The Making of English Photography
The Making of English Photography
“This is an ambitious and complex book, addressing a neglected area of photographic discourse and scholarship. Edwards sets out in very clear terms the methodology and ambitions of his project and delivers a rich and rewarding analysis of the ideological conditions that framed the rise of photography in Victorian Britain.”
- Table of Contents
- Sample Chapters
The Making of English Photography examines the development of English photography as an industrial, commercial, and (most problematically) artistic enterprise. Concentrating on the first decades of photography’s history, Edwards tracks the pivotal distinction between art and document as it emerged in the writings of the “men of science” and professional photographers, suggesting that this key opposition is rooted in social fantasies of the worker. Through a close reading of the photographic press in the 1860s, he both reconstructs the ideological world of photographers and employs the unstable category of photography to cast light on art, class, and industrial knowledge.
Bringing together an array of early photographs, recent historical and theoretical scholarship, and extensive archival sources, The Making of English Photography sheds new light on the prevailing discourses of photography as well as the antinomies of art and work in a world shaped by social division.
“This is an ambitious and complex book, addressing a neglected area of photographic discourse and scholarship. Edwards sets out in very clear terms the methodology and ambitions of his project and delivers a rich and rewarding analysis of the ideological conditions that framed the rise of photography in Victorian Britain.”
“The Making of English Photography is based upon close readings of key nineteenth-century photographic journals, particularly The Photographic News, which was the most important of the numerous publications sponsored by the photographic associations of the day. Edwards’s vigorous attention to this extensive literature forms an invaluable contribution to art history’s grasp of the development of photography.”
“This is an important book. Edwards makes connections between Victorian photographs and the social and cultural transformations of machine labor that future scholarship will need take into account.”
“Perhaps the greatest service this book provides is to enable and encourage departures in the intelligent directions its author has chartered for us here.”
“One can hardly dispute any of the arguments Edwards puts forth in the book; the labor of meticulous research is not only clear at the level of the sentence, but the arguments are nuanced and very finely wrought.”
Steve Edwards is Professor and Director of Art History at the Open University. He is the author of Photography: A Very Short Introduction (2006), editor of Art and Its Histories: A Reader (1999), and co-editor, with Paul Wood, of Art of the Avant-Gardes (2004).
Introduction: Photography, Writing, Resentment
Part I: An Industrial and Commercial Form
1. “Fairy Pictures” and “Fairy Fingers”: The Photographic Imagination and the Subsumption of Skill
2. A Photographic Atlas: Divisions of the Photographic Field
Part II: An Aesthetic Form
3. The Story of the Houyhnhnms: Art Theory and Photography, Part 1
4. “The Solitary Exception”: Photography at the International Exhibition, c. 1861
5. “The Faculty of Artistic Sight”: Art Theory and Photography, Part 2
6. “Gradgrind Facts,” or “The Background Is Simply a Background”
Photography, Writing, Resentment
1861 was a decisive year for the making of English photography: it was at this point that professional photographers decided to call themselves artists. But photography simultaneously appeared in a very different, less elevated context. Karl Marx argued in the same year that new branches of production and novel “fields of labour” were formed through patterns of mechanization, but activities of this sort far from dominated the economy. The numbers of people employed in these industries, Marx suggested, were proportional to the demand “for the crudest form of mechanical labour.” He wrote:
The chief industries of this kind are, at present, gas-works, telegraphs, photography, steam navigation, and railways. According to the census of 1861 for England and Wales, we find in the gas industry (gas-works, production of mechanical apparatus, servants of the gas companies, &c.), 15,211 persons; in telegraphy, 2,399; in photography, 2,366; steam navigation, 3,570; and in railways, 70,599, of whom the unskilled “navvies,” more or less permanently employed, and the whole administrative and commercial staff, make up about 28,000. The total number of persons, therefore, employed in these five new industries amounts to 94,145.
Let me put to one side Marx’s comment about the unimportance of these industries, not because it is insignificant—if anything, this point demands serious attention, as it suggests that he did not see the Industrial Revolution as a simple march of “machinofacture”—but because I want to draw out the full force of this strange industrial series. Admittedly, photography is the smallest “industry” in this list—considerably smaller than the railways—but its presence among some of the central forces of modern production suggests another kind of history for photographs. We can easily imagine the industrial and social histories that could be written for the other terms in the series; we can probably envisage the kinds of social relations that characterized these new industries and the kinds of social struggle that ensued. This is, after all, the narrative of the “new unionism.” Finding photography in this company complicates the story of art.
