Volume 22, Issue 1 | Spring 2023

Photography and the Arts: Essays on Nineteenth-Century Practices and Debates edited by Juliet Hacking and Joanne Lukitsh

Reviewed by Andrés Mario Zervigón

Juliet Hacking and Joanne Lukitsh, eds.,
Photography and the Arts: Essays on Nineteenth-Century Practices and Debates.
London: Bloomsbury, 2020.
248 pp.; 62 b&w illus.; bibliography; index.
$120 (hardcover), $32.95 (paperback)
ISBN: 9781350048539
ISBN: 9781350283527

Earlier last summer in 2022, the two editors of Photography and the Arts staged a book launch at Photography Network with a provocative query: “Who’s Afraid of Art Photography?” The question, they readily admitted, recalled the postmodern critique of photography primarily waged by contributors to the journal October in the late 1970s and early 1980s. As a group, these critics and academics called into question—among other things—the creative ambitions of nineteenth-century photographers. Even more pointedly, they criticized the collecting and exhibition prerogatives of contemporary curators who championed such aspirations or perceived them in purely functional photography. Aesthetics in the medium’s first century, the October-based authors maintained, had to be understood as an archaic relic of modernist aesthetic conventions that the same postmodern intervention sought to debunk. Since then, discussions of ambitious art practices in nineteenth-century photography (or the conjuring of their presence) have appeared suspect at best, if not outright retrograde in our current historiographical context that still trades heavily in the currency of vernacular photography with all its quotidian patina. Why turn our attention to elite images when they represent only a fraction of the photographs produced and consumed in the medium’s early decades? Is not such a focus itself elitist and shortsighted? As editors Juliet Hacking (Sotheby’s Institute of Art, London) and Joanne Lukitsh (Massachusetts College of Art and Design) suggested at their launch, scholars and critics have grown fearful of early art photography as a subject of study, even if for legitimate reasons.

Their response to such trepidation is to broaden the category of art photography to the more capacious rubric of ambitious photography and suggest, in turn, that there’s a great deal more at stake in such images than their pleasing or sublime aesthetics may imply. As the editors and their contributors demonstrate, some of the most profound debates on the medium in the nineteenth century circled around enterprising image makers, generating photographic discourses and bracing pictures that tell us much more about their moment than we would know if we did not take such practices seriously and understand them on their own aesthetic terms. The editors and their contributors do just this in a useful historiographical introduction and twelve chapters. The reader comes away from the texts with a number of useful insights. Images and—more specifically—objects presented through the category of art did not just make beauty and philosophy possible in a medium closely associated with the mechanical and the functional. They also enabled several seemingly unrelated discourses to enter visual cultures under the cover of elegant art. In the images under scrutiny, such rubrics perform the work of dehumanization, colonialism, and nationalism, while others serve to promote new technologies and related reproductive media. Beauty, in other words, often served—intentionally or not—as a fig leaf in photographs with other agendas seemingly well outside the realm of art. Establishing this fact, along with making fundamental additions to our historical knowledge of photography, represents the volume’s primary contribution.

The introduction opens the book with a useful discussion of the state of the field, specifically as regards studies of nineteenth-century photography and the twentieth-century understandings of art that were mapped onto it retrospectively. What becomes clear in the first two pages is that Hacking and Lukitsh take the October-based critique and its postmodernist considerations seriously. As these critics from the 1970s and 1980s would advise, the editors and their contributors aim to restore the plurality of photography in the medium’s first century, making room for discussion of practical prints meant for information, documentation, evidence, illustration, and reportage, as well as those consciously presented as fine art. The diversity that the editors and their contributors navigate generally fits under a nineteenth-century rubric of “the arts,” which was far more capacious and embracing than it is for us today. The category included such things as electroplating, eclectic forms of reproduction such as plaster casting, colonial pictorial documentation, news reporting, and narration, all of which are covered in the volume. Few of these categories and the networks they generated consistently accord with the modernist photographic “way of seeing” that classic twentieth-century histories of the medium retrospectively took as their aesthetic standard for serious nineteenth-century prints. As the editors explain, the book “claims a significance for historical interactions between photography and the arts beyond matters of cultural status, judgements of quality or taxonomy” (1). What their openness to “the arts” laudably enables is a series of inter-medial investigations that show just how closely bound various forms of reproduction became once brought together over a primary objective, such as cataloging insects or building types. Teasing out the complex relationships that such investigations require constitutes a chief aim of the contributors as well, as they explore the social, political, scientific, and economic conditions that gave rise to specific bodies of photographs and the conditions through which those pictures can be understood today. The introduction brilliantly unpacks the historiographic significance of this approach for the medium’s first century.

