Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 10, 2013
Marcy J. Dinius The Camera and the Press: American Visual and Print Culture in the Age of the Daguerreotype Material Texts.. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012. 320 pp.; 44 b/w ills. Cloth $49.95 (9780812244045 )
Stuart Burrows A Familiar Strangeness: American Fiction and the Language of Photography, 1839–1945 Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010. 304 pp. Paper $24.95 (9780820335216)

For two books on American photography and fiction, Marcy J. Dinius’s The Camera and the Press and Stuart Burrows’s A Familiar Strangeness could not be more different. The approach of The Camera and the Press is historical, with a concentration on the medium of daguerreotypy. Dinius draws on a rich variety of archival sources, including daguerreotype images, advertisements, and periodical literature, to illuminate the ways that the production, reception, and materiality of daguerreotypes affected their cultural significance. By contrast, A Familiar Strangeness considers photography generally as an expression of modernity—as a form of mass reproduction. Rather than examining a specific photographic format or practice, Burrows makes dexterous use of literary, photography, and cultural theory to investigate changes in the nature of visual representation as it was depicted in American fiction of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Despite their differences, these accomplished studies similarly conceive of the relationship between fiction and photography. Scholarship of a generation ago tended to approach this relationship by focusing on collaborations between writers and photographers. More recently, critics have examined the ways that fiction and photography collaborate in cultural projects such as the discursive construction of the gaze or categories of identity including childhood, racial identity, or class. Dinius and Burrows follow in the footsteps of Nancy Armstrong, who in her groundbreaking study, Fiction in the Age of Photography: The Legacy of British Realism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), first articulated a set of questions that asked about the relationship between fiction and photography. (Dinius’s debt to Fiction in the Age of Photography is evident in her subtitle, American Visual and Print Culture in the Age of the Daguerreotype; Burrows cites Armstrong extensively in his introduction.) What does it mean to produce fiction in a culture saturated by—or, at the very least, enamored of—photographic images? How do literary and photographic representations become mutually legitimizing? What techniques are mobilized to accommodate the demand for realistic pictures? The Camera and the Press and A Familiar Strangeness provide complementary answers to Armstrong’s questions, each usefully complicating photography’s relationship to mimetic representation and deepening an understanding of the medium’s historical uses and conceptualizations.

The Camera and the Press begins with an observation that is as brilliant and simple as it is historically accurate: before Americans saw daguerreotypes, they read about them. Reversing Armstrong’s premise that fiction needed to function in a world of images, Dinius foregrounds the fact that photographic images and technologies emerged into a world of words. The Camera and the Press emphasizes the uneasy fit between the language used to describe and categorize existing visual media (such as lithography or aquatint) and the new daguerreotyped images. This early linguistic confusion is commonly noted in photographic history but seldom explained or theorized. Drawing on new media theory, The Camera and the Press argues that early, contradictory descriptions of daguerreotypes are part of what Alan Liu calls the “narratives of new media encounter” (quoted on p. 5). Early descriptions of daguerreotypes become significant, in Liu’s model, because narratives of media change serve as indexes to social and cultural change. In the context of mid-century America, Dinius suggests, the contradictory narratives about daguerreotypy are symbolic workings-through of the most significant social and cultural changes, specifically those informed by debates about slavery, citizenship, and racial identity.

Chapter 1, then, details the process by which daguerreotypy “came into public view verbally, not visually” (13). Beginning with newspaper articles, The Camera and the Press illustrates the challenge of placing before readers a technology they must imagine—because they had not seen it—by creating analogies with known processes and also suggesting where these analogies fell short. The textual mediation of daguerreian images thus entailed a series of proximate descriptions that were frequently self-contradictory: the medium was mechanical and also natural; the images were numinous and also unprecedentedly real; lifelike and also inanimate; exquisite as painting/art and minutely, scientifically accurate. Dinius points out that a number of the earliest descriptions of daguerreotypes were written by authors who had never in fact seen examples of the images they were attempting to represent; at the same time, the descriptions written by those who had seen daguerreotypes (Samuel Morse, most significantly), articulated the same “uncertainty about the adequacy of description to do justice to the daguerreian image” (25).

