Are photographs invisible? Early craftsmanship drew attention to the object, bypassed the art | Arts

Photographs, especially very precise ones, are often so descriptive of the thing that they represent that the photograph itself becomes effectively invisible, its surface ignored as we dive right in to commune with what we see through that surface.

It is unlikely that anyone would mistake Juan Laurent’s picture of a door knocker for the door knocker itself, but it would not be surprising if someone, in looking at this picture, thought only of the properties of the door knocker — its impeccable craftsmanship, its richly textured surfaces, its balanced geometry, etc. — and not of the properties of the photograph, which are equally excellent.

This phenomenon, our propensity to look through a photograph but not at it, is often defined as the product of photography’s inherent transparency. It gives rise to a strange paradox: the better the photograph, at least technically speaking, the more effective it is at erasing itself and, along with it, the history of its making.

Laurent was always interested in the making of fine things. Born in France, he began his career in Madrid as a luxury papermaker, receiving medals in different expositions for the quality of his work.

This attention to detail carried over to his photographic output, the distinction of which led to his appointment as “Photographer to H. M. the Queen” during the reign of Queen Isabella II.

He became a savvy businessman, hiring other photographers and agents to produce and sell photographs, respectively, under his name.

He also bought the negatives of other photographers, adding them to his own expanding catalog, which included pictures of industrial achievements, landscapes, architectural elements and images of artworks from the Prado Museum, among other institutions.

It was through the thousands of photographs produced in his name that many could and would experience bits and pieces of Spanish life and culture — photographs that were often just as fine as the things they represented. If, in looking at this image today, we bypass the object in favor of its subject, it is perhaps simply a credit to the achievement of Laurent and his associates.

This and many other photographs are featured in the book “Looking Again: Photography at the New Orleans Museum of Art,” which explores the New Orleans Museum of Art’s vast and excellent photography collection.

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NOMA curator Russell Lord

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