Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 24, 2010
Elizabeth Siegel Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage Exh. cat. Chicago and New Haven: Art Institute of Chicago in association with Yale University Press, 2009. 200 pp.; 140 color ills.; 40 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (9780300141146)
Exhibition schedule: Art Institute of Chicago, October 10, 2009–January 3, 2010; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, February 2–May 9, 2010; Art Gallery of Ontario, June 5–September 5, 2010

The Victorian photocollage, pictured so richly in the plates of this book, is whimsical and more than a little strange. Pasted portraits cut from cartes de visite adorn everything from hand-drawn spider webs, to playing cards, to oddly scaled watercolor tableaux of drawing rooms with out-of-whack perspectives. They first read as interior fantasies, surreal Victorian curiosities—fascinating but illegible. As curator Elizabeth Siegel puts it, “Victorian photocollage . . . suffers the double indignity of being the product of both industrial production and feminine craft” (14). Gender and technique place Victorian photocollage on the margins of modernist narratives of photographic history, which itself reflects art history’s discomfort with the ways in which mechanical reproduction challenges categories of originality and authorship. Together, the essays by Siegel, Marta Weiss (a photography curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum), and Patrizia Di Bello (University of London) are a case study in the uneasy synthesis of the museum’s emphasis on the art object with visual culture’s so-called “ethnographic” method. Moreover, the grounds for that synthesis is imagery made by women. All the terms used to describe these albums—private, amateur, feminine, domestic, drawn from mass-produced instead of original imagery—pose challenges to art history’s subjects and methods. The methods of visual culture redress these issues, but they do so in ways that pose more challenges to art history than these essays acknowledge.

In contrast to Geoffrey Batchen’s Forget Me Not: Photography and Remembrance (Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 2004), this catalogue is not a study in memory but rather in meaning. Both the exhibition (which began in Chicago and traveled to New York and Toronto in 2010) and the book’s essays are framed around fifteen British photocollage albums. The images are, it should be noted, mostly provenanced, which gives them the aura of authorship; the art object appears rare, protected, unique, and if not totally original, then exemplary. Largely made by women of the aristocracy, the works combine social rituals drawn around pre-photographic albums of verse and autographs with watercolor, drawing, and collaged cartes de visite. In “Society Cutups,” Siegel frames the albums as part of the culture of class and women’s work in it. For an aristocratic woman, the cultivation of home, parties, and amusements were components of the way she “staged her family’s social position, marked her gentility and taste, and displayed her connections” (15). Album viewing was also part of the social economy of gender, particularly around courtship, where not only the album was put on display but also the woman who made it. Most significant here is the way that the photocollage, by reworking the commercial portrait with drawing and painting, diverged from the middle-class carte de visite album; as Di Bello puts it in “Photocollage, Fun, and Flirtations,” an essay that reworks a chapter from her recent book, Women’s Albums and Photography in Victorian England: Ladies, Mothers and Flirts (Burlington: Ashgate, 2007), this proves that “upper-class feminine culture [was] as capable of manipulating images to more discerning, amusing and semiologically open ends than those of straightforward photograph albums” (50).

All three essays are indebted to and push away from previous work on women and albums, most prominently Ann Higonnet’s 1987 essay in Radical History Review, “Secluded Vision.” Where Higonnet argued that the arrival of photography compromised the artistry of women’s albums, Siegel and Di Bello argue that women’s photographic albums are witness to women’s prescient participation in the visual culture of modernity. Where Higonnet argued that women’s albums could only reflect idealized and constrained representations of women’s private sphere, Di Bello and Weiss argue that the albums are sights of negotiation and should be read as plays of meaning. And where Higonnet opposed women’s albums to modern art—particularly painting—these essays pose the albums in relationship to modernist practices of collage and montage.

Overall, the catalogue’s argument is that women’s engagement with commercial photography does not exempt them from the history of modernity but connects them, and the albums they made, to it. Siegel’s essay is the most material, locating the women who made them in a culture of sociability where their crafting of photocollage albums is as much a function of gender as it is of class. She frames the genre as a “collective social self-portrait” shaped as much by women’s social rituals as by visual and literary culture, from the caricatures of Punch, to the Victorian interests in fairytales and nonsense, to Darwin (14). As Di Bello argues, the play of meanings and the play of materials—the handmade and the mechanical—at work on the pages of photocollages suggest that both “photograph and femininity are reconfigured in ways that suggest that they are cultural constructions rather than nature-given certainties” (53).

