Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 27, 2007
Steve Edwards The Making of English Photography: Allegories University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006. 368 pp.; 114 b/w ills. Cloth $97.95 (9780271027134)
Joanne Lukitsh Julia Margaret Cameron London: Phaidon, 2006. 128 pp.; 56 b/w ills. Cloth $24.95 (071484618X)

The topic of photography presently affords an excellent case study in the changing styles, methods, and presumptions of art-historical practice. Once a new and marginal offshoot of a very traditional field, photography has become solidly entrenched within the new art histories, in part because the photographic medium lends itself so congenially to many contemporary theoretical preoccupations. At the same time, more traditional catalogues raisonnés, exhibition catalogues, and monographs devoted to the work of renowned photographers are being published. The history of photography is thus at a crossroad—or, rather, a fruitful zone of hybridity. Though occasionally productive of dialogic gaps between different communities of photographic art historians, this is a situation potentially affording richness and possibility. In this age, art-historical distinction and ambition can, and do, assume a wide range of very different forms.

The authors of the two books presently under review are both fine scholars and able practitioners of the differing modes of art history they represent. Pairing a picture book and a lengthy dense text is paradigmatically a case of comparing apples and oranges, but these books, interestingly, represent opposite poles of scholarship. One is intended primarily for a serious popular audience, while the other is addressed to a specialist group intimately versed in the primary sources and recent critical literature on the topic. One book is a portable compendium of images accompanied by a narrative historical introduction; the other is a lengthy, intricate critical text intermittently studded with small images. One concerns the familiar works of an ultracanonical photographer, while the other addresses a series of more involved topics largely through attention to the writings and work of little-known practitioners of the medium. Predictably, these books derive from distinctly dissimilar presumptions regarding the importance of Victorian photographic practice and what properly constitutes British photography of the 1860s.

Joanne Lukitsh’s Julia Margaret Cameron is the more modest of the two, though she has written elsewhere more expansively about Cameron, and contributed to the catalogue raisonné of Cameron’s work prepared by Julian Cox and Colin Ford. Her brief introduction to the present book confidently recounts the familiar outlines of Cameron’s life and her remarkable career as a photographer, though there are some minor shortcomings to the overall presentation. Lukitsh does not identify the collections from which reproduced images are drawn, nor are dimensions of the prints provided, which detracts slightly from what is otherwise a very useful volume. Possibly the publisher determined that such information was unnecessary given the format; this book isn’t primarily scholarly in tone, nor would one expect it to be, given its small scale, modest retail price, and emphasis on the pictorial rather than textual elements. It is essentially an overview of the portraits and genre scenes of one of the most celebrated figures in Victorian photography; indeed, the book’s opening sentence pronounces that “Julia Margaret Cameron is amongst the pre-eminent artistic photographers of the nineteenth century” (n.p.).

Steve Edwards’s The Making of English Photography, by contrast, is a set of complex arguments about the mid-Victorian emergence of professional (i.e., commercial) photography as an industry, without reference to the formation of the medium’s canon. Lukitsh’s approach insistently assumes the canonical status of its subject, and (implicitly) of the essential importance of such status, while The Making of English Photography follows the current trend of scholarship which prefers consideration of anonymous and obscure figures to engagement with the now-familiar names of major figures in the (fine-art) history of photography. Those few who do occupy substantial space in Edwards’s account are figures like H. P. Robinson whose mixed allegiances to art and commerce made him relevant to more than one narrative of the period, and whose work as a writer makes him crucial to any argument about the emergence of a body of photographic art theory in the period. Cameron is barely mentioned by Edwards, however, appearing primarily as a representative of precisely the sort of photographic practice that is not his subject. Overall, Edwards offers little discussion of the images which concern him, most of which are highly conventionalized cartes de visite that, in truth, do not invite lengthy readings. His discussion of the (often painted) backgrounds to such photographs finds him at his most attentive to pictorial particularity.

