Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 6, 1999
Carol Armstrong Scenes in a Library: Reading the Photograph in the Book, 1843–1875 Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1998. 511 pp.; 143 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (0262011697)
Thumbnail

Photographically illustrated books produced in nineteenth-century Britain are the objects of study of this ambitious volume, one part historical reflection and one part theoretical manifesto. The volumes examined here include the first widely produced book of photographs, William Henry Fox Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature, as well as early publishing ventures in which photographs appeared, including Carpenter and Nasmyth’s The Moon and Oskar Rejlander’s photographs in Charles Darwin’s Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. In addition, separate chapters are devoted to Anna Atkins’s volume, Photographs of British Algae, Francis Frith’s Egypt and Palestine Photographed and Observed as well as his illustrated edition of Longfellow’s Hyperion, and Julia Margaret Cameron’s Illustrations to Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. In carefully defined chapters examining these and other texts related to them, Armstrong attempts to both problematize and contextualize the “site of reading” photographs within each volume, calling attention to the book’s constructed relationship between imagery and text.

But the author also wants to apply an all-purpose formula, drawn from the positivist Auguste Comte, to account for all the photographs in each of the books she examines: " ‘Succession and resemblance’," she writes, “may be seen to constitute a kind of formula for the phototextual configuration of all of the different species of photographically illustrated books covered here, with all of their different factual and fictional contents” (p. 18). Armstrong finds such rules to link together each of the volumes mentioned above, independent of their historical context in the publishing domain of fiction, travel-writing, poetry, or science. Unfortunately, these rules, when applied to the analysis of the photographically illustrated books mentioned, read like programmatic steps to follow in a methodological cookbook that has been concocted by Comte as aided by Roland Barthes. She knowingly defies what she calls Barthes’s “prime directive” (p. 14) by taking canonical texts as her chief objects of study instead of ephemera or items of popular culture. Nevertheless, she relies on his theories to celebrate the unique, one-of-a-kind trace, the fugitive “footstep in the sand,” that marks both the “magic” of the chemical process of early photography and its slight variations from print to print. In so doing she ignores the “industrial madness” that also characterizes the medium’s alliance with the printing industry to produce the photomechanical print, dismissing this as a fixation of technological determinism.

Barthes’s emphasis on the fundamental unreadability of the photograph (his notion of the photograph as a “message without a code”) is at the theoretical core of Armstrong’s argument. Such unreadability is the basis from which she explores photography’s tautological relationship to the real, privileges the medium’s “essential quality” as both an indexical trace of the natural world and a record of experimentation in light (in the positivist sense), and, importantly, acclaims its function as a certificate of the authentic experience. In each test case, photography’s authenticity is established only through the experience of its author (e.g. what Talbot himself thought about The Pencil, what Frith considered essential to his place photographs in Hyperion). Each of the books under investigation are subjected to this overlay of theoretical interrogation, and predictably, each body of photographs is revealed to be nothing more than the product of a self-reflexive act, which is in turn viewed as the “natural” product of photography: “Transparent and unmediated, although frequently troubled by itself and impinged upon by its physical conditions, [the photograph] is construed simultaneously as a window onto the objective world and as the interiorized counterpart of that world, at once issuing from, mirroring, and looking possessively onto it” (p. 358).

In addition to self-reflexivity, evidence is a key word to which Armstrong returns again and again throughout the text. Photographs are self-reflexive for the author not simply because, in many cases, photographers constructed what they wanted to picture and then captured the result, but owing to photography’s “nature” as an unmediated indexical trace: “we can only see what they show about themselves” (p. 204). “Evidence” is verified by this quality for each book under discussion, because photography “reflexively confirms its own indexical derivation in [the object photographed], to enter into that circle of inductive instantiation and verification” (p. 77). Moreover, the presence of artificiality or fiction (in the image or its accompanying text) does not displace the reputed authenticity of this photographic evidence: In fact, for Armstrong, “[t]he artificial—which is to say experimental, which is also to say instrumental—means of their production goes toward, rather than against, that proof” (p. 79).

No part of this theoretical operation itself is problematized or accounted for historically, politically, or institutionally. In favoring Barthes over Foucault, Armstrong locates photographic evidence in terms of the nature of the medium, discounting the construction of “photographic evidence” in historical studies by John Tagg or Steve Edwards, among others, and in so doing, obscures the relations of power instrumental to each of her case studies. Equally vexing, while Armstrong says she wants to explore the “new mode of readership” made possible by the expanded publishing enterprise of the nineteenth century and wants to examine how early photographs defied assimilation into volumes in which they were intercalated, she does so in relation to the words written about the imagery exclusively in the texts in which they appeared, thereby according the authorial voice an unquestioned privilege to provide unmediated testimony about the photographs.

Of particular interest is how Armstrong constructs her sense of photography’s essence as possessing the stable qualities of one-of-a-kind uniqueness, black-and-white tonality, and chemical-based production. In the case of Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature, for example, she notes that Talbot himself called the reader’s attention to “some variety in the tint” from one image to the next. Rather than seeing this as the photographer’s apology to his public, as he was aiming to achieve a level of standardization that he was unable to attain, she claims instead that Talbot “speaks in praise of the variability of the print” (p. 123), a formation that Abigail Solomon-Godeau did much to dismantle in her essay “Calotypomania” thirteen years ago. Similarly, Armstrong takes black-and-white as the “natural” tonal quality of a photograph, although brown-and-white, historically, was also a close contender. Color photography was not absent from photographic experimentation altogether; it simply was not perfected. And Armstrong claims as essential the “chemical” foundations of the medium, rather than its “mechanical” applications, in spite of the fact that numerous institutional forces compelled photographic inventors to ally their production with industry.

Lastly, repeatability, standardization, and industrial production are largely absent from Armstrong’s discussion. Confronted with his fading chemically-produced prints, in fact, Talbot himself turned in exasperation (and enthusiasm) to produce ink-based photographic prints. In this development, the role of the international printmaking community was key, and Talbot, Frith, and Cameron all kept abreast of the new photomechanical technologies. Cameron herself contracted with the Autotype Company to produce reproductions of her works. Given the sometimes smudgy and overly dark quality of these prints, she could not have been too worried about “the modality of [chemical] photography,” which “calls up fading visions and their accompanying frissons, . . . [proving] the melancholic-erotic imagination by those visions and by its own condition of melancholia” (p. 385). Armstrong’s discussion about the superiority of the half-tone print to earlier forms of photomechanical production is equally unconvincing: To her, the half-tone was successful, because its matrix lay below the eye’s threshold to distinguish its complex dot pattern, whereas earlier facsimile editions, she claims, possessed a different kind of indexical relation to the referent. (pp. 423—24) Yet another history of photography acknowledges that printmaking was the standard to which the photograph had to measure and against which its success was judged.

No mention is made of Britain’s responses to the industrial age, to its participation in the Universal Expositions and competition with French publishers, to its tariffs erected to protect trade and extend its nationalism, or any other “real world” complication that might help contextualize the limited audience for and production of these historical volumes. In Barthes’s hands, the so-called unreadability of the photograph allowed him to examine how, in taking advantage of its special vacuum, photographs were filled with mythologies to sway public opinion and depoliticize speech. By focusing exclusively on the vacuum itself (photography’s self-reflexivity, its magic, its status as positivist experiment), by ignoring the institutional structures assembled to validate and promote the photograph in the book (its “natural artifice”), and by rejecting the institutional structures that give shape to and define our concept of “evidence,” Armstrong has produced a fundamentally ahistorical and apolitical book.

Jeff Rosen
Columbia College, Chicago

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.