Laura Saltz, Associate Professor of American Studies (Colby)

Oct. 4 at 7:00 in Lovejoy 100 EVENT HAS BEEN CANCELED

photomicrograph of insect wings

William Henry Fox Talbot, Photomicrograph of Insect Wings, 1840

Early photographic experimentation was frequently less concerned with optics—with providing a picture of the world—than with physics. Techniques such as spectroscopy were developed and deployed explicitly to investigate that which was beyond the range of human perception: the nature and behavior of light. Indeed, the invention of photography was deeply implicated in what historians of science have identified as one of the greatest scientific revolutions in history: the articulation and acceptance of the wave theory of light. Yet early techniques for measuring and visualizing light are frequently cordoned off, both in histories of photography and as objects of study, from early photographic practices that produce narrative descriptions of the world. This talk asks why it is worth reintegrating scientific discourses about light back into the cultural history of early photography. What might be gained by interrogating common-sense distinctions between representational and non-representational photographs? By drawing on Michel Foucault’s concept of the episteme—the conceptual grid through which a culture establishes what counts as knowledge—this talk explores the revolutionary roles played by the invention(s) of photography in western constructions of scientific knowledge in the early nineteenth century.

Laura Saltz is Associate Professor and Director of American Studies at Colby College, where she teaches courses on American visual culture. She has published award-winning essays on the engagements of both Poe and Wharton in visual culture; and she has published essays on nineteenth-century photography and the scientific discourses of polarity and magnetism, and photography’s paradoxical status as both natural and mechanical. She is working on a manuscript entitled Imponderables: The Science of Light and American Romantic Literature.

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