In 1899, Peter Henry Emerson recounted a discussion between the sculptor, J. Harvard Thomas and the physiologist Dr W.B. Carpenter. The conversation centred upon a topographical photograph of Fingal's Cave, according to Emerson, 'probably one of Mr Valentine's justly world-famed views'(80).
Carpenter begins by discoursing on the scientific merits of the photograph - its representation of geological formations, patterns of tidal erosion and so forth. These are rendered with precision by the sharp technology associated with both scientific and popular photography; the resultant form of which Emerson regards as topography. Topography, for Emerson, is a representation of 'bald facts', such as those he has Carpenter recounting. Topography is appropriate to science but not to art. But there is a way in which topography defuses, and finally escapes the setting to which Emerson consigns it. The conversation continues:
'I have stood just there', said Dr. Carpenter, pointing to a particular column of basalt, 'and seen the tide go sweeping past me. Oh yes; I like the old place apart from its scientific interest; it gave me a wonderful pleasure to be out there inhaling the sea breezes after hard work in my study'.
'But it is not a picture', hazarded Mr. Thomas. 'That may be', said Dr. Carpenter, 'I know nothing of that, but the photograph gives me great pleasure'. (80-81)
It seems that the banality of the photograph somehow resists artistic interpretation; hence, it is 'not a picture'. Emerson has already classified Valentine's representation as a view, but as a view, not a picture, Fingal's Cave gives Carpenter 'great pleasure' (see Rosalind Krauss for a discussion of topography and the view).
Emerson, whose photography was thoroughly structured by the physiological research described by Jonathan Crary, proceeds to explain Carpenter's pleasurable response via the mechanisms of the sensory system. According to Emerson, the photograph recharges nervous tissues which have already been excited in a pleasurable way by a primary experience of the scene in nature. The original experience is revived by a representation of that location. In this way, says Emerson, 'desires are begotten; the chief psychological factor in the origin of desire being our power of faintly reviving images of past experience'. It is a type of recollection which stimulates, rather than fulfils desire, for recollection is 'always necessarily fainter and vaguer in outline than the original vivid impressions' (81). Emerson now projects his theory as an explanation of popular tastes in photography: 'This knowledge gives us the key to the mental attitude of the uncultured picture buyer. If it is not the sentimentalism of the picture that catches him, it is its topographical interest that finally decides his purchase'(82).
'Tell me what pictures or books or music a man honestly delights in, and I will tell you that man's artistic nature, uncultured and underdeveloped though it may be' (87), preached Emerson on the closing page of Naturalistic Photography. He had prefaced his remarks by describing his own honest 'thrill of glow over a Carot or a Rembrandt'. How, then, did Emerson judge Carpenter's artistic nature, after so succinctly describing the latter's 'thrill of glow' at an artifact produced at the rate of 3000 per day? The picture that was 'not a picture' moved Carpenter no less than Emerson's Carot or Rembrandt.
Photographs such as the one which Carpenter mused over were, for Emerson, all too frequently produced by 'pretentious operators who regard themselves as artists'; or else by people like Valentine, whose company bore an auteur's name but whose imagery had ceased to be the work of any single photographer. 'Mr Valentine' was amongst those who 'lay no claim whatever to any artistic merit in their productions' (86). Physiology had led Emerson to an aesthetic theory remarkably similar to that which Crary has for Arthur Schopenhauer (70-85). The subject's aesthetic sensibilities were differentiated from those of other subjects according to the particulars of their physiological mechanisms - it was this which separated the artist from the operator. And while Emerson's gifted reader might well appreciate a work of art, this was no guarantee that he or she could produce it. Production was the prerogative of the artist, and the artist was the top timber of his physiological tree. But what Emerson's argument couldn't accommodate was the possibility that the artistry of the photographic view was with the reader of the artifact - the reader was the artist. What Carpenter had done was stand in the space of the artist, from whence he had seen 'the tide go sweeping past'.
Whereas Emerson could, and did, inform his students of the number of nerve vibrations per second required to produce the sensation of light, we must turn to one of his contemporaries, Henry Baden Pritchard, for a sophisticated understanding of the glossy albumen cabinet of Fingal's Cave. We find Pritchard at the studio of Francis Bedford, where he shares his impressions of a veritable album of photographs discovered afloat in the wash tank.
Here is a trough a dozen feet long, in which many hundreds of pictures of English scenery are washing, the moving water bringing them into view one after another. The prints are small, none larger than whole plate size, and many of them for the stereoscope; but they are all alike in this: they are sharp and vivid, but so soft and delicate, withal, that they look like exquisite engravings. 'There is Exeter Cathedral', we say, 'and that is the Valley of Rocks, and that is Lynmouth, with its big rocks and wave beaten wall; what a charming coast picture'! (10)
What work of art could have elicited such a glowing response as this? The photographs are 'soft and delicate', yet 'sharp and vivid'. They are pictures, and yet each particular photograph uncompromisingly is Exeter Cathedral, or is the Valley of the Rocks. They are both art and document, both intervention and reflection, they belong to both the domain of ritual and that of the real. They are mass-reproduced photographs.
Rather than regard industrialisation as a menace to traditional, romanticised cultural structures, in the way of Henry Peach Robinson, Pritchard was fascinated by its possibilities. At Bedford's studio 'many hundreds' of photographs were being processed, and Pritchard's book details the techniques and apparatuses of mass-production. At Messrs A. & G. Taylor of Forest Hill he found a studio that
was like the lower deck of a ship - dark and vague, and with wooden machinery on every hand, the active ship's crew going about its work quickly but quietly; and yet not so much like the 'tween decks as a carpenter's room beneath a theatre, where there are all sorts of beams and sides and moveable frames to be seen. (37)
Studios such as this supplied the public with an increasing flow of "stereotypical" imagery; at first on the faces of cartes and cabinets, then on picture postcards and in coffee table books. The repetitious encounter with such photographic texts as St Paul's Cathedral, the Houses of Parliament or Lynmouth on Sea seems to be contrary to that communion with nature which Emerson found through the artwork. And yet the sheer persistence of these stereo-types suggests some sort of readerly engagement with them. This cannot be wholly of the order of Emerson's "recollection", for such a theory cannot explain the actions of those many readers whose primary visual experience is with the representation itself, rather than with a problematic referent in nature.
And so to William Routt, whose reference to photography is confined to a single footnote. But one relevance of Routt's "Entertainment" is in its alternative explanation of the 'the mental attitude of the uncultured picture buyer' to that provided by Emerson. Routt's course of investigation leads us, not to Pritchard's 'carpenter's room beneath a theatre' but to a box in the first tier. It is here, by courtesy of an encounter with James Brown, that we find Kierkegaard's hero Constantine Constantious. Constantine is himself in flight from an unsuccessful adventure with recollection, and it is from his experiences that Routt extrapolates a theory of repetition which might enlighten an investigation of popular photographic imagery and its producers. In any event, as Routt puts it, 'I am entitled, if only in accordance with the right of misreading, to spin some gold from it if I can'.
Crary, Jonathan. Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge: MIT, 1990.
Emerson, Peter Henry. "Topography and Art". In Emerson. Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art and the Death of Naturalistic Photography. 1899; rpt, New York: Arno Press, 1973. Appendix B 80-87.
Krauss, Rosalind, E. "Photography's Discursive Spaces". In Krauss. The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths. Cambridge: MIT. 131-150.
Pritchard, Henry Baden. The Photographic Studios of Europe. London, 1882; rpt. New York: Arno Press, 1973.
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