In Julia Margaret Cameron, Lukitsh’s vast knowledge of the subject is worn lightly, allowing her to execute this brief précis of Cameron’s career with grace. The book is a model of what such a basic introduction should be: elegantly written, lucid, well produced, affordable. Such picture books are the building blocks of art history, and arguably of more enduring use than even the most elaborate critical exegeses. It is admirably suited to the needs of both students and serious non-specialist readers. The volume includes a broad selection of images, from the most familiar classics of Cameron’s oeuvre, such as The Kiss of Peace (1869), The Whisper of the Muse (1865), Annie (1864), and the portrait of Sir John Herschel (1867), as well as less familiar images, including a portrait of her brooding adolescent son Henry Herschel Hay Cameron (1865), a Minstrel Group (1867), a penetrating portrait of the ravaged Philip Stanhope Worsley (ca. 1866) just prior to his death from consumption, and most uncharacteristically for Cameron, a fussily conventional depiction of May Prinsep Writing a Letter (1870). In addition to the essay and plates, there is a simple, helpful timeline. Lukitsh’s incontestable, if predictable, conclusion is that Cameron’s portraits are far more than merely expressive records of their subjects’ countenances, and certainly more than the industrially produced cartes de visite which form Edwards’s subject. As she says, Cameron’s “photographs aspire to the artistic canon of traditional painting and sculpture, joining these precedents to the fugitive shadows and multiple images of a new modern medium” (n.p.).

This is well established already, as few Victorian photographers, indeed few photographers of any period, have received as much critical attention as Julia Margaret Cameron has to date. Until recently, the field of the history of photography was so new that not every major photographer was the subject of a single book, but Helmut Gernsheim’s study of Cameron first appeared in 1948 (Julia Margaret Cameron: Her Life and Photographic Work, London: Fountain Press), and Cameron scholarship has subsequently accumulated at an accelerating rate, presently comprising a couple of dozen major works of wildly divergent emphasis, something of an embarrassment of riches. This increasing historical, interpretive density in the Cameron literature owes to a conflation of several different factors, resulting in her present multiply determined celebrity as an artist. The widespread tendency to perceive women’s creativity through the lens of biography disproportionately emphasizes artists whose lives involve tragedy and drama, especially if these take place in relation to other well-known artists (e.g., Artemisia Gentileschi, Frida Kahlo, Georgia O’Keeffe, Tina Modotti).

Cameron’s friendships with most of the mid-Victorian cultural elite, and kinship to the emergent Bloomsbury group in the next generation, abundantly qualify her for this type of regard, as do her many eccentricities of personality. The vivid, wholly original quality of Cameron’s images has lent itself to numerous approaches, from those rooted in gender studies, to earnest reconstructions of Christian allegory throughout her oeuvre, and biographical accounts emphasizing her place within the Victorian bourgeoisie and literati classes, to name but a few. Lukitsh’s book is a fine example of the “standard histories of photography” that Edwards seeks to overturn by addressing entirely different aspects of the medium. How is it that the field seeks to construct itself around opposition in this way? It is extraordinary how seldom we find any suggestion that we might profitably narrate histories that encompass both these approaches, or construct interpretive readings of images from both the cannon and other realms. Despite its inherently generous, varied, and interdisciplinary nature, art history nowadays seems to be plagued by presumptions that the questions it poses must be carefully controlled, and that it’s necessary for practitioners to choose a camp to join.

While Edwards is emphatic about how art history should be practiced, this is both a strength and a weakness of his complex, brilliant study, for which The Making of English Photography: Allegories is an oblique, fey, and even irritating title. His book demonstrates that he is erudite, occasionally witty, and possessed of a dazzlingly thorough grasp of both the minutia of commercial photographic practice and the myriad variations of contemporary theoretical approaches in cultural studies, a somewhat incongruous combination. Unlike “standard” histories that typically start from individual pictures made by distinguished artists, Edwards’s book is about photographic criticism, not photographs as such. The makers of those photographs that he does reproduce and discuss are virtually all obscure commercial photographers rather than canonical auteurs of the medium. Such attention to little-known figures accords comfortably with his emphasis upon critical writing rather than art and artists.