The first section, “The Arts of Reproduction,” focuses on notions and practices of replication in which photography was embedded with other media and processes. Stephen Pinson’s “A Bug for Photography? Hippolyte Fizeau’s Photographic Engraving and Other Media of Reproduction” begins with an account of the famous French physicist’s technique for replicating and mechanically printing daguerreotypes just a few years after photography’s public introduction in 1839. In the course of his essay, Pinson unfolds the importance of reproduction as a term that Fizeau both worked with in formulating his process and used in advancing it publicly. Today we associate the word closely with photography in all its endless multiplicity. But as Pinson explains, it was part of an unstable vocabulary that had to be slowly forged and adapted from other discourses developing around electricity and entomology (among other things), and most intriguingly in the relationship of one with the other. Electroplating had become an essential part of the daguerreotype process in preparing the plate with silver, and it was key for Fizeau’s procedure as well, while reproduction seemed a fundamental term for understanding an insect’s quick course of life and the omnipresence of so many bugs. But when in 1836 gentleman scientist Andrew Crosse seemed to provoke the generation of insects with electricity, and photography years later became wrapped up in documenting these specimens, notions of reproduction became closely associated with the new medium.

In “Casting History: The Role of Photography and Plaster Casting in the Creation of a Colonial Archive,” Sarah Victoria Turner analyzes the convergence of reproductive media in the form of plaster casting and photography, particularly in colonial India. She writes of the awe that the caster and the photographer “share in the transformative ability of the reproductive process of both plaster casting and photography to turn liquid materials into solid forms that could be transported, preserved and shared well beyond the sites of their making” (33). Both media, she explains, had “rapidly expanded the European view of other cultures,” forging a “reproductive continuum” that transported Indian monuments to Britain as three-dimensional casts, photographs of the casting process, and further photographs of the resulting casts in books (35). The trace, it seems, mattered most in this sequence, not the precise medium involved in reproduction.

Joanne Lukitsh in her contribution “Modernizing the Victorian: Reading the Photographs of Julia Margaret Cameron 1886–1914” focuses on photographer Julia Margaret Cameron’s posthumous reception, and the degree to which her reemergence as an important figure was largely based on carbon prints of her work, not her original albumen prints. Yet the carbon reproductions, which Cameron herself commissioned, transformed and frequently reduced the effects of blur and exposure that the artist originally fashioned for her photographs. The result was a different understanding of her work in the late nineteenth century that attended as much to the effects of mechanical printing as to Cameron’s original camera aesthetic. Once again, as Lukitsh underscores, photography and replication cannot be considered separately as vocabularies or formal expressions. Two additional chapters discuss Cameron as well, indicating the degree to which discussion of art in photography circled around her prints.

The next section, “Photography and Aesthetics,” explores cases in which the medium takes on and transforms aesthetics associated with other media. Herta Wolf’s chapter “The Photographic and the Picturesque: The Aesthetic and Chemical Foundations of Louis Désiré Blanquart-Évrard’s Activities” accounts for the success of the famous Lille printer in publicizing his procedure for replicating and mechanically reproducing daguerreotypes and other early photographic processes. Using his procedure, Blanquart-Évrard published luxurious albums of photographs showing exotic regions and countries, but all with an eye to the expectations of the picturesque that audiences had grown accustomed to in the fine arts. Wolf argues that aesthetic idioms migrated across media in this early moment of photography and heavily determined the choice and form of images in early mass-printed volumes.