The strange logic of adjacency that Marx discovered in the 1861 census was not so unusual. William Henry Fox Talbot first exhibited his new photogenic drawings at the Birmingham meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. When he displayed these images at the Royal Society, they featured among papier mâché ornaments, specimens of artificial fuel, and sixteenth-century engravings. Richard Beard, a coal merchant, opened the first commercial photographic studio in Britain. (As far as we know, he never touched a camera.) The studio of Antoine Claudet—the second commercial photographic studio in Britain—was housed in one of those paradigmatic spaces of practical science, the Adelaide Gallery. Just for good measure, in 1851, Claudet mounted a number of medallion busts around his studio, interlacing portraits of photographic luminaries with the images of Roger Bacon, Porta, Da Vinci, Newton, Davy, and Wedgwood. The standard histories of photography have kept their distance from these grubby patterns of identity, choosing instead to find their object in the pristine story of art. Yet, according to Marx, photography was called into being by the new forces of production—and its historical place lies with such forms. This book examines the relation between these capitalist forms and the emergent ideology of photographic art. I argue that the values associated with the photographic picture are entwined with industrial and commercial practices. (The humble document provides a central mediating category for this argument.) I cannot claim, though, that the book constitutes the missing social history of English photography; we need much more research before a study of that kind could be written. In any case, the commercial, or industrial, image and the work of art cannot be lined up as distinct histories. Aesthetic questions were integral to the business of photography and to the objective image elaborated on by the men of science. An adequately social account of photography thus requires attention to art, as much (if not more) than explorations of photographic “art” must refer to the processes of social history. My account treats the aesthetic as a generative social form. In this sense, the industrial referent figures here as a way to signal a kind of attention.
While my first chapter examines some grounding themes in the thought of the men of science during the 1840s and 1850s, this book focuses on a reading of a number of key nineteenth-century photographic journals from a slightly later point. These periodicals are the Journal of the Photographic Society of London (later of Great Britain), founded in 1853, which in 1859 changed its title to The Photographic Journal; the British Journal of Photography, founded 1860; and The Photographic News, established in 1858. The Photographic Journal was issued monthly and began with a print run of 2,000 selling at 3d a copy. At its high point, in 1854, it was printing 4,000 copies and retailing at 5d; thereafter circulation fell, and rose, and fell again until by 1868 it printed only 1,000 copies. The British Journal of Photography, initially published by the Liverpool Photographic Society in 1853, began as a monthly publication. In 1857 it became fortnightly, and then, in 1865, weekly. The Photographic News—always the most popular of these journals—produced an edition of 7,000 by 1869. There were numerous similar journals, often with a short life, but these were the main ones. Of these periodicals, The Photographic News is particularly significant for my account, because it dedicated less space than the others to society proceedings and paid more attention to the photographers’ aspirations—and grumbles.
When the Manchester photographer James Mudd suggested, with his characteristic eye for a pun, that the photographic journals were not light literature but “heavy reading,” he was undoubtedly correct. These journals represent a mass of material on photography running to tens of thousands of pages. I want to treat this writing as an archive and attempt, through a process of close reading, to interrogate the ideological world of mid-nineteenth-century photographers. Joanne Shattock and Michael Wolff observed in 1982 that “the systematic and general study” of the Victorian press had “hardly begun”—and twenty years on, we have got no further with the photographic press. The last remnants of the stamp duty on newspapers and periodicals were finally lifted in 1855, and with the end of this backdoor censorship, mass journalism took off in England. Although the photographic journals issued from the photographic societies, they were part of this new phenomenon of mass periodical reading. The photographic press catered for a novel constituency, which certainly contained amateur dabblers, but was made up, in the main, of professional studio photographers. The writing that emerged was out of joint with wider critical trends. Unlike the “adjectival criticism” that some have identified as playing a defining role in the quarterlies and the literary journals (and, it is argued, that centered the performance of the critic over that of the text under scrutiny), photographic literature set about defending a professional interest. Often what we have to go on when reading these journals is a model of writing drawn from poetry reviewing or art criticism. The problem is that these forms of high criticism are only partially relevant: the Tory or Whig orientation evident in the major journals, for instance, provides few leads for deciphering this material. Rather, the photographic press seems to blend the voices of the art theorist and the writer from some small trade magazine—a druggist or other shopkeeper. This is a strange, hybrid literature. The counterpart to this pattern of mass reading was the development of a professional cadre of journalists alongside recently fledged professional art critics. The journals I have examined contained contributions from a ragtag lot, including amateur and professional photographers, various men of science, and artists with some interest in photography. And though he would have denied it, there was at least one professional writer among the ranks of contributors: Alfred H. Wall. If any photographic writer in the 1860s could be described as an “adjectival critic,” it was Wall. He could start a fight in an empty room—and, probably because of this outspokenness, he occupies a key place in this book.