The Making of English Photography is based upon close readings of key nineteenth-century photographic journals, particularly The Photographic News, which was the most important of the numerous publications sponsored by the photographic associations of the day. Edwards’s vigorous attention to this extensive literature forms an invaluable contribution to art history’s grasp of the development of photography. Edwards points out that such journals from amateur photographic societies mostly served studio professionals in photography as readers, and thus form a “strange, hybrid literature” (4). His close readings of these texts represent a formidable accomplishment, given the frequently banal and repetitive writing—as he wryly puts it, no Baudelaire or Ruskin emerges from this body of criticism. Yet the pedestrian qualities of these texts in no way mitigate their significance in some contexts; Edwards treats these periodicals as “an archive” in the Foucauldian sense, and mines that archive thoroughly and inventively.

The core of the book’s argument lies in the associations Edwards draws from Marx’s description of the new industries that came about through mechanization—including photography in a list with telegraphy, railways, gas works, and steam navigation—and from the recognition that, in 1861, photography professionals decided to begin identifying themselves as artists. He does not claim that the book is a much-needed general social history of photography—for it is more narrow, eccentric, and specialized than that. Essentially, it explores the ways in which the values of photography are entwined with industrial production. He describes the medium as being “haunted” by how it is different from operating a machine, and ultimately concerns himself with photography’s “unease,” especially regarding its problematic status as art, or not. In addition to Marx, Foucault, and Hegel, Edwards draws inspiration from many other giants in the pantheon of contemporary theoreticians of visual culture.

His arguments grow from a fertile compost of premises, including those sources to be expected. These include Mikhail Bakhtin, Walter Benjamin, Siegfried Kracauer, Jürgen Habermas, Georg Lukacs, Roland Barthes, Norman Bryson, Rosalind Krauss, Michael Baxandall, Molly Nesbit, Allan Sekula, and Joel Snyder, among a good many others, whereas Anne McCauley’s groundbreaking studies of commercial portrait photography in France are mentioned but passingly in two footnotes. Indeed, the expansive footnotes to this volume are a pleasure and an education—of a very particular kind—to read, but they strongly confirm the sense of an art history written for fellow theorizers of the image, and in the service of the theory before that of the image or the story of its production. Edwards’s book is actuated by a strong desire to explore the significance of the previously nearly invisible reality of the workers in the emergent photography industry, and to understand this in relation to the confluence of that emergence with the simultaneous mobilization of many photographic practitioners to claim for themselves the status and privileges of fine artists. In so doing, Edwards assumes that industrial photography is what matters, just as insistently as, say, the Metropolitan Museum of Art assumes that the pinnacles of artistic achievement are what matters.

Despite the rich complexity of argument within this volume, it remains obscure how Edwards defines the English photography of the title and why commercial photographic practice should be emphasized as if that is all there is. Much of the discussion seems almost myopic in its erudition, like a conversation that has been going on for years among a small coterie of like-minded thinkers. This raises the question of the audience for which the book is intended. It is hard to imagine this book attracting readers previously unfamiliar with the subject—it is both exhausting and exhaustive in its approach, and probably best suited to graduate students working on related topics.

For Lukitsh, whose concern is one marvelous artist and her photographic images, the conclusion reached is that Cameron joined the precedents of fine art “to the fugitive shadows and multiple images of a new, modern medium” (n.p.). While Lukitsh asserts this as a logical stopping place for consideration, for Edwards these problems of the unfixed place of the new modern medium of photography are the starting point for a book-length argument. Lukitsh’s voice is conventionally impersonal, as is traditional in scholarship, and she speaks so as to clarify and illuminate a large and complex subject. Edwards’s voice, on the contrary, is idiosyncratic and personal. This has its charm, but can verge upon the absurd, as when he confides that “I intend . . . to insist upon photography’s strangeness and confusion. I do not understand photography” (17). The Making of English Photography is a very long, densely argued, impressive book to have been written by someone who “doesn’t understand” its topic. And I do not believe for a moment that Edwards really does not think he understands. Ultimately, it is a book that prefers to complicate than to simplify, and as such, one that is as apt an index to the thought of our time as of the 1860s.

Ellen Handy
Associate Professor, Art Department, City College of New York, City University of New York