The book’s subsequent chapters ask how texts by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Augustus Washington, and Frederick Douglass engaged with the increasingly accepted notion of the objectivity of daguerreotyped images. Dinius suggests that while the supposed objectivity of daguerreotypes became an occasion for the defense of subjectivity in art, it also became a practical weapon in political debates about the personhood of people of African descent.

Readings of The House of the Seven Gables (1851) and Pierre (1852) are paired with discussions of the practices of New York daguerreotypist Gabriel Harrison and the Boston daguerreotype firm of Southworth and Hawes, respectively, to demonstrate that Hawthorne and Melville rejected photography’s supposed objectivity. These chapters shine in their fascinating and careful treatment of the literary texts. Dinius argues that Hawthorne looks to the materiality of daguerreotypes—in particular, their mirror-like qualities—as a model of subjective image-making. Hawthorne invoked daguerreotypes to promote the subjective qualities of his own romance (as against the novel, and that form’s attention to history and mimetic fidelity). In her reading of Pierre, Dinius suggests that it is not so much the materiality of daguerreotypes that the novel seeks to represent as their participation in an extended network of images that includes the many painted portraits represented in the novel. The profusion of likenesses and portraits, and the contingency of their subjects’ identities, points to the crucial role of subjectivity in the reception of all works of art, including daguerreotypes.

The chapters on Hawthorne and Melville also strive to show how their textual representations of photography as a subjective art have counterparts in the photographic practices of Harrison and Southworth and Hawes. Harrison is best known for his portraits of Walt Whitman and Edgar Allan Poe, and Dinius uncovers some delightful allegorical daguerreotype portraits made of his children, including one of his son entitled Infant Saviour Bearing the Cross (ca. 1850). The artistry of Southworth and Hawes takes a different form, emphasizing painterly techniques such as chiaroscuro rather than narrative content. However, the argument here departs from the fresh insights of new media theory and gravitates toward more familiar mid-century debates about photography as objective science or subjective art; when it does so, The Camera and the Press loses some of its focus. Highlighting the marginality of these practices in the United States rather than their connection to the nascent transnational movement of pictorial photography, these chapters implicitly accept the emerging discourse of photography’s objectivity as more inevitable, less contingent than it probably was.

The Camera and the Press then turns from aesthetic questions raised by daguerreotypy to the medium’s political deployment, and here the book’s argument is at its strongest. Deftly weaving analyses of texts and images, these chapters show how the circulation of daguerreotypes remained in constant tension with their textual mediation. For instance, chapter 4 focuses on Stowe’s use of the metaphor of daguerreotypy in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), arguing that when Stowe’s narrator declares that she “must daguerreotype” Tom for readers, she draws on the representational authority of the medium to counter the images of slaves with which her readers would have been familiar. Drawing on Marcus Wood’s scholarship, The Camera and the Press makes a strong case that Stowe had in mind the ubiquitous advertisements for runaway slaves that represented them using the stereotype printing process—literally, as two-dimensional (Marcus Wood, Blind Memory: Visual Representations of Slavery in England and America, 1780–1865, New York: Routledge, 2000). At the same time, the novel relies crucially on not describing Tom in this “daguerreotype,” thus enabling readers to create their own picture of the character based on subjective identification rather than physical stereotype. The success of this literary strategy can be measured, Dinius compellingly argues, by the fact that Tom achieved a cultural reality that extended far beyond the text, even to proslavery discussions that cited him as an unhealthy example for slaves.

The following two chapters build on the discussion of daguerreotypy’s implications in debates about African American personhood. These chapters bring to light important archival material on Augustus Washington, one of the relatively few mid-century African American daguerreotypists (and a staunch supporter of the controversial colonization movement), and collect for the first time the six daguerreotype portraits made of Douglass. In these chapters, Dinius attends particularly to the ways that conventions of portraiture, combined with a basic faith in the authenticity of the daguerreotype, were manipulated to generate new forms of identity and citizenship for African Americans.

