Counting on the Unexpected: Aimé Civiale's Mountain Photography

Jan von Brevern
2009 Science in Context  
Argument Aimé Civiale's attempt at a complete photographic coverage of the High Alps seems to be a peculiar project at first sight. Carried out between 1859 and 1868, this was the earliest systematic attempt to introduce photography as a medium for studying the earth sciences. But as precise and determined as Civiale's approach appears, it was still quite unclear at the time how exactly photography could be useful in geology. This paper asks where the great confidence in the new medium in
more » ... to mountain representations came from. The answer is not an easy one, as sources on Civiale's project are scarce. To make things even more difficult, the confidence in photography in the earth sciences during that time seems to have been based more on hope than on actual results. It is difficult to extract hope from written sources, let alone from images. I argue that this confidence was not so much based on photography's classic attributes of exactness or objectivity, but on its promise to produce unexpected results. Therefore this argument will inevitably have speculative elements. Thus, this paper can also be understood as an attempt to deal with a specific historiographical problem that regularly occurs when writing about images. When observers apply a new instrument to the study of nature, what they have hoped for is of little importance, compared to the series of discoveries that results from the use of the instrument. In this area it is the unexpected that should be particularly counted on. François Arago, introducing the daguerreotype in 1839 (Arago 1839, 264)
doi:10.1017/s026988970999007x fatcat:zplsgaravvg6jbyq5p7mnbncpi