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The Camera and the Press

Through a wide-ranging examination of antebellum images and literature, The Camera and the Press shows how Americans' first encounter with photography was more textual than visual. This thoroughly illustrated case study reexamines current theories on new media and reconnects print and visual culture in nineteenth-century America.

The Camera and the Press
American Visual and Print Culture in the Age of the Daguerreotype

Marcy J. Dinius

2012 | 320 pages | Cloth $59.95
Literature / Cultural Studies / American History / Photography
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Table of Contents

Chapter 1. The Daguerreotype in Antebellum American Popular Print
Chapter 2. Daguerreian Romanticism: The House of the Seven Gables and Gabriel Harrison's Portraits
Chapter 3. "Some ideal image of the man and his mind": Melville's Pierre and Southworth & Hawes's Daguerreian Aesthetic
Chapter 4. Slavery in Black and White: Daguerreotypy and Uncle Tom's Cabin
Chapter 5. "My daguerreotype shall be a true one": Augustus Washington and the Liberian Colonization Movement
Chapter 6. Seeing a Slave as a Man: Frederick Douglass, Racial Progress, and Daguerreian Portraiture
Epilogue. "An Old Daguerreotype"


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


In March 1839, Samuel F. B. Morse wrote to Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre with an irresistible proposition: I'll show you my telegraph if you show me your daguerreotypes. Morse was traveling in Europe to secure patents for and promote his recent invention when Daguerre's new image-making process was announced in Paris. An accomplished painter as well as an inventor who had experimented unsuccessfully with photochemical imaging in the early 1820s, Morse was especially eager to examine his fellow artist-inventor's images firsthand and before they were made public. He exploited not only his and Daguerre's common pursuits but also the ancient correlation of word and image to establish an instant intimacy between the men and their machines. He wrote about what he saw in a letter to his brother-editor Sidney E. Morse, who published an extract from the letter in the New-York Observer on April 20. The extract begins by proclaiming the daguerreotype "one of the most beautiful discoveries of the age" and concludes by boldly predicting that the medium will achieve "perfect representations of the human countenance" and "reveal the secrets of 'microscopic nature.'"

Photography began as daguerreotypy, yet daguerreotypy is both like and unlike subsequent forms of photography. When we look at a daguerreian image, we recognize it as a photograph for the way that it captures a moment in space and time in fine detail through the exposure of photosensitized materials to light and chemicals rather than through the marks of an artist's brush or an engraver's burin. But if we look more closely, the incomparable sharpness of this type of photographic image becomes visible, even more so with a magnifying glass; to achieve such resolution using modern digital imaging technology would require a camera capable of a staggering 140,000 megapixel resolution. When viewed firsthand, the polished silver surface of the daguerreian image plate further distinguishes it from all other kinds of photography. Because this mirror-like surface both holds the image and reflects back the viewer in the act of looking at it, a daguerreotype is viewable only in raking light; its image reverses from positive to negative and seems to disappear altogether until the viewer finds the right angle. Finally, unlike the mass reproducible images of negative-to-positive and digital photographic processes, each daguerreotype is a unique direct-positive image, laterally reversed from the original orientation of its subject. Multiples could be made only by daguerreotyping an original daguerreotype or by using a camera with more than one lens to record simultaneous, but slightly different, exposures of the same subject. For all of these reasons, photographic reproductions of daguerreotypes, including those in this book, cannot do them justice—a material fact that is easy to overlook in our tendency to focus on the image instead of the medium.

As these details only begin to suggest, daguerreotypes are extraordinarily complex images and objects. In my effort to come to terms with this complexity and its cultural implications, The Camera and the Press focuses on daguerreotypy where it was experienced, practiced, and written about most extensively—in the antebellum United States. A good deal of important work has been done on the daguerreotype in America; Robert Taft, Richard Rudisill, Beaumont Newhall, Alan Trachtenberg, John Wood, and Susan S. Williams, among others, have taken on its aesthetic and cultural significance in the antebellum period. The Camera and the Press distinguishes itself from these works by building its arguments on another crucial, but neglected material fact: that America's initial encounter with daguerreotypy was textual rather than visual. Before most people ever saw an actual daguerreotype, they encountered this new imaging medium through written descriptions like Morse's that were published and rapidly reprinted throughout the country. I contend that we have lost sight of this mediation and its significance to how we see photography even today because popular discourse about photography has conditioned us to think about the medium as unmediated since 1839.

