years ago over periods of millions of years. We are releasing time itself. It will be subtracted from our own time if we are not careful.

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Photo by Luka Siemionov

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