In what follows, I veer off into accounts of work relations in the 1830s; the rhetorical structure of scientific “objectivity”; characterizations of the petite bourgeoisie; street music; art theory and its modes; and the classificatory model employed in the International Exhibitions. This seems a necessary, if ungainly, narrative maneuver if the archival material in question is to be read. (In any case, discourse analysis usually smuggles in material of this kind.) The trick is to avoid the kind of identification witnessed in social history writing of the “turnip crop” variety, which seems to believe that agricultural yields are an artwork’s meaning. The best social history of art works to keep its archives, objects, and narrative deviations apart while employing them to illuminate each other. One way of maintaining this productive disjuncture, or moment of non-identity, is to insist, as Adrian Rifkin puts it, on the “non-isomorphic” relation of criticism to its object of study. Photographic literature, like other forms of criticism, has to be seen as non-identical with its object. Criticism has its own temporality, which is distinct from that of the artwork (or the photograph) under consideration. As Michael Baxandall suggests, criticism is “a minor literary genre,” with its own conventional and normative content. Rifkin’s negative term may be inelegant, but it makes the important point that criticism—whether it is photographic criticism or art criticism does not much matter—is a form of writing as much as it is an account of pictures. Criticism sometimes makes contact with the image it attempts to characterize, but it also invariably deviates from it. If anything, photographic criticism is even less isomorphic than art criticism, because it involves recourse to art theory. I am interested in photographic criticism as a mode of writing and the problems it attests to; often this writing follows its own track and leaves the photograph somewhere else. (One reason that Rifkin’s discussion of the non-isomorphic character of criticism seems relevant for my account is that, as we will see, it is a concept rooted in nineteenth-century chemistry.) The problem, of course, is not confined to art criticism. Book introductions are notoriously non-isomorphic with their objects of study. Sustaining the project outlined in this sort of preamble always proves difficult, as the narrative power of the material begins to impose its own order.
While this book focuses on photographic “theory” in order to examine the forms of knowledge from which photographs were made, its ambition is to do more, and less, than this. Less, because, as I have said, criticism frequently goes off on its own jag; more, because this non-isomorphic form takes us down some other paths. In one important respect, I have always thought of this project as a sort of archaeology of contemporary photographic practice. Analogies between the look of past work and present preoccupations seem to suggest themselves in direct ways. This is the case, I think, with much contemporary writing that establishes too close a link between the proper name Sherman and a Cameron or a Hawarden (though critics seem altogether less interested in the conjuncture between Victor Burgin and Oscar Rejlander or Jeff Wall and H. P. Robinson!). I have not paid a great deal of attention to individual images in this book. Rather, my analysis aims to explore the constitutive discourse of photography, the grounding categories and distinctions that produced our understanding of photographs. The divisions of contemporary photography—straight practice and the constructed or staged image, art and documentary, modernism and postmodernism—are often, knowingly or not, rooted in the defining oppositions of photography’s first thirty years.
In this seemingly endless effervescence of writing, these journals give access, indirect and strained as it might be, to the world of a particularly vocal section of the petite bourgeoisie. Indeed, there could have been few members of that class—or class fraction, or whatever it is—who wrote quite so much and who poured out their desires and fears so readily. Art history has paid remarkably little attention to the petite bourgeoisie. This is a striking omission, given that artists in the modern period (and historians or theorists in the present) themselves occupy this class position. The major exception is to be found in the work of T. J. Clark. In The Painting of Modern Life, Clark suggests that modernist painters misrecognized the ambiguous class location of the petite bourgeoisie—they were, he says, “the shifters of class society”—for the defining characteristic of, or key metaphor for, modernity. In Clark’s hands, this thesis yields a compelling and astute account of emergent modernism as critical culture and ideology. In his account, the contradictory class situation of clerks, shopworkers, and the like was internalized in the images of Manet and his followers as a powerful homology for modern subjectivity and experience. At the same time, these artists remained blind to the structuring conditions and fundamental contradictions of capitalist social life. When the petite bourgeoisie became an established part of the bourgeoisie, he argues, the depiction of modern life ceased. It should be clear that for him, the petite bourgeoisie constitutes a “dialectical image.” Clark’s attention falls on an external conception of the petit-bourgeois stratum as it was interpreted by avant-garde painters. In contrast, I have taken this ambiguous class position as the constitutive heart of photographic ideology, and have done so, as it were, from within. There are some advantages to be had from this shift—the invisible social glue that is the petite bourgeoisie becomes visible, for instance, and some founding conceptions of photography emerge as petit-bourgeois definitions—but categories such as “modernity” and “modernism” drop from view. The works I examine lack a redeeming utopian or critical moment like that found in “the New,” as the Parisian avant-garde articulated it. I hope there are some gains to offset the critical losses.
