Her Lover’s Shadow… Traces from the Snuff Box Archive of Desire
Her Lover’s Shadow… Traces from the Snuff Box Archive of Desire invites viewers to touch the trace embers of photography’s shadow archive, the stuff of queer histories that has been neither officially preserved nor entirely snuffed out. Four photo-box objects sit on a table around the Penn State University museum collection’s eighteenth-century snuff box with the portrait of a woman on its cover. The installation revisits the origin of the photograph by re-positioning photography in the history of physical objects of carnally intimate contact and use like the inhaled stimulant tobacco that would have been stored in the portable eighteenth-century portrait case. Inside the boxes, nestled on velvet linings reminiscent of the interiors of the little cases made to protect Daguerreotypes, lie four Polaroid pictures. But, this is not a dead history. Pick up the Betty Page photo-buttons of vintage erotic shots, lift the lids, and, as Outkast might put it, “shake it like a Polaroid picture.”
Polaroid is that instant photographic technology that retains a flash of the transgressiveness of the kinds of photographs categorized as snuff erotica in part because the SX-70 Polaroid, introduced in the 1970s as the magic machine that would make the darkroom obsolete, provided subcultures a means of self-documentation, a way to make a quick positive print without risk of negative exposure in the surveilled commercial photo lab. Though not displayed directly with its objects, the installation of four photo-snuff box objects might also be seen to recast the works comprising the Heinz K. and Bridget A. Henisch Collection of the History of Photography (1842–1995), a special collection on the origins of photography that forms part of the holdings of the Pennsylvania State University Libraries. The Polaroid photographs in the boxes capture cast shadows that recall such objects in the collection as an eighteenth-century shadow image, a silhouette with a lock of hair, a hand-colored camera obscura print from 1754, and lamps for casting shadows.
The installation, with its miniature Polaroid prints, revalues this shadow matter at the beginnings of photography in terms of the queer desire that is so often cast as derivative and deviant. To demonstrate this skiagraphic history of photography (William Henry Fox Talbot’s alternate name for photography which literally means “to write with shadow,” the photographs insinuate a queer revision into the traditional account of the origin of photography through its four projected shadow variations of eighteenth-century British painter Wright of Derby’s The Corinthian Maid that portray the birth of representation as intimate acts of passionate attachment that escape strict assignment. Wright of Derby’s painting re-tells the story of the origins of representation that comes from Pliny the Elder’s Natural History. In this tale, a young woman traces the outline of the cast shadow profile of her departing lover. By playing the different versions of the scene of the beginnings of photography in the form of miniature prints in a throw-away medium, the pieces question priorities of value, scale, and importance as much in the form and matter of the objects as the obscure queer subject of desire called up by the shadow trace of her lover’s cast silhouette.