Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 16, 1999
Linda Rugg Picturing Ourselves: Photography and Autobiography Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. 293 pp.; 45 b/w ills. Paper $20.00 (0226731472)

In recent decades, some of the most influential books about photography have been written by authors outside of art history and American studies, the areas that have fostered photographic studies at universities since World War II. Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida and Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punishment increased interest in the social ramifications of photographic practice, and reoriented many scholars from strictly archival pursuits to the contemplation of photography’s societal and psychological consequences. The enlarged scope of photographic studies, together with the broad presence of photography in contemporary art, continues to encourage scholars in the humanities and the social sciences to investigate the theory and history of photography.

Linda Haverty Rugg’s new book, Picturing Ourselves, is one of those studies by an outsider who has been influenced by critical theory. Rugg, who is an associate professor of German and Scandinavian at Ohio State University, brings to her discussion the crucial concept that photography is more than its practiceindeed, that its practice is deeply responsive to photography as a complex of ideas within Western culture. As a set of ideas, or discourse, and as a rich source of metaphor, photography has had a life hidden in plain sight from the strictly archival scholar.

But Rugg tends to overlook the fact that photographic practice is not simply the history of ideas. Unanchored by the archive, writing on photography may take wing, looping poetically through clouds of association and allusion that too often turn out to be only suggestive fingerprints on the lens. One of the most frequent flights of fancy for the lyrically inclined is to overinterpret the word “take,” as in the phrase “take a photograph.” Despite hints of confiscation and appropriation, “take” seems to have derived innocently from a prephotographic term for visual rendering. For example, in Jane Austin’s Emma (1816), Emma Wodehouse “takes” likenesses.

There is nothing sinister in the 19th-century usage. “Take” may have been a defunct metaphor, like the phrase “capture a resemblance.” In late 20th-century critical theory, however, the “take” in “take a photograph” has been so often embellished with connotations of illicit appropriation that they have begun to cling to it. Just as the word “awful” has been transformed from awesome to terrible, and the word “elide” is on its way to meaning meld, rather than omit, “take” in “take a photograph” may be mutating from its 19th-century meaning to its late 20th-century connotation.

Linda Haverty Rugg succumbs to the suggestiveness of “take” in her introduction: “Photographers are said to ‘take’ an image of a person precisely because we naturally assume at some level that images of us belong to us” (p. 3). Comments like this mar her important conjecture that the invention of photography may have transformed the way to picture ourselves, especially in the act of autobiography.

In her introduction, Rugg concisely identifies the double consciousness of autobiography. An author may view the self as multilayered and fragmented, yet the authorial voice and presence is more integrated and supports the structure of the autobiography. Wisely, she does not limit her text to persons who have used actual photographs to create a self-image. Her concern with the idea of photography leads her to consider how the ubiquitous presence of photographs might influence the construction of autobiography. In four separate chapters, she discusses the work of literary figures Mark Twain, August Strindberg, Walter Benjamin, and Christa Wolf. These chapters are arranged in chronological order, yet Rugg makes it clear that there has not been a progressive sophistication in the use of photography in autobiography.

The chapter on Twain focuses on what today we might call his celebrity photographs. Worried about impersonators and copyrights, Twain set about producing photographs of himself to distribute to audiences who attended his famous public lectures. During the second half of the 19th century, attempts at such packaged self-presentation were prevalent among European and American luminaries in politics and the arts.

Twain had images of himself produced in the exorbitantly popular type of photograph called the carte-de-visite, or visiting card. Even though they were called visiting card photographs, they were not stringently used as such. People were far more likely to buy, trade, and collect them than to leave them on the silver tray inside the front door. Rugg overanalyzes the card photograph vogue, claiming that the carte-de-visite left by a visitor paying a call “indicated to the recipient that he or she had suffered a loss (in not actually seeing the visitor), but proffers a substitute in the form of the photograph, the body’s double, which reminds the host or hostess both of the intended presence and continuing absence of the visitor, thus lending the images an air of longing or nostalgia” (p. 42). An understanding of carte-de-visite‘s historical functions, available in the standard The History of Photography (1982), by Beaumont Newhall, or Elizabeth Anne McCauley’s A. A. E. Disderi and the Carte de Visite Portrait Photograph (1984), both of which are listed in the author’s bibliograpy, might have grounded this sort of speculation.

Nevertheless, Rugg animates the discussion of turn-of-the-century photographs showing Twain in bed by bringing in psychoanalytic perspectives beyond the reach of antiquarians. Her speculation that Twain was restaging a recurrent nightmare in order to gain control of his fear is stated too confidently, given that we are not privy to the workings of the inner life of another. Still, the hypothesis grants to Twain and the photographs an intriguing psychological complexity.

Similarly, Rugg examines Swedish dramatist August Strindberg’s “psychological photographs.” Like many photographers before him, Strindberg was fascinated with the possibility of making portraits of the inner character of the sitter. He proposed opening a photographic studio in Berlin, where he would telepathically draw out hidden features of personality in unsuspecting sitters. By 1906 he had developed a Wunderkamera, which would take photographs of the face at full scale. Rugg persuasively conveys Strindberg’s anxious compulsion to make human presence in the world more enduring and tangible.

The chapter on Walter Benjamin focuses not on his well known photography essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” but on Benjamin’s autobiography, Berlin Childhood around 1900. In this section, Rugg moves away from the use of actual photographs to consider the literary creation of photographic effects. In the close reading that follows, Rugg speculates on the double nature of autobiography and the impressions that photography has made on the consciousness of writers. Benjamin appears to have developed the narrative around notions of authenticity and aura, familiar from “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Rugg suggests that he wrenched images out of the illusion of historical continuity, all the while reinstating their magic and aura. This chapter, like the others, makes technical mistakes about photography, most notably the statement that daguerreotypes could not be reproduced. Daguerreotypes of daguerreotypes and paper photographs of daguerreotypes were not uncommon. Regardless, it offers worthwhile insights to critics, as well as photographic and art historians.

Rugg’s last chapter is devoted to the autobiographical prose of Christa Wolf and the role played in her writing by some lost photographs. In Kindheitsmuster (Patterns of Childhood), Wolf explores childhood memories of Nazi Germany through remembered images of a family album lost when the Soviet army was advancing near the end of the war. Like Benjamin, Wolf engages the truth of subjective memory, in this case of the images in the lost album, and pitches it against more objective sources, like newspapers and other historical documents. This chapter, like the others, swoons in its overreading of photographic history, while it raises important questions about how human visual memory may have come to resemble photographs as the medium proliferated in the 20th century.

Picturing Ourselves is dense going, especially for those not willing to wrangle with critical theory. It suffers from a lack of historical accuracy and gives insufficient attention to scholarly treatments of photography in literature and studies of the interaction of word and image that could have enriched its observations. Yet it must be a applauded for its reach, if not its grasp. Perhaps someday photographic history will be as audacious as the photographers it studies.

Mary Warner Marien
Syracuse University