The central evidence for the negotiations of meanings is the materiality of the photocollage itself, as photographs are reworked with drawing and watercolor. Not only do these essays decode the ways in which juxtaposition and montage are the basis for the albums’ visual humor, they also propose that the malleability of meanings—their “play” with the indexicality of the photograph—has been central to photography since the nineteenth century. It is important, these essays suggest, that the visual evidence of such malleability is found in the feminized photographic object because this is where the line between the Victorian and the modern blur. “Album makers,” Siegel argues, “unwittingly anticipated the modern era and issues that would later preoccupy the avant-garde: the infiltration of mechanically produced materials into art; the fluid mixing of diverse media; the convergence of multiple authors; and the creative act as a process of collecting and assembling rather than origination” (13).

In other words, the photocollage was both freed from and relied on the photographic portrait’s indexical function. In drawing room scenes portraits might function solely as portraits, arranging loved ones and society figures together, positioning them into scenes where they play themselves. But they might also play the part of a decorative ancestral portrait hung from the walls or become jewels when cut-out cameos were arranged in watercolor necklaces, or bubbles blown from a pipe. Photographic meaning is unfixed when the commercially produced portrait is subject to collage; meaning is unfixed, doubled, negotiated.

As Di Bello puts it, photocollages “flirt with meaning” (54). Both so-called feminine arts, photocollage and flirtation, were, she argues, ways of “suggesting multiple meanings” (60). Di Bello poses the flirt—and the photocollage maker—as a potential feminine analog to the flâneur who is “purposely aimless, adopting a strategy that embraces the fleeting and provisional nature of modern life” (60). Such a reframing of the female album maker renders her an agent, not an object of modernity, credited with the same visual tactics that were crucial to the avant-garde. Framed by the view (following from Griselda Pollock) that the flâneur’s gaze is the model for the modern artist’s, Di Bello poses the drawing-room flirt as a prescient feminine counterpart to the male modernist. Photocollage at the crossroads of femininity and modernity is not bound by the realism of photography, but instead by unfixed meaning and the ability to play with it.

The pages of photocollage albums, Weiss argues in “The Page as Stage,” took their cues from and can be understood in relationship to theatrical presentations of performative identity from tableaux vivants to charades. Collage operated as “a form of staging”; it “merged photography with the imaginary” and allowed makers to “restage fragmented photographs according to whim” (37, 40). But gender is not the primary category of analysis here the way it is in Di Bello’s work. Rather, Weiss is more concerned with the connections between photocollage and dominant narratives of photographic history. The fluidity between the real and the imaginary, the photographic and the allegorical, Weiss points out, was not at all marginal to nineteenth-century British photography. Not only did photographers such as Roger Fenton photograph tableaux vivants, but the staged photograph was important in the work of Oscar Rejlander, Henry Peach Robinson, and Julia Margaret Cameron, among others. Photocollage, then, is not apart from such nineteenth-century techniques of costuming, staging, composite negatives, and composite printing, but of a piece with them. In this move, Weiss justifies attention to photocollage because of its connections to, rather than divergences from, the photographic canon.

But it is not just that photocollage has affinities with these other techniques. Weiss’s essay makes a different point on the way that fantasy is embedded in photographic realism that is more at odds with conventional histories of photography; the commercial portrait studio was a stage for self-presentation, as was the drawing-room ritual of looking at photograph albums. Collage only heightens the fact that photography made identity pliable and performative, both a measure of and prop to self-fashioning. The photocollage album is thus rendered as a negotiation of fantasy and a mediation of social performance; the fanciful serves a social function.

