Photographs, especially very detailed ones, are often so descriptive of the thing they depict that the photograph itself effectively becomes invisible, its surface ignored as we dive straight down to commune with what we see through that surface. .
It is unlikely that anyone would confuse Juan Laurent’s image of a door knocker with the door knocker itself, but it would not be surprising if someone, looking at this image, thought that to the properties of the door knocker – its impeccable craftsmanship, richly textured surfaces, balanced geometry, etc. — and not properties of photography, which are just as excellent.
This phenomenon, our propensity to look through a photograph but not look at it, is often defined as the product of the inherent transparency of photography. This gives rise to a strange paradox: the better the photograph, at least technically speaking, the more it succeeds in erasing itself and, with it, the history of its making.
Laurent has always been interested in making beautiful things. Born in France, he began his career in Madrid as a luxury papermaker, receiving medals in various exhibitions for the quality of his work.
This attention to detail is reflected in his photographic production, the distinction of which led him to be named “Her Majesty the Queen’s Photographer” during the reign of Queen Isabella II.
He became a shrewd 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 images of industrial achievements, landscapes, architectural elements and images of works of art from the Prado Museum, among other institutions.
It was through the thousands of photographs produced in his name that many could and wanted to discover fragments of Spanish life and culture – photographs often as beautiful as the things they depicted. If, looking at this image today, one ignores the object in favor of its subject, it is perhaps quite simply to the credit of the exploit of Laurent and his associates.
This photograph and many more are featured in the book “Looking Again: Photography at the New Orleans Museum of Art”, which explores the vast and excellent collection of photographs at the New Orleans Museum of Art.