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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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Hans Peter Feldmann’s Shadow- scape at Berlins Hamburger Bahnhof

A simple, humble and wonderful installation in the second floor of the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin. The balance between mondane plastic objects and their magical shadows is effortless. Maybe a little ‘habitat’ but through it’s simplicity and honesty transgressing Scandinavian bedroom design.

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