Special Session for 2014 MLA: The Victorian Photographic Imaginary

448. The Victorian Photographic Imaginary

Saturday, 11 January, 2014

8:30–9:45 a.m.

A special session

Presiding: Daniel Akiva Novak, Louisiana State Univ., Baton Rouge

Speakers: Sigrid Anderson Cordell, Univ. of Michigan, Ann Arbor; Ryan Fong, Kalamazoo Coll.; Jesse Hoffman, Rutgers Univ., New Brunswick; Carla Manfredi, Queen’s Univ.; Garrett Peck, Univ. of British Columbia

This roundtable provides an important opportunity to consider the interdisciplinary relationship between British Victorian literature and photography by asking how literary form shapes and responds to technological developments in the period. We examine this relationship in a variety of genre such as scientific treatises, poems, novels, travel narratives, and periodicals. Previous scholarship often asks how Victorian writers assimilate and resist photography for their own artistic purposes. In this context, the medium has been explored by scholars such as Nancy Armstrong, Jennifer Green-Lewis, Carol Armstrong, Carol Mavor, Lindsay Smith, Helen Groth, Kate Flint, and Daniel Novak. Among these notable studies, Geoffrey Batchen and Jennifer Tucker have pointed out the influential and often-subtle role photography plays in the artistic, scientific, and political discourses of the Nineteenth Century. We build on previous scholarship by exploring new texts and theories in this developing field. Our roundtable presents recently discovered archival evidence and pairs these objects with the ongoing conversation about how Victorians understood this new medium that radically transforms their visual culture. Moreover, our discussion appraises how this work relates to the much broader context of the history of photography. For this reason, our panel will appeal to both specialists and scholars in other fields interested in how literature can further our understanding of media in a range of periods, settings, and cultures.

Five panelists will give 10-minute papers with visual aids. Following the presentations, the panelists will have 5-10 minutes to address each other. The session will conclude with at least 15 minutes of open discussion.

Garrett Peck begins the conversation with John Pringle Nichol’s 1850 astronomy text, Architecture of the Heavens, to show how scientific knowledge becomes available to a broader Victorian public with the use of photographic evidence. Nichol advocates for the nebular hypothesis that claims the universe originates in condensed clouds of stellar dust. His readers are shown photographs of star formations that bolster these claims. For this reason, Peck argues that Nichol constructs these readers as “virtual witnesses” even though they are not in a position to evaluate the scientific basis of the hypothesis. Nonetheless, the readers’ ability to view the photographic evidence makes them important collaborators in the public reception of the nebular hypothesis. Peck shows how the Architecture of the Heavens exploits photography’s apparent objectivity to resolve scientific controversies by appealing to the popular imagination.

Jesse Hoffman explores the literary implications of the photographic imaginary by looking at Alfred Lord Tennyson’s reception of an obscure and forgotten theory of the medium. Tennyson’s famous poem, “Tithonus,” complements the scientific theory of his contemporary, John William Draper, who claims all photography is the effect of “tithonicity,” meaning how light creates images. Tithonic rays are refuted by Draper’s scientific colleagues for lack of evidence because Draper seizes on an interrelation between science and aesthetics that defines photography in terms of loss. In “Tithonus,” Tennyson fantasizes about the elegiac possibilities offered by visual technologies such as photography, but the poet’s early experiments with technological metaphors in the poem struggle with the perverse consequences for summoning an image that should remain lost. In an attempt to reverse Draper’s metaphor, Tennyson’s later poem, In Memoriam, imagines a technology that must remain latent and in development to avoid the tithonic effects of photography. Hoffman’s work exposes the anxieties often present among Victorian artists who desire and fear this powerful new medium.

Ryan Fong claims that Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous villain, Mr. Hyde, has emerged in his visual and cinematic afterlives as a figure for photography. To support this argument, Fong looks at Francis Galton’s model of the composite photograph as a heuristic device to explain how Hyde’s obscure and elusive body has been invested with specific historical and cultural meaning. The original novel’s refusal to present a fully embodied Hyde structures his ability to serve as an open site for cultural projection. By denying Hyde a recognizable body, the novel invites its readers to fill this monstrous vacancy with imagined content. Galton’s composite photographs of criminal physiognomy exemplify Victorian attempts to invest corporeal surfaces with meaning that reveals character and identity. Fong takes Galton’s visual typology and applies it to Hyde’s monstrosity to show that when textual and contextual evidence is “composited” to produce the character, Stevenson’s novel exposes the reader’s own composition.

Further elaborating on R.L. Stevenson’s relationship with photography, Carla Manfredi presents an archive of the writer’s photographs taken with his stepson, Lloyd Osbourne, from their travels across the South Pacific. Hundreds of photographs were intended as accompaniments to Stevenson’s photo-literary project called The South Seas: an ambitiously authoritative and all-encompassing academic work on the civilizations and cultures of the region. Although the project was abandoned, a photographic record remains. Manfredi stresses the close relationship between Stevenson’s photographs and his nonfiction by focusing on the photographic representation of a dance competition on the Gilbert Islands. While a written record of this event survives, these photographs foreground Stevenson’s particular method of proto- anthropological observation, namely the emphasis on photographic re-enactment and the experiential cross-cultural encounter in the Pacific. Manfredi argues for a clear relationship between photography and literature in Stevenson’s work that she puts in dialogue with Fong’s interest in the composite photograph.

Sigrid Cordell turns our focus to Victorian photography’s instrumental role in the construction of empire. The debut issue of George Newnes’s Wide World Magazine: An Illustrated Monthly of True Narrative begins by announcing that there will “be no fiction in the magazine” and that its stories of “weird adventure” will be backed up by “actual photographs.” However, despite its truth claims, the magazine’s highly selective use of photographic evidence blurs the line between credibility and sensation, objectivity and cultural fantasy. Cordell argues that late-Victorian popular periodicals like the Wide World make visible how photographic evidence imaginatively heightened British fears about their colonial subjects. Building on Newnes’s publication, Cordell’s presentation explores the elision of fact and fiction in Victorian visual and print culture through a discussion of the texts and photographic paratexts of sensationalized colonial adventure narratives in the popular press.