Edgar Allen Poe on photography

If we examine a work of ordinary art, by means of a powerful microscope, all traces of resemblance to nature will disappear—but the closest scrutiny of the photogenic drawing discloses only a more absolute truth, a more perfect identity of aspect with the thing represented. – Edgar Allen Poe, 1840

Long before Susan Sontag wrote On Photography, others put pen to their thoughts on this medium of photography. Edgar Allen Poe was a subject of a photographer’s camera, but he also apparently was a fan of the medium. The Daguerreian Society recently posted a column Poe wrote for Alexander’s Weekly Messenger in 1840, just about a year after the Daguerreotype was officially introduced to the world.

Daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe, late May – early June 1849.

Poe gives a simplified explanation of the process of preparing, exposing and developing a Daguerreotype plate, but he also conveys what he sees as the significance of the invention. The quote above communicates his perception that the photograph preserves its ability to present the nature that is recorded even at close inspection. Poe also recognized that at that early stage in the development of photography the impact it might have couldn’t be foretold. While he saw use for making accurate photographs of the moon, how could he conceive that 130 years later humans would be using cameras on the moon?

I like Poe. I like that he liked photography. And I like that he reminds us that as fantastic as we may think something is, we probably haven’t seen anything yet.

* The daguerreotype of Poe is of unknown origin and is in the public domain in the US. This version comes from the Getty Museum’s Open Content Program.

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