I have cited the writing of midcentury photographers extensively to give voice to these concerns. The photographic press at this time was far from homogeneous; there were different positions and different interests at stake. Arguments for art sat alongside material on a faster chemical preparation or a new lens configuration. As Mudd noted, this could be daunting stuff for the beginner confronted with “atomic symbols” and “unpronounceable” terms like “Methylethylamylophenylammonium.” A typical article, he observed, would proceed thus: “‘conjugate foci’ at A B”; observe “‘refraction of a ray of light’ at C”; note “‘refrangability’ at D and E.” The modern reader often fares no better with this material than Mudd’s tyro would. It can indeed be difficult to unpack. Texts were often published anonymously or under unrecoverable pseudonyms; it remains unclear which contributions came from the editors’ pens. As one commentator on Victorian journalism has pointed out, anonymous articles could hide authorship by several hands or cover over the significant intervention of the editor. In the 1860s, anonymous criticism began to give way to signed journalism, but it was an uneven process. A great deal of work has now been done on identifying the members of the mid-Victorian clerisy who wrote the “higher journalism.” Unsurprisingly, no one has paid much attention to anonymous writers on photography: there were a lot of them. Writing “behind the mask” obviously worked for photographers just as it did for literary men. It prevented controversy from spilling over into personal fractiousness, at least sometimes. Unsigned articles also unified a periodical, giving it an overall voice. Detecting different valences is important under these conditions. I have drawn on biographical material where it is readily available. Otherwise, biography figures here as it crops up in, and circulates through, the pages of the journals. This approach undoubtedly represents a problem insofar as many commentators engaged in dialogue with individuals they knew personally. A great deal goes on off the page, but as modern readers, we have to make do with what we have. I am sure that further research will reveal that I have cast a writer against himself, or pitted allies in mortal combat. The advantage of this kind of reading, though, is that it does not begin from an assumed coherence in the discourse of individuals. There are enough contradictions, even in the authored texts, to make this seem a feasible strategy. Such contradictions are treated here as the result of positions made available through social patterns of figuration. The fragmentary nature of my account at least has the merit of calling attention to problems of historical reading and reconstruction.
This book concentrates on a number of photographic controversies from the 1860s that highlight class anxieties. Class analysis has become unfashionable in art history and cultural studies over the last twenty years. Even for those who ritually invoke the nexus of gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and class, the last term all too often seems to slip from view. I make no apologies for this attention: social class still seems to me to provide the framework that explains the most about my material, and not only mine. According to Grace Seiberling, sometime during the late 1850s, the hegemony of the amateur gentlemen over photography was broken, and the new professional photographer came to the fore. I am not sure that it is so clear cut. In any case, where Seiberling mourns the passing of this amateur and aristocratic interest in photography, I find most interesting those developing ideologies—and fears—of professional photographers. Debate in the journals was at its most intense during the 1860s, when disturbing controversies bubbled to the surface. The disputes I have latched on to, whether over photographic backgrounds or the way to focus a picture, provide symptomatic points of entry into the strange world of the petit-bourgeois photographer. Invariably, these concerns are wrapped up with the sign of “art.”
One danger with my approach is that the journals’ official perspective occludes other voices and experiences. Throughout the period of my study, there are very few moments when these displaced voices could be heard. Occasionally, they appear tucked away in published letters, or in an editor’s response to them. In one such instance, the editor of The Photographic News—George Wharton Simpson—responded to an “operative” who worked in Notting Hill. Simpson wrote:
We always feel pleasure in advocating the interests of every class of photographic operatives; but we must remind our readers that the bargain between employers and employed, whether it refer to the hours of labour, the work done, or remuneration received, is entirely a personal question between the parties to the contract. . . . We do not think there is much danger of over-work or under pay in the present state of the profession, inasmuch as the market is not so much stocked with thoroughly skilled workmen to induce any of them to accept injustice. . . . An employer who, under such circumstances, attempted to grind his people would soon find them leaving him for more liberal employers.
This comment drew a reply from no less a photographer than William England, who saw himself implicated as the employer in question. England had run an early daguerreotype studio in London before becoming chief photographer at the London Stereoscopic Company. In 1863 he again set up his own business. He wrote that those in his employ worked seven and one-half hours in the winter, but with the longer days, he required the men to work nine hours, and the boys nine and a half, for no extra pay. He argued: “A notion seems to have entered their heads that they should work the same hours only as operators employed in the close confinement of the dark room, and at that requiring infinitely more head work than printing, divided, as it is, into different branches, each one to his own apartment.” England insisted that he treated his workmen well. He had kept them all on over the winter and had paid a lad to warm the studio before they arrived. He then added a postscript: “Since writing the above I have discovered the chief mover in the affair to be an apprentice in the house, of whose character the best I can say (after an experience of five years) is that it is very difficult to get him out of bed before 9 o’clock in the morning.”
