FROM ÉMAIL TO E-MAIL

RITA LEISTNER


From Émail to E-mail

 

This project is a documentary and technical study of the history and practice of enamel portraits on tombstones in Europe. The practice—to this day, the most permanent photographic printing technique known—was invented in 1855 by Lafon de Carmac and never became popular in the Americas. Partly this was due to the invention of silver printing in 1874.

I’m interested in the different motives behind permanent memorial photographs and the ephemeral, ever changing portraits of Social Media. It’s just a happy coincidence that the French word for enamel is émail.

Remarkably, in some cases enamel photographs have outlasted stone text engravings. Thus the faces remain, but the names have vanished—something no one would have been able to imagine in the 19th century when most of these memorials were laid. Even today, people are surprised when I point this out. How did we end up so far from where we began when it comes to how we think of photography as any kind of permanent, tangible record of human existence? Why does a photograph we can touch, a photograph embedded in stone affect us differently than photographs streaming on the Internet? Do we feel a special safety in things we can touch? Is there a connection between ISIS’s love for the Internet and its hatred of ancient objects? By photographing the photographic remains and texts on the tombstones and then printing the images using another permanent technique, the memorialization will continue, and yet it is anonymous. It is memorialization for the sake of itself. As such, it becomes a story that is less about individuals and more about the human impulse to want to be remembered. And of course, you can’t e-mail a stone or post it on Instagram, so the play on words in the title “From émail to e-mail” is just a coincidental (and bi-lingual) metaphysical joke.