Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 24, 2016
Robin Kelsey Photography and the Art of Chance Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2015. 416 pp.; 9 color ills.; 57 b/w ills. Cloth $32.95 (9780674744004)

On first glance, Robin Kelsey’s Photography and the Art of Chance appears to be a playful book. Its cover features three orange balls against a bright blue sky, a detail from Conceptual artist John Baldessari’s 1973 photographic series Throwing Three Balls in the Air to Get a Straight Line (Best of Thirty-Six Attempts). However, in both its physical heft and intellectual ambitions, this is not a light or lighthearted book. Instead, this study of photography from its beginnings in the 1830s to its acceptance by the U.S. art world in the 1970s combines a history of the medium with one of chance to take on various weighty issues with lively and evocative prose. Kelsey locates photography’s origins in a modern era destabilized by Charles Darwin’s theory that human life resulted from evolution’s chance variations rather than divine intervention. He perceptively links the descriptions of causation offered simultaneously by modern secular thinkers and photography’s inventors; one group removed the hand of God and the other removed the hand of the artist. From insurance markets that turned risk into profit to botanist Robert Brown’s discovery of particles’ random motion, photography arrived at a time when, Kelsey convincingly argues, “the need to contend with chance” became a sort of “secular binding agent” (8). His book thus rethinks the canonical history of the medium by reading it in relation to chance, which proves to be a central phenomenon suppressed by dominant accounts of photography as fine art.

Beginning with Victorians’ doubt in God and culminating in a chapter that places Baldessari’s Southern California photographs alongside the work of nearby cold war defense analysts who used uncertainty to simulate international conflict, Kelsey attends to chance’s more dispiriting effects. He defines his book as part of a profoundly humanist project focused on “the search for meaning in the modern world” and offers its images as “a source of understanding, encouragement, and honest relief” to readers for whom “the random indifference of that world bewildering and tough to bear” (11). The nine chapters in Photography and the Art of Chance unfold chronologically. Five of them focus on individual photographers: William Henry Fox Talbot, Julia Margaret Cameron, Alfred Stieglitz, Frederick Sommer, and John Baldessari. These are interspersed with four chapters that study the following broader phenomena but also touch on individual artists and theorists: the interplay of art and mechanization with Lady Eastlake; vapor and Peter Henry Emerson; the 1930s news photography of Joe Rosenthal and Henri Cartier-Bresson, among others; and the Museum of Modern Art’s modernist definition of photography as art championed by Ansel Adams, Beaumont Newhall, and Edward Weston. As may be evident from this list, Kelsey’s narrative remains centered on canonical events and figures in the history of photography, focusing on Britain in its early chapters and then moving to the United States.

Photography and the Art of Chance brilliantly interweaves the history of photography with a broader history of art and an intellectual history of chance. This interdisciplinary approach helps Kelsey sidestep claims about the ontological status of photography that separate the medium entirely from other forms—something that has often plagued much art-historical writing on photography. He does not quite argue that the photographic medium is an art of chance, but asserts that it is one uniquely “prone to chance” (2). Exemplary of Kelsey’s engagement with the history of painting, the chapter focused on 1890s Pictorialist ideas about blurred focus includes a masterful history of vapor, froth, and smoke in painting, and it ranges widely from Pliny the Elder’s writing on Protogenes in the first century of the common era, to Titian’s ca. 1560 rendering of Zeus as golden rain in Danaë, to John Ruskin’s descriptions of the varied qualities of smoke in nineteenth-century England. Similarly wide-reaching, Kelsey’s accounts of scientific and mathematical understandings of uncertainty will familiarize the general reader with the modern foundations of specialized fields ranging from evolutionary biology and social statistics to particle physics and information theory. Perhaps more remarkable than the book’s breadth is that Kelsey moves across fields with a language that is both specific and accessible enough to make his book a satisfying read for a varied audience. His invocation of the technical vocabulary of the history of photography, for example, remains remarkably clear about specific processes, their formal results in the finished image, and their connections with chance.

As Kelsey moves forward in photography’s history, he also doubles back with illuminating comparisons. Talbot, he argues, located chance in photographers’ “accidental encounter” with a scene and the capture of unexpected details, while Cameron deployed chance in the “optical, chemical, and material process” of photography itself (66). In his longer treatment of these nineteenth-century photographers Kelsey suggests the ways in which Talbot positioned photography as a labor-saving device to render scenes the author recognized as aesthetically pleasing (such as his famous broom leaning in a doorway), transferring the “locus of creativity wholly to the eye” and in the process making the artist a “new executive, whose privileged role is to envision what labor and machine will produce” (21). Through a description of period anxieties about automata, a long quotation from poet Robert Browning, and an eloquent formal description of Cameron’s photograph of the deceased body of her grandniece, Kelsey persuasively argues that Cameron’s “glitches” register the living presence of both sitter and photographer. He traces the “exchange of performances” between the two in order to recover an animating power in Cameron’s photographs that has been lost on subsequent generations of modernists who read her work as theatrical. A stunning account of Stieglitz’s neglected early lantern-slide photographs imagines motes of dust dancing in projected light and includes a masterful description that defamiliarizes the asphalt paving captured in an image as the moment “when rock becomes liquid and liquid became gas” (176). Stieglitz’s Equivalents surface later in the book along with Marcel Duchamp’s playful 1910s Dada experiments as counterpoints to Baldessari’s Throwing Three Balls.