Yet the attentive arrangement of scenes in these collages, particularly those of children in or as flowers, and the social scenes of drawing rooms, gardens, and porches, evokes a sense of fantasy that is not easily explained; Di Bello goes so far as to call them “grotesque” (51). There is something about the attentive reworking of the photographic portrait that remains evocative, deeply psychological, fetishistic, and a little obsessive. Tableaux and theatricality were working differently at this moment in scientific photography, as in Charcot’s studies of hysteria in Iconographie Photographique de la Salpêtrière or in the staged presentations of self by the Countess de Castiglione or Hannah Cullwick. The Victorian photocollage is not an exception; it is similar to these other iterations, all of which relied on and represented new configurations of self, spectator, and women’s bodies. Visually, the Victorian album is a step away from the instrumentality of such genres, but, epistemologically, it might not be that far from it.

Even as the essays in Playing with Pictures use visual culture’s methods to decode the photocollage and situate it in the social fields of Victorian Britain, they also pose a reconsideration of the relationship between photographic modernity and modernism that is of concern to photographic and art history alike. While Siegel proposes that photocollage albums evidence an “incipient” and “transformational moment on the verge of modernity” (14, 15), Di Bello sets these Victorian women out more explicitly as precursors to the twentieth-century avant-garde. Linear or not, the fault line is gender; the commercial and industrial are plucked from the mundane and turned, by a discriminating eye, into art or bric-a-brac. But which is which? Together, the essays suggest that modern photography owes as much to the feminized registers of modernity as it does to those of high art, implicitly coded as masculine.

But to make this argument, as these essays do, via the display of what a few decades ago would have been termed “vernacular” photographs in the art museum, not only exposes the fault lines between art history’s categories of analysis (the artist and the original work of art) and photography’s challenges to them (mechanical reproduction) but also points to methodological frictions between art history and visual culture. In the shadow of the summer 1996 issue of October, photography—particularly in its commercial, conventional, and un-authored forms—has emerged as the source of considerable disciplinary anxiety for art history: what kind of object is the photograph, how should its histories be written, and on what terms does it, can it, and should it enter the museum? One answer, from visual culture approaches to Western photography and from the anthropological turn in photography embodied by the work of Elizabeth Edwards and Christopher Pinney, is through what W. J. T. Mitchell called “the social field of the visual” (“What Do Pictures Really Want ?” October 77 (1996): 82).

In these essays, that “social field” is the field of gender. Taken together, they emphasize the social meanings and visual currencies of the photocollage albums. Their meanings are multiple (not essential), framed by the social exchanges and identities of aristocratic women, as well as by high and low visual vocabularies, from nonsense verse to flirting. They simultaneously serve a social function—to negotiate identity and meaning—and they mark an overlooked moment in the arc of art history. The albums, feminine objects produced by women, are posed (at most) as possible anticipations of or (at least) parallel with avant-garde modernism. The essays pose modernity and modernism as mutually constitutive in ways that suggest that the high-low split doesn’t much matter (art history can simply absorb the forms of vernacular imagery usually left at its borders) or matters a lot (art history should be more inclusive by recognizing the precursors to art and artists in mass culture and amateurs—women in particular); either way, this is a mutuality that the art museum and art history often work hard to elide, particularly when it comes to photography. The essays in this book embrace visual culture’s focus on contextualized, social meanings and ways of reading gendered visual forms that are explicitly not art, but in a fascinating move, they do so through the museum’s embrace.

By doing so the authors suggest that it is possible to add such photographic objects to those already under the museum’s purview without acknowledging the ways in which photography challenges its foundational assumptions about the originality, rarity, and materiality of the art object. Visual culture here does not represent a threat to art history but it does not possess what Geoffrey Batchen identified in a recent essay as its potential as “an eruption . . . that threatens to totally transforms [the] existing parameters” of the art history of photography (“Snapshots: Art History and the Ethnographic Turn,” Photographies 1 (2008): 129); rather, it becomes, unproblematically, a method for it. Nor is gender a challenge to the received categories of art history or the museum. These essays make the Victorian photocollage more legible, in ways that are nuanced and provocative. That provocation comes from the suggestion that neither gender nor the methods of visual culture pose little challenge to art history or the art museum to rethink its foundational assumptions.

Andrea Volpe
Preceptor in Writing, Harvard University