No more was heard of this apprentice. I have cited these short texts because they provide a rare insight into the workers’ experience in the photographic industries. But at no point does the apprentice speak for himself. Operative criticisms may be fleetingly glimpsed in the reply of the editor and England’s comments, but their positions cannot be accessed directly. The absence of these critical voices is doubly inscribed in the history of English photography, where no workers’ rising or syndicalist document maker can structure our narrative. The “subaltern” circulates through this archive as a phantom presence, though I would argue that the “answering word” of this imaginary interlocutor shapes the hegemonic voice. Nevertheless, this absence means that there is no easy point of identification in these texts, no author with whom to cathect and through whom critique might flow. Tales of trade unionism and stories of sweating and the misuse of labor only began to appear in the photographic press during the 1890s, beyond the scope of this study. Not until the closing years of the century, for instance, did John A. Randall publish his fine analysis of the photographic industries’ division of labor and the treatment of workers in the small houses. When criticism of the large concerns did appear in the 1860s, it came from a different, less savory perspective. This is, then, a book without heroes or heroines. The absence of surrogate points of identification, at least, dramatizes the historian’s place in a transferential production of meaning, because the object of identification is not available as an anthropological object. One weakness, or so it seems to me, of even the best social history writing is that it rarely pauses to access the social gap between the author and those whose lives are narrated. The investments of academic historians in their objects of study are hardly raised. While the worker shapes these narratives of photography, we cannot directly spy on his or her life. Instead, what we have to go on is the worker as he or she appears in petit-bourgeois fantasy. This phantom presence should foreground our purview.
The writings I have considered are casual, uncrafted texts. Neither a Baudelaire nor a Ruskin emerges here. The banality and repetition is, in fact, the point: the work of ideology is typically done in writing of this type. But the absence of critical moments of rupture within these texts means that it is necessary to find an alternative way of organizing this history. I have settled for a “volumetrics” of reading—a concern with the incessant, everyday speech of photographers and their champions as it appeared in these journals. Sorting this material is a problem; sometimes its sheer narrative dynamic seems to impose a structure. The enormous volume of these texts would seem, nevertheless, to offer possibilities for exploring matters of some historical weight, key among them the relation of art to work. To pick up on my opening point from Marx, photography often seemed to belong with the world of labor, not the history of art. Here is A. H. Wall on the diverse subjects discussed in meetings of the photographic societies:
The rules of art, the laws of chemistry, the principles of optics, and the secrets of certain mechanical crafts, seem in the non-photographic mind to possess so little in common, that strangers wonder when they hear each, or all, of these dissimilar subjects blending in a discussion following some paper on one or other of the processes of photography. This is very apparent in glancing over the reports of such societies in the photographic journals. Now they appear like societies of fine art students, enthusiastically dwelling upon aesthetics; and anon you could imagine them congregations of unpretending cabinet-makers, every man with a six foot rule in his trousers-pocket, and a big square lead pencil in his waistcoat. Again they show like learned chemists, investigating the hidden mysteries of nature, . . . and yet again they show like grave opticians.
By the 1860s, some writers would argue that photography belonged among the fine arts, while others insisted that it should properly be understood as an objective scientific practice untouched by human hands. Still others believed that photography was all of these things at once. Jabez Hughes, for instance, distinguishes between “Mechanical Photography,” which aims at “simple representations” of things depicted exactly as they are, and “Art-Photography,” in which the photographer infuses the image with his mind. As we will see, the terror posed by photography’s proximity to “mechanical labour” acted as an organizing theme for these debates. After all, how is making a photograph different from operating a carding machine? Photography has been haunted by this question. In many ways, it is a legal matter, turning on the distinction between ownership (deemed free) and labor (characterized as servile). The commodity in its image form, though, seems to make all the difference. The complexity of nineteenth-century photography often lies in that fraught relation between the elevated art picture and the base document. As Robinson put it, the “alchemy” of Rembrandt’s chiaroscuro transformed his badly drawn works from “dross into pure gold.” But wherever the document takes hold, photography assumes the form of an inverse alchemy, one that transforms silver into dross or filth. Early photographers struggled all too often with the authority that kept practices like photography and art separate and the competing desire to see this gap closed.
