2. The Acheiropoietic Image and Photography
The term 'acheiropoieton', a word of Byzantine etymology meaning 'made without hands', is traditionally used to describe miraculous appearances of a religious (Judeo-Christian) nature, such as the Veil of Veronica, the Abgar Mandylion or the Turin shroud [fig. 2, 3, 4]. All three fabrics are believed to have spontaneously received and preserved the imprint of Christ's likeness, through their direct physical contact with his body. Every religious acheiropoieton seems to have come about without any intermediary. Moreover, the assumption that no human was involved in its creation is a prerequisite for the icon's claim to offer truth. The more the human hand is present, the more the supernatural aura of the image is undermined. In this regard, Bruno Latour writes that the trick to uncovering the trick always involves unmasking the human origin of the work, the manipulator behind the scenes who is caught in the act (Latour, 2002). By proving something is man-made, the transcendence of the divinities is nullified, the claims of salvation from above are emptied, Latour concludes.
Several art historians as well as sindonologists have turned to photography and its vocabulary to explain the apparition of religious icons. The Holy Veil has been interpreted in terms of 'a photographic facsimile' of Christ's features (Walsham, Relics, 90), which proves to be even 'more authentic than a work of art, in that it does not rely on artistic imitation. It is authentic as a photograph.' (Belting, Likeness, 221) The alleged imprint of Christ's body on the Turin shroud only became sufficiently visible and recognizable when it was photographed and revealed upon Secondo Pia's light-sensitive plate in 1898, thus authenticating the figure as a genuine trace of the divine, a mimetic witness. Theories have also been advanced which claim that the traces of Jesus's body on the Turin cloth came about as the result of a natural atomic flash, a 'photofulgural phenomenon of radiation'1 that permanently fixed a shadow portrait of the divine figure. Both the natural and technical processes of photography have been put into the service of the spiritual, with the aim of authenticating, explaining or promoting the validity and truthfulness of the acheiropoieton, by an often contradictory rhetorical and scientific rationale. Through the connection of the visible manifestation with an imperceptible and deeper truth, the photograph turned into an imaginary site of revelation in which the spiritual realm of the unseen could be exposed in a strangely objective and magical way simultaneously. The acheiropoieton is legitimised by means of its photographic credibility. It became widely accepted that the science and technology behind the image, combined with a touch of light's wonder, can make the truth visible: hence, seeing is believing. This endows the image not only with the power of proof and persuasion but also with the allures of illusion, deceit, and falsehood.
In turn, photography itself has been strongly identified with acheiropoietic image-making ever since its inception. Early experimenters already took notice of the self-generating and automated principles involved. In contrast to religious images, which were supposedly created by a miracle, the autonomy of photography was considered a predominantly natural phenomenon, although associations with supernatural and lifelike properties were always nearby, largely fed by the illusion of its spontaneous origin. Already in 1839, William Henry Fox Talbot stated that it is not the artist who makes the picture, but the picture which makes itself: 'A person unacquainted with the process, if told that nothing of all this was executed by the hand, must imagine that one has at one's call the genius of Aladdin's lamp. [...] It is a little bit of magic realized – of natural magic. You make the powers of nature work for you.'2
The first photo-flash technologies too were often compared to natural elements; either they were similar, or they were an improved artificial version of them. Bottled sunlight, borrowed daylight, night turned into day, the sun drawing its own picture – these were the common expressions used to describe and praise the near-magical novelties of this type of artificial illumination. By far the most suitable metaphor was found in natural lightning, a similarly shocking, dazzling, and unpredictable phenomenon that carves its way through the dark and reveals what is hiding in obscurity with a startling force. Aside from sharing obvious visual similarities, the photographic flash also took over lightning's metaphysical connections to the natural sublime: the camera's dazzling light became associated with a sense of awe and danger, of immediacy and unpredictability, of enchantment, beauty and cosmic energy, and of intense religious and intellectual revelation through which one could transcend oneself.