This intertwining suggests larger narratives of influence, but it also raises questions about whether differences in the shifting relationships to chance should be located in the work of artists or in their various historical moments and cultures. Kelsey would likely answer that it is necessary to look at both the individual and the context, advancing a social history of art that preserves the notion of authors. Cameron’s photographs are important precisely because they operate in the fissure between the “privileged past” and “commercial ambitions” that characterizes both her own biography and British Victorian culture more generally (71). Sommer’s images of decomposing animals against the desert floor and dismembered avian bodies must be read in light of the photographer’s own career-long tuberculosis, but also as evidence of an anxiety about disease and decay that haunted the interwar United States.

Kelsey includes a substantial amount of biographical information in his five artist-focused chapters and about other artists who surface throughout the book. However, he attends little to the ways chance might function or be perceived differently by authors and audiences depending on their class, sexual, or racial identities. This is surprising, given that the introduction acknowledges that some might fault the canon for being “generally pale and almost wholly male.” Cameron, a colonial aristocrat’s wife born in Calcutta and rumored to have Indian ancestry, represents an exception. Kelsey briefly touches on the gendered dimensions of her prints’ liquidity, associated by Victorians with sentiment and “tears,” a fluid which he suggests obliquely may have sublimated other “sticky desires” of maternal and erotic dimensions that remain unnamed (78–79). Kelsey also reads sympathetically Cameron’s depictions of Englishness in relation to her colonial experience, finding not the support for imperial domination other scholars have discussed, but traces of a “hybrid subject” remarkable for her facility at the “cobbling together of an imperfect copy of an imagined tradition from the motley resources at hand” (100, 97). He convincingly argues for connecting the self-reflexivity of modernism with colonialism, but in other chapters he only briefly mentions Emerson’s childhood in Cuba and Sommer’s early life in Brazil, and never notes Talbot’s obsession with the British Museum’s collection of Assyrian cuneiform (recently explored in Mirjam Brusius, Katrina Dean, and Chitra Ramalingam’s William Henry Fox Talbot: Beyond Photography, New Haven and London: Yale Center for British Art and Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2013) (click here for review). These biographical details nonetheless provide glimpses of the diverse, global history lurking within photography’s canon.

Kelsey’s conclusion critiques our current enthusiasm for digital manipulation and posed photography, manifested in the popularity of artwork by Cindy Sherman and Jeff Wall and in vernacular “selfies.” However, it is his chapter on Cameron that opens more sympathetic insights onto the contemporary moment, using the term “glitch” to refer to the aspects of Cameron’s photography (such as fingerprinted emulsion and blurred focus) that critics then and now have deemed mechanical errors. An interestingly anachronistic word (one of the few terms not given extensive etymology in the book), “glitch” derives from 1960s astronauts’ slang that specifically referred to electrical disruptions in a signal. Evoking this early moment of computer control, Kelsey suggests, perhaps unintentionally, other unexplored resonances between his survey and the digital. Additionally, his extensive and illuminating accounts of essential concepts in statistics and other allied fields could win chapters of this book a place on digital humanities syllabi.

Kelsey makes a persuasive case for the centrality of chance to the history of photography, but he also opens up the possibility that any set of photographers might serve to make that case equally well. Most remarkable to this reader is the near-total absence of Surrealist understandings of chance. Abjection and base materiality enter Kelsey’s chapter on Sommers, which positions the photographer as an alternative to the clean, precise vision advanced by the Museum of Modern Art. However, the book steers clear of Sommer’s relationships with well-known Surrealists and their theories, never explicitly articulating the ways in which chance might unleash subconscious and incoherent erotic or violent desires. Although it is perhaps foreseeable in an account focused on Britain and the United States, the omission of Surrealism is also symptomatic of the humanist impulse underlying Kelsey’s project to find rational meaning in chance.

Photography and the Art of Chance will reward specialists and general audiences, providing insights to a spectrum of readers disconcerted, resigned, or even enlivened by the apparent randomness and indifference that still characterizes so much of our modern lives.

Lauren Kroiz
Associate Professor, Department of History of Art, University of California, Berkeley