Similarly, Sean Robert Willcock in his chapter “Picturesque Conflict: Photography and the Aesthetics of Violence in the Nineteenth-Century British Empire” underscores how the picturesque as a pictorial approach could transform the world with all its complexity into a picture that one appreciated for its formal qualities. The result allowed audiences to ignore any ethical concerns about motifs of decay and violence. He cites John Ruskin, who expressed just such concerns about the immorality of the picturesque at the time. Willcock concentrates on the photographic expression of this mode in the context of colonial India, for example in Felice Beato’s prints of wartime violence, the first of their sort. Under the rubric of the picturesque, which made the threat and lingering trauma of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 familiar and consumable, the photographer employed the mode for staffage, often rendered as dead bodies and enemy bones. Beato, along with Samuel Bourne and others, had learned to translate such illustration into photography and, in the process, acclimatized viewers to horrific levels of colonial and imperial violence.

In “Sun-Struck: Elizabeth Rigby (Eastlake) and the Sun’s ‘Earnest Gaze’ in Calotypes by Hill and Adamson,” Lindsay Smith analyzes the aesthetic influences that informed Lady Eastlake’s famous essay on photography. Eastlake, as Smith explains, relished Rembrandt’s painterly style, just as many others did in her time, and she prized the modernist approaches of Turner and Constable. She found such attributes in the calotypes of David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, which she strongly promoted and sought to model in her own work. And most interestingly, she resisted the speed and detail of the new collodion process, preferring a long exposure over the “wink of the sun.” In such a manner, the sitter could grow into the image, much as Walter Benjamin would later say of Hill and Adamson, while the print captured “the mystery of light” typical of Rembrandt’s work. Such aesthetics, Eastlake complained, had been sacrificed for a capacity to see too much in the new photographic processes.

Patrizia Di Bello in her chapter “‘Carlyle Like a Rough Block of Michael Angelo’s’: Thinking Photography through Sculpture in Julia Margaret Cameron’s Portraits” provides an excellent analysis of the equation that Cameron made of her photos with non-finito sculpture in which the input of the artist can be discerned and appreciated. But here it is not the hand and chisel, but the hand and machine, with lens manipulation itself understood as a manual activity. Di Bello sums up her argument nicely by explaining that “Cameron’s claim to Michelangelo is asking us to understand blurred and out-of-focus prints as the actions of posing and focusing made visible, and optical or chemical glitches as the non-finito of photographic materials” (117).

Sophie Gordon’s chapter “Art, Reproduction and Reportage: Roger Fenton’s Crimean Photographs” challenges us to look beyond the famous prints themselves and toward the larger sea of reproduced images that they spawned. To make her point, Gordon provides a thorough history and contextualization of Fenton’s Crimean work, the essay’s short length notwithstanding. What one learns are the various factors that brought him to the war and that made exhibitions of his photographs popular with audiences even as the conflict unfolded. But beyond such venues, his photos were used as the basis for other pictures that spread with acclaim through the UK, including as woodblock engravings in illustrated magazines and as studies for paintings, which may have formed the original reason for his commission. Gordon sums up her argument for the multi-media intention propelling his project by explaining that “With a greater willingness to see Fenton’s Crimean photographs not just as finished works, but also as interim studies which can undergo transformation through context and reproduction, we can develop more nuanced understandings within this remarkable group of photographs” (135). Beyond this important point, her chapter astutely proposes that as contemporary knowledge of the war reached readers in the news and elsewhere, viewers could fill in Fenton’s notoriously empty and static photographs with their own visualizations of what they had understood the war to be, making a case for types of imaginative projection not often associated with nineteenth-century photography.

The association of pictorialist photography with French impressionism has regularly struck historians as a given, even if a concrete linkage has been difficult to uncover. Yet in her chapter “Impressionism in Photography,” Hope Kingsley finds in George Davison an effusive praise for the movement, and she carefully explains its effect on his most famous picture An Old Farmstead (1890), also known at the time as The Onion Field. In a particularly interesting analysis, she also unpacks Peter Henry Emerson’s critique of Davison and the differences the former perceived between overall diffuseness in his rival’s work, and the more calculated differential focus that Emerson preferred over any pictorial reference to painterly impressionism.

