You cannot say you have thoroughly seen anything until you have got a photograph of it.
On ne peut prétendre avoir vu réellement quelque chose avant de l’avoir photographié.
— Emile Zola, cited in La photographie scientifique et pseudo-scientifique, <Histoire de la photographie> by Georges Didi-Huberman (1986)
We have fulfilled our desire to observe “everything” near and far through photography. The history of photography is also the history of our desire to make the invisible visible.
Photography made it possible to capture a trace of a disappearing time and also to visualise phenomena that can’t be seen by the naked eye. Murderers used to damage the eyes of victims in an attempt to erase their likeness form their victims retinas. Conversely, scientists in the 19th century endeavoured to transfer images from the retina onto photographic plates. However, both their hypotheses had two major errors. First, images can’t be made visible in our visual organs. Secondly, the role of photography goes beyond making objects visible. Instead, it visualises. What we see from retinal photography is not an image left on a retina but visualised capillaries on a retina. When the French astronomer Jules Janssen stated in 1988 that photography is the retina of scholars after photographing the surface of the Sun, he was celebrating a new world of vision that photography brought forward. What has been revealed in the human sense, is hidden reality rather than magic.
Optical devices are viewing instruments, originally developed for enhancing the imperfection of the human optical system. These can in themselves also be objects of contemplation. The pleasure of looking at cameras rather than photographs can be compared to that of the pleasure of looking at a map, rather than the actual journey itself. Rather than being “there”, the pleasure is in imagining and desiring that moment. This pleasure is for daydreamers, not explorers. Similarly, optical devices aspire to see, before they make seeing possible.