The Camera and the Press focuses on the extensive print record of the daguerreotype's introduction and incorporation into antebellum American culture so that we are able to see this idea of photography as an unmediated form of representation under construction from the beginning. Looking closely at the scaffolding of what has become almost an instinctive way of seeing photography allows us to understand this way of seeing as a human artifact rather than as a natural process or a technological effect. Here I have in mind Michael Warner's important warning against granting technology "an ontological status prior to culture": he reminds us "that the practices of technology . . . are always structured, and that their meaningful structure is the dimension of culture." Recognizing language's role in structuring the practice of photography makes the two cultures—print and visual—visible as one. Because of our own disciplinary divisions—themselves products of the nineteenth century—we have tended to consider print and visual culture separately, comparatively, or even competitively. The Camera and the Press insists on their inextricability, complicating our ideas about not only early photography and print at the beginning of their mass dissemination but also, and necessarily, about nineteenth-century culture more broadly.

The first reports of a remarkable discovery in France appeared in French and British newspapers in early 1839. These reports were quickly reprinted by New York and Boston editors keeping up on the latest news from abroad. In turn, editors of newspapers published in smaller American cities reprinted these reprints, thus making the introduction of photography in the United States entirely imported, textual, and mediated to an extent that literary, art historical, and new media scholarship all have yet to examine. This mediation continued as the first Americans to view Daguerre's images, including Morse, published their impressions of them for curious readers who could not encounter the French images otherwise. It also extended to the production of the first daguerreotypes made in the United States: using translated manuals and summaries published in periodicals, American inventors, artists, and casual experimenters quickly learned Daguerre's complicated process and began working to improve upon it. Newly established trade publications featured news of the latest innovations, including techniques for shortening exposure times, enhancing and permanently fixing the image on the plate, and posing sitters to ensure their satisfaction with their portraits. And in popular periodicals, potential sitters encountered the process even before entering the studio by reading short stories that dramatized the daguerreian portrait's fidelity in capturing its subject's inner character as well as his or her appearance. Newspapers and magazines also commonly included essays that celebrated the daguerreotype as advancing American values, praising it as the first democratic form of portraiture because it could be made so much more cheaply and quickly than a painting.

As this last observation suggests, recognizing the inextricability of print and visual culture in the daguerreian age introduces visual culture into conversations about the expansion of capitalism and nationalism and about the public sphere in the United States that have been dominated by print. The Camera and the Press examines how writings about daguerreotypy, the industrialized manufacture of daguerreotypes and supplies to the trade, and actual daguerreian images all effectively "Americanized" the imported daguerreotype and used daguerreotypy to advance a national self-image based on principles of progress, industry, and democracy. The chapters that follow also introduce and consider several daguerreotypes and writings about daguerreotypy that contradict this self-image by capturing the realities of slavery, gender difference, and economic inequality in antebellum America. Thus The Camera and the Press necessarily widens its view from print and visual culture to analyze how popular discussions about daguerreotypy permeated and influenced social and political discourse in the antebellum United States. I argue that many Americans used the opportunity of coming to terms with the daguerreotype to work out their feelings, ideas, and beliefs about themselves and other people, history and progress, and time and place. Alan Liu has "hypothesized that all major changes in the sociocultural order are channeled symbolically and/or instrumentally through narratives of media change" and observes that such narratives "are thus less objective accounts than speculative bargaining positions." For such narratives about daguerreotypy, The Camera and the Press looks to print, where we see a range of writers making claims about its mechanical objectivity and naturalness to negotiate such vexing political issues as nationalism, democracy, slavery, and civil rights. Daguerreotypy also comes into focus amid aesthetic concerns about what counts