In her chapter “‘The Poetical Talents of our Artists’: American Narrative Daguerreotypes,” Diane Waggoner uncovers the surprising genre of storytelling in a process that otherwise seemed to lack a tradition of narrative. As she notes, we have grown accustomed to thinking of Oscar Rejlander, Henry Peach Robinson, and Julia Margaret Cameron as masters of narrative, which became a key strategy in dislodging photography from its straightforwardly factual and functional associations. Yet in the early 1850s, US photographers had already begun to master storytelling in daguerreotype. There were so many producers of such images that Waggoner can even break them down into categories. There were even competitions for such daguerreotypes, complete with awards and favorable reviews in the press. But for all such good coverage and encouragement, the narrative daguerreotype never caught on as a sustained practice in the United States and faded quickly with the greater use of glass plates, which better met North American expectations for precision. Though short lived, as Waggoner explains, narrative daguerreotypes anticipate movements in photographic art that emerged in the next decade in the UK.

Coeditor Juliet Hacking’s chapter deals most directly with contemporary debates about photography as fine art. Titled “‘Radically Vicious’: Henry Peach Robinson, Alfred Henry Wall and the Critical Reception of Composition Photography, 1859–63,” it chronicles the heated—even vicious—debate over Robinson’s approach to composing his photographs through composite negative printing. We have generally understood these parleys as having come about by the shocking revelation of the photographer’s technique. While Hacking indeed finds shrill cries of pictorial deception, she also uncovers the political and class anxieties that fundamentally roiled this discourse. Alfred Hall, a photography critic of unstable economic means and class status, essentially felt compelled to defend petit-bourgeois values of self-culturing in his grievance-addled screeds that asserted photography as an inherently truthful and edifying medium, not to be diminished by Robinson’s deceptive path toward fine art. Though Robinson would continue to make his composite prints and even publish popular literature on pictorial effects in photography, Hall’s terms of debate went on to define art photography for decades to come.

By contrast Marta Weiss explores not the debates around fine art photography but its actual status in the institutions that collected it. Her chapter “From ‘Studies from Nature’ to ‘Studies for Painting’: Julia Margaret Cameron in the South Kensington Museum” reveals that photography maintained an exceedingly slippery classification in one of the country’s most energetic stockpilers of the medium’s prints. Cameron’s work, the chapter’s primary example, was collected on varying terms, sometimes for a picture’s value as a study for painters, at other times as a record of the famous sitter depicted, or both, thereby demonstrating the then “dual capacity of photography to record likeness and evoke the imaginary” (196). But they were rarely acquired as free-standing pieces of fine art. With the aid of Alfred Hall’s criticism, which makes another appearance in the volume, Weiss shows that photography’s status as art was still in flux and hard to pin down, with Cameron herself suggesting in a different exhibition that her images might serve useful study purposes for artists. Though Rosalind Krauss long ago admonished us not to evaluate photographs as art when their original purpose was entirely different, Weiss underscores that even in their own time, the value of such works remained surprisingly multivalent.

The book supports its studies with a reasonable number of well-chosen illustrations and a logical layout of chapters and sections that makes the reading easy. The only serious flaw in the publication is its exceedingly small typeface, which may require a good pair of reading glasses or even a loupe for readers who lack perfect vision. Strangely, the extended quotations feature larger and darker text, which would have been perfect for the book as a whole. Also on the production side, the first pages of this reviewer’s edition are already slipping out of their binding. The editors likely had little say in such matters. One might encourage Bloomsbury to make its publications more user friendly and long-lasting.

During the summer book launch, Douglas Nickel suggested that the editors and their contributors had tried to decouple art from aesthetics and thereby dismantle the reductive binary between functional and non-functional photography that has dominated, up until now, our histories of the medium in the nineteenth century. Many of the chapters indeed make this effort. But the volume as a whole shows how the category of art, freighted with multiple associations and taken quite seriously at the time, propelled the force of aesthetics in photography to shape meaning across multiple fields of knowledge. The arts, as well as politics, colonialism, class tensions, and gender issues, in addition to the more predictable inheritance of the painterly, sculptural, and print arts, all entered the weave of photography’s nineteenth-century fabric under the banner of ambitious photographic image making.