PHOTOGRAPHY / Out of the shadows, into the light: Andrew Graham-Dixon on 'The Waking Dream', Edinburgh

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AT FIRST sight William Henry Fox Talbot's Botanical Specimen looks like nothing much at all: a smudged field of lilac blue on a tiny piece of scrap paper. Closer inspection reveals the ghostly outline of an unidentifiable plant, a faint silhouette of leaf and stem and bloom, traced upon its surface. There it is: the first photograph ever taken.

It is also the first picture you see in 'The Waking Dream: Photography's First Century', an engrossing and labyrinthine display of photographs from New York's Gilman Paper Company Collection currently on show at the City Art Centre in Edinburgh. Talbot's picture of a flower is presented here as a generative object, containing within it the seeds of a new visual form. Photography announces itself, at its beginning, as a medium that will simultaneously affirm and resist the transience of all things, a medium that will memorialise the temporary. Talbot sent some of his pictures to his sister-in-law in the early 1830s and she wrote back to thank him for sending her 'such beautiful shadows'. An interesting choice of words, that - suggesting a congruence between the world as recorded by the photographer and the fallen world of Plato's cave, where things can only be experienced as flickering shadows of their true essences. The melancholy implicit in all photographs was recognised early.

The photograph, supposedly the most objective form of visual record, has a history of provoking those who ponder it to flights of fancy and arcane metaphorical speculation. The history of the medium is inseparable from the history of the meanings that have been attached to it.

Early photographic experiments were seen as modern miracles, a perception that was reinforced by the processes employed. Talbot's Botanical Specimen, made by laying a plant on a photo-sensitive sheet of paper and allowing the light of the sun to trace its image, was the likeness of a natural form drawn, it almost seemed, by supernatural agency. The photograph, as container of the magically deposited residue of a real presence, became a medium seen to be invested with occult powers.

The photographic image seemed, to those who first made and looked at photographs, to recover some of the old potency attributed to images during the Middle Ages, when pictures were seen as visionary aids, ways of making miraculous events in the past miraculously present to the eye and mind of the beholder. The travelling British photographer Charles Clifford seems to have been making this claim for photography when he took one of the most remarkable, if least well known, of all early photographs, his picture of the Statue of Saint Bruno in the Carthusian Monastery of Our Lady of Miraflores, Burgos, in 1853.

Clifford found the statue in question - a spectacular life-size Spanish Baroque polychrome sculpture of Saint Bruno, rapt in a vision of Christ's sufferings on Golgotha as he contemplates the crucifix he holds in his right hand - in a small chapel of the monastery. But he had it moved and placed in an open doorway, where he photographed it as if it were not a statue at all but a living person. The photograph, it is implied, can resuscitate the dead, can breathe life into a frozen work of art.

More than that, Clifford suggests that the photograph can inspire visionariness in those who regard it, can give us, so to speak, an instant replay of an ancient miracle. It can heighten the already considerable realism of Catholic Baroque statuary (whose aim was itself to reincarnate the dead saint). It can present an image of Saint Bruno which brings him to life for us just as the image of crucifixion which he once pondered brought Christ to life for him.

Clifford was not the only early photographer to claim mesmeric, quasi- mystical powers for the medium. In 1845 the American photographer John Adams Whipple took a weird and compelling photograph of a hypnotist standing behind four of his seated, entranced subjects. Their eyes are closed, their hands clasped as if in prayer; the hypnotist's left hand rests upon the domed, balding head of the only man among them, as if to emphasise his sovereignty over the imaginings he has induced in him. Whipple significantly called the photograph not Hypnotist but Hypnotism - perhaps to suggest photography's own sovereign powers and transporting abilities, its capacity to conjure up places and people that cannot be experienced at first hand.

Daguerre was another early photographer to claim supernatural powers. He said that his pictures were the results of magic, not technology, and although his fraudulence was disproved by a French government committee appointed to investigate photography, the medium has never quite lost its aura of necromancy, incantation and magical summoning up of the dead: every photographic portrait is a Turin shroud: an uncanny image of someone who no longer exists.

'The Waking Dream' is full of haunting images of people who no longer exist. The medium was well adapted to the democratic spirit of America, a nation only 50 years old when photography was invented and one that would, largely, come to define itself photographically. While few people could afford to have their portrait painted anyone could have their photograph taken. This show finds room for a tremendous, sober portrait of Abraham Lincoln pondering his responsibilities in the aftermath of his presidential nomination, as well as for extraordinary pictures of early American settlers sitting on the porches of houses evidently in the middle of nowhere - Whitman's 'Pioneers] O Pioneers' determinedly enacting the rites of civilised domesticity in the wildest of wildernesses - and for a sequence of remarkably staid, respectable-looking portraits of 'Rogues' taken by the Hungarian emigre Samuel Szabo.

The photograph, here, comes to stand for everyone's right to an identity, and again its apparent literalness is charged with higher meanings by its interpreters. Thoreau comes to see, in such photographic portraits, evidence for a common strand binding together the disparate communities of America.

The better-known photographs in this show tend to be the most modern ones - Edward Steichen's early essay in pictorialist photography, a vision of trees and lake made to approximate to Impressionist fuzziness; Paul Strand's Cezannesque arrangement of Pears and Bowls; Rodchenko's Cubo-Futuristic tilted image of workers and steamrollers Asphalting a Street in Moscow - but they tend not to seem as arresting as the much less familiar early photographs. Perhaps the earlier photographs seem more intriguing precisely because they are less familiar, but they also seem inherently fresher and less affected by ways of seeing learnt from other media. The influence of painting is felt differently and less intensely in many of the 19th- century photographs, so what you get is a sense of photography making up its own rules for itself, discovering its own uniqueness as a genre.

American photographs of the 1860s and 1870s are exemplary in this. Timothy H O'Sullivan's view of the Humboldt Hot Springs is an extraordinary picture of unpeopled America, a view on to a great void of desolate land that steams like a solid sea. Later photographers might have shot the scene from a lower angle, made the wasteland seem more abstract and aestheticised, but not O'Sullivan. With him you get the scrubby texture of the land, and a precise sense of its scale: his portable developing box is visible nearby, his horse-drawn wagon in the middle distance. Despite the size of the landscape he has pictured, you have the feeling that the photographer himself is not overawed by it. He knows that to take a photograph of a place is to begin to colonise it.

Other American photographs of the time reveal the medium's capacity for unflinching observation: the way the untutored mechanical eye of the camera may note things that the learned eye of the artist may edit out as too ugly or incongruous. O'Sullivan's pictures of the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg showed people, for the first time, what a dead human being looks like: awkwardly twisted, puffy- lipped and wild-eyed.

Alexander Gardner's photograph of the execution of Abraham Lincoln's assassins is oddly matter-of-fact, but that is what makes it affecting. The condemned sit in a row on a high wooden platform. Their audience, mostly soldiers, stand dutifully but a little wearily to attention. Everything seems incredibly . . . ordinary. Someone has got out an umbrella to protect the only woman among the condemned from the heat of the sun. A peculiar time for a chivalric gesture, perhaps, but photography is good at capturing the frequent oddity of real life. To visit this show is, among other things, to see how strangely undramatic important historical moments tend to be; to see how clumsily choreographed are the events that take place on the world stage.

Exhibition continues to 2 October

(Photograph omitted)