Rather than dismissing documentary truth claims, the best writing on photography emphasizes the double or “paradoxical” nature of these images. In this body of writing, a photograph simultaneously appears as “document” and “art,” “denotative” and “connotative,” “index” and “icon,” “the thing itself” and “sign,” “literal” and “conventional.” Richard Shiff’s distinction between what he calls “the figured” and “the proper” seems to me to be particularly productive. Shiff suggests that throughout the history of art, particular forms, or genres, have been cast in the role of the unfigured, proper term. The proper is not a literal copy, but a representation sanctioned to perform the literal role. The forms of representation cast in this position—usually lowly modes—are perceived to hover at the threshold of sense, and they often threaten to collapse back into their object. The proper image constitutes a moment of identity in a field of distinctions. At particular points in history, certain forms of art have seemed artless: think of the dumb belligerence of the Dutch school, in contrast to the learned eloquence of the Italians, or consider Caravaggio, who, according to Poussin, was sent to destroy painting. Think, too, of Hazlitt’s account of the naturalism of the Parthenon marbles contrasted with Greco-Roman statues, or the grunge aesthetic of Courbet played off against the norms of the Salon, or Pictorialism as against “straight” photography. Shiff’s terms are relational: in fact, both the proper and the figured are figured. Proper images and figured forms require each other to establish their meanings. The proper can be seen as objective, or as a simple record of raw nature, because it is located at some distance from those forms that are understood to be figured. The figured appears as art, or as an ideal, because it can shine forth against a proper term.
It makes sense to suggest that photography plays the role of proper term to art’s figuration. The “mechanical” nature of photography meant that it was deemed simply to reproduce external reality; in the process, it seemed to eliminate the self. But Shiff holds back from this position. Because photography possessed no cultural authority, he argues, it could not occupy the proper position. Instead, Shiff compellingly claims, photography occupies a catachrestic position in relation to painting’s metaphor. Photography is a false metaphor, like “an arm of a chair.” The problem is that Shiff views this matter exclusively from the perspective of painting and thus reduces photography to a singular form. But photography is a “double body,” in Mikhail Bakhtin’s sense. The distinction between art and documentary, Shiff says, is unhelpful. It seems to me, though, that the distinction is crucial, because it internalizes figured and proper moments into the history of photography.
In this book, I work with a distinction between “pictures” and “documents” that echoes Shiff’s opposition of the “figured” to the “proper.” Pictures (paintings, drawings, some prints, and even, in particular instances, some photographs) bear the imprints of their makers. This family of images attests to intention, subjectivity, and affect; it follows the rules of art theory; it lays claim to moral import. We admire such images for their dazzling aesthetic effects and exceptional skill—even when a guiding precept instructs that the latter must be disguised. Pictures simultaneously elude words and inhabit the high-flown discourses of the connoisseur, philosopher, and artist. Documents, in contrast, appear to be generated automatically without a maker. They are typically thought of as written records, but they also have their image form. The document is devoid of style: we typically ignore its form and focus on the things depicted, such as a prize pig, a newfangled engine, or Uncle Harry. Documents are lowly, workaday carriers of information. Like the “figured” and the “proper,” pictures and documents are relational terms. Their effects and functions are, at least in part, secured negatively through the alternate position.
Shiff’s catachresis seems to capture something of photography’s odd, unclassifiable character. But if this peculiar tension between the picture and the document requires a tropological category to illuminate it, we could do no better than to suggest that photography is an allotropic practice. Nineteenth-century chemists employed the term “allotropism,” along with the related concepts of “isomerism,” “isomorphism,” and “dimorphism,” to explain elements and compounds that seemed to have divergent forms despite sharing an underlying atomic composition: butylene and ethylene, fulminic acid and cyanic acid, and so on. As J. J. Berzelius put it in 1846, “I have proposed to call substances of similar composition and dissimilar properties isomeric.” Isomorphism and dimorphism referred to these same phenomena in crystalline structures. (If criticism were to be isomorphic with the image it seeks to account for, we might say, it would need somehow to replicate the properties of that image inside itself.) Berzelius pursued the idea that the cause for the similarities and differences in the substances he examined must be sought in changes of relation among the constituent particles. He called this phenomenon allotropy, after the Greek allos (“different”) and tropos (“manner”). In his essay, he listed seventeen elements that existed in allotropic form, but the textbook example is carbon, found as both graphite/coal and diamond. Perhaps he could have listed photography as the eighteenth example, because it likewise occurs in simultaneous forms: on the one hand, it is a glistening picture, and on the other, a filthy document. Like soot, the document is combusted matter, a mere residue of meaning. The picture, in contrast, shines. Coal leaves only ashes and soot, whereas the diamond sparkles with a clear, pristine beauty. But there can be no doubt that the despised lower term drove industrial Britain. Diamonds make for a good display of riches, but nineteenth-century wealth and power were produced from coal. In the International Exhibition of 1851, the koh-i-noor, or “mountain of light”— the Indian jewel that proved such a hit with the visitors—was illuminated from below with gas light. Punch could not resist the joke: the diamond and gas were the same substance and yet, it suggested, “the Koh-i-noors of society only shine with the borrowed light of those working beneath them in station!” And so it would prove with photographic pictures and their underlings.
