Professor Monica Bravo delivers A&A Reunions Lecture

May 30, 2024

Professor Monica Bravo delivered the 2024 Reunions lecture “Mineral Analogs: Carleton Watkins’s Photographs and the Gold Standard” on Friday, May 24, to a crowded lecture hall. Bravo drew from her current book project Silver Pacific: A Mineral History of Early American Photography which explores the source of 19th-century photography’s raw materials, the research for which has earned her the prestigious 2024 National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant. Focusing on the works of photographer Carleton E. Watkins, Bravo’s impressively cross-disciplinary lecture connected art history to geology, chemistry, sociology, economic history, numismatics and computer science.

Bravo opened her lecture with the image of Watkins’s Nugget of Gold, which captures the organic form of a raw gold nugget atop its acculturated form: three gold bars. 

Gold nugget on top of three gold bars

Carleton E. Watkins, Nugget of Gold 201 40/100 Ounces—Spanish Dry Diggings, El Dorado Co., Cal., 1866-67, albumen print on paper, 14 11/16 x 19 ¾ in (37.3 x 50.2 cm). Hearst Mining Collection of Views by C. E. Watkins, 1871-1876, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley

“The work entailed by such a transformation occurs out of frame, yet the quiet juxtaposition of raw material and commodity form teaches viewers to make equivalences between mineral and money,” said Bravo. The photograph’s exhibition in the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1867 helped establish an association between photography, mining and the American West. 

The connection between minerals and photography was, in fact, innate—embedded in the very make-up of photographs.  Mercury vapor, silver crystals and gold chloride toner were among substances used in late-19th-century photography; and Watkins coated his Nugget of Gold—with gold.

Bravo extended the comparison of photography with currency beyond the concepts of circulation and valuation within a closed system, identifying the intrinsic commonality of the mineral content of both. With its production potential hinged, like currency, to the availability of mineral resources, Bravo identified the analog nature of 19th-century photography.  “Watkins’s Nugget of Gold inaugurates the conception of analog photography as materially-bound, though it took the emergence of digital technology to retrospectively draw it into relief,” said Bravo.

Three people stand in lecture hall smiling at camera

Monica Bravo speaks with attendees after the Reunions lecture (Photo/John Blazejewski)

Connecting the trajectory of photography’s evolution from its mineral roots to the present, Bravo concluded “Today, artificial intelligence technologies like DALL-E and other so-called deep learning models create the ultimate conditions of alienated labor, as its technology scrapes the web for images on which to train its algorithms."

"Treating photographs as natural resources," Bravo continued, "this constitutive feature continues to ignore the labor of photographers and their authorship, once again identifying mining—now, the language used is ‘data-mining’—with the medium.”