As in The Camera and the Press, the photographic genre that lurks beneath A Familiar Strangeness is portraiture. Beginning with a breathtaking extended close reading of a passage from Stephen Crane’s “The Five White Mice” (1898), Burrows notes the improbable resemblance that the main character finds between a Mexican he has insulted and his former Bostonian barber. Burrows contends that “what is being dramatized here . . . is not only the erasure of identity that is the result of seeing the world in terms of national, racial, and social types, but a fundamental revolution in how the modern subject sees the world” (2). Burrows theorizes this revolution in terms of the relationship of originals to copies. Noting the increasing interest in representative types in the nineteenth century, Burrows argues for an analogy between physiognomy and American fiction: like physiognomy, American fiction does not so much distinguish between Americans as it delineates their identity as Americans by blurring their individual characteristics. Drawing on the insight of Frankfurt School writers that in an age of mass reproduction all things—including people and portraits—become indistinguishable, Burrows defines “photographic fiction” as literature that reduces people and things to the status of representative types. In its infinite reproduction of visual detail, photographic fiction becomes metonymic rather mimetic, based on substitution and exchange rather than imitation.

One of the advantages of this way of regarding “photographic fiction” is that it enables Burrows to rethink what constitutes “the photographic” in a text. This allows him to read texts that have been considered critical of photography, including work by Hawthorne, Melville, and Henry James, as deeply informed by the medium, and also to reach beyond the literature-and-photography canon to consider work by William Faulkner and Zora Neale Hurston. Additionally, Burrows persuasively argues against the truism that modernist fiction constitutes a radical break with the realist and naturalist fiction of the late nineteenth century. The crisis of vision that has come to characterize modernist fiction, its skepticism that seeing is equivalent to knowing, is in fact central to the earlier fiction’s engagements with “photographic” vision. Burrows demonstrates that as a potential model for fiction, the camera inspired formal experimentation in the use of metaphor and metonymy by raising questions about analogy, likeness, and resemblance.

Powerful readings of Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables, Melville’s Pierre, and a collection of texts by James, including The Real Thing (1892), reveal the texts’ underlying anxieties about photography’s potential to erase identity rather than capture it. Burrows summarizes these anxieties via Douglass, who observed that photographic subjects were beginning to model themselves after their images, rather than vice versa, causing all of society to look more and more the same. In The House of the Seven Gables, for instance, the result is that everything in the novel comes to stand for the Pyncheon family, from their house to their clothing, even to the chickens in their yard. By this metonymic logic, everything is made visible, including the supposedly secret character of the story’s villain, but not necessarily legible.

Beginning with James’s assertions in The American Scene (1907) that all Americans look alike—a perverse response, Burrows acknowledges, to the waves of immigrants arriving in the United States—the metonymic notion of identity becomes increasingly troubling. When A Familiar Strangeness turns to examine racial formation in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom (1936), Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), and Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), its attention to the texts’ formal engagements with questions about likeness and resemblance allows the analysis to evade the historical and cultural considerations that might inform representations of race and visuality in these texts. Likewise, readers begin to lose sight of the particular part played by photography in raising questions of resemblance. Early in A Familiar Strangeness, Burrows suggests that photography can be understood as part of a larger set of changes in visuality brought on by ruptures in the relationship between sign and referent. While an important insight, this premise allows much of the latter half of the book to discuss visuality rather than photography per se. The discussion of Native Son, for instance, alternates between the texts’ reliance on photography and newspaper media as if they were interchangeable.

The Camera and the Press and A Familiar Strangeness represent important contributions to the current study of literature and photography. Dinius and Burrows are both at their strongest in their complex and nuanced readings of texts. Dinius’s historical approach effectively elucidates questions of race and personhood, while Burrows’s investments in literary and cultural theory pay off in his conceptualization of “photographic fiction” and its formal aesthetic innovations. That both of these impressive studies consider portraiture to the exclusion of other photographic genres such as landscape, scientific or medical photography, collage, allegory, etc., is telling. This winnowing down of photography to portraiture reflects both the investment of current literary criticism in identity formation and the importance of representations of character to fiction itself. How new media theory or Frankfurt School philosophies (old media theory, as it were) might account for literary engagements with other photographic genres and the cultural paradigms they rely upon remains an open question; a dialogue between new and old media theory could open the way for an innovative telling of photographic history.

Laura Saltz
Associate Professor of American Studies, Colby College