The point I want to make about this allotropic form is not simply that photography is both art and document—the one figured by the “objective reality” in front of the camera, and the other by the “genius” who directs the apparatus—but that these elements exist as the fragments of an allegory of labor. Wherever detail appears in this literature, a chain of contiguity leads to the workers’ world. Photographic writing was, and is, a “twice-told tale.” When photographers made their claims for art or defined the document, they simultaneously told another story. The identity of photography, and its practitioners, was produced in opposition to the workers’ world. Technically speaking, this is a project of allegoresis—allegorical reading—because the allegory was unconscious. These texts are dense with references to the oppressed and exploited. Photography is frequently cast as a servant (usually, but not always, a maidservant) to art. Photographers had to work against this conception to create a manly space for their practice. In another register, the metaphor of slavery routinely crops up in these debates, suggesting that photographers struggled to attain the status and freedom associated with European ideas of whiteness. The image of “mechanical” work appears everywhere in these accounts. Often these figured persons were interchangeable: a servant might be called a “slavey,” or a worker referred to as a servant or a wage slave. The connections suggest that we are dealing with “a horizontal sort of beast.” The metaphoric language of photographic theory seems to restage, in ghastly form, the earlier formation of the “motley proletariat.” In their great book on the making of the Atlantic working class in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker have illuminated the multiple points of connection between race and gender in this process of formation. That is to say, they have reworked E. P. Thompson’s account of the making of the working class with an attention to his blind spots. The working class, for Linebaugh and Rediker, is not singular but multiple; it is “motley.” This motley proletariat should not, however, be seen as another fragmenting account of difference, nor, for that matter, as the amorphous, unspecifiable “multitude” that has occupied so much recent attention. The idea of the motley proletariat asserts a “universalism from below.” It is a radical collectivity forged in the common experience of exploitation and oppression, demonization and violence. These motley subjects understood, before modern philosophers, that justice and equality required universalizing claims. If I sometimes use the word “multitude” in this book it should be understood not as “the Multitude,” but as a synonym for the motley proletariat. The aspiration to universal humanity emanating from below had its counterpart in a totalization from above. The powers that be positioned this class as a monstrous, many-headed hydra—lop off one head and two more would sprout to take its place—and cast themselves in the role of Hercules. At the end of the eighteenth century, the ruling classes of the Atlantic world pursued a conscious policy of fostering and aggravating internal divisions among the motley crew. Art history has found it difficult to follow the project of history from below: for a discipline concerned with professional image makers and their patrons, this point of view is inherently problematic. Putting the aesthetic into the frame as a generative social form only makes this project seem well-nigh impossible. And yet the cluster of metaphors that photographers employed in the middle of the nineteenth century followed the pattern identified in Linebaugh and Rediker’s Many-Headed Hydra, sometimes to the letter. Photographers had to deal with an imaginary uprising. In this book, I have tried to use the allotropic form of the photograph to explore this totalization from above. The archive emerges here as a crossing point between social fantasy and its imaginary other. If this cannot be art history from below, I have, nevertheless, tried to place that topology in the foreground. This procedure casts the motley crew as a phantasmic presence rather than a subject “for itself.”
This double movement of the allotrope wreaked havoc with the ideological claims of nineteenth-century photographers. Its latter-day champions have fared little better. Mike Weaver, for example, has attempted to redeem a number of Talbot’s images of work and everyday affairs at Lacock for “Art.” Talbot, he suggests, was interested in “picture making” and not in merely representing objects. Photographs like The Open Door, Weaver argues, produce their meanings metonymically, setting up a chain of associations that work to “transcend” ordinary realism. But Weaver establishes his connections unidirectionally. He might be right that this chain of contiguity elevates Talbot’s images out of their quotidian immediacy, but, because this is a metonym, a simultaneous movement rubs these grand “metaphysical” claims back into the dirt. The crossing of borders and confounding of safe distinctions, which the allotropic form introduces into normally stable conceptualizations, means that the strange case of photography enables an attentive reader to examine relations and inter-determinations in different forms of knowledge. The distinction between art and work provides the key structuring point for my project. These categories are normally taken to be antinomies: art is seen as free and creative, while work is servile and repetitive. Like most antinomies, however, these two depend upon one another for their meanings and effects. Art is what it is because it is not work, and vice versa. But for all the mutual determination of these terms, critical writing has overwhelmingly held them apart.
The most striking feature of nineteenth-century English writing on photography is its overall sense of unease. The writers examined here could never be quite certain about the exact nature of their practice. Many of them wanted, or needed, to present photography as one of the fine arts, but they were troubled by nagging doubts. The more strident their assertions about photography’s identity, the more likely their texts were to unravel before their eyes. Dialectical thought has an interest in fixing on this riddle, in seeing what tales it has to tell and what secrets it can be made to unlock. To be certain about photography would, after all, have meant knowing in advance about the divisions of knowledge emerging throughout capitalist society, a matter of no small importance—or difficulty—for those who lived through this process. I intend to stay with that moment of doubt and to insist on photography’s strangeness and confusion. I do not understand photography.
Recent critical histories, in the face of such a contradictory practice, have sometimes seen the question of photography’s relationship to art as passé and have taken up less elevated and benign practices. Foucault’s work on the disciplined body has figured prominently in this shift of attention, leading theorists to turn away from prestigious artifacts and to concentrate instead on the throwaway and the dubious. Photographic historians and theorists working in Foucault’s wake have focused on the images of the file index and the archive: the work produced in the asylum, the hospital, the prison, and the mission hall. Allan Sekula has strikingly characterized these images as “the dirty work of modernization.” This critical writing has been enormously productive, enabling a fundamental reconsideration of practices that have been dismissed as “marginal” and “unworthy” by art-historical criticism. This work has encouraged attention to the dark side of photographic practice, the ignoble work of surveillance and classification that has been practiced on the bodies of the exploited and the oppressed. Locating this work in relation to the wider photographic field, however, is not without its problems. Sekula has argued that the photographic field is composed of both the celebratory portrait and the image of control. It is, he says, “a double system: a system of representation capable of functioning both honorifically and repressively.” Any adequate account of photographic practice must encompass these “torn halves.” He suggests that photography is made up of private and public looks: a look up, at one’s betters, and a look down on one’s inferiors. Every proper portrait, he argues, finds its objectifying inverse in police files. Sekula’s essay constitutes a powerful critique of the role of photography in the reifying process of nineteenth-century social classification, but I am uneasy about the seeming pattern of equality in these “looks.” In 1870, the Home Secretary announced that it would be mandatory for all jails in England and Wales to photograph their inmates and submit the images to the Metropolitan Police. In the key trial period of British penal photography—from November 1871 until the act’s coming into force on December 31, 1872—43,634 photographs were sent to the Metropolitan Police archive. This number is not inconsiderable, but placed alongside the output of the portrait studios, it is small beer. A brief count of the entries in the Post Office London Directory indicates that there were 323 commercial studios operating in the capital in the same two years (and this is unquestionably an underestimation of their number). As Andrew Winter suggested, “Silvi [sic] alone has the negatives of sitters in number equal to the inhabitants of a large country town, and our great thoroughfares are filled with photographers; there are not less than thirty-five in Regent Street alone, and every suburban road swarms with them; can we doubt therefore that photographic portraits have been taken by the million?”
Instrumental photographic work was significant, both in terms of the meanings and revenue it generated, but this new hierarchy of attention should not be accepted uncritically. As historians search for the ruptural, the unusual, and (now) the subjected body, they risk missing the mass of everyday images that perform so much signifying work. The photographs produced under the direction of Dr. Diamond at the Surrey County Lunatic Asylum might be noticed, but Diamond’s work as the editor of The Photographic Journal—and the production of everyday nineteenth-century photography—should not go without comment. Whether photography figures as a component of psychiatry, comparative anatomy, germ theory, sanitation, and the other professional disciplines that come to bear on the body or as the practice of notable artists, there has been a tendency to render the profession of photography itself invisible. Middle-class bodies, in the process, disappear from view. (They have long preferred it that way.) In contrast, I want to pay attention to the kinds of photographs that Roland Barthes once described as “one of the thousand manifestations of the ‘ordinary.’” In the end, only when we pay attention to the divisions within photography can we understand why, or how, state institutions came to invest so much trust in the veracity of the photographic document. In the Foucauldian accounts of the photographic “archive,” the truth content of these images is deemed to reside in the power of the institutions that deployed them. But this still leaves unanswered a different question: Why was photography selected to play this role? This book suggests that the answer rests on an understanding of the document as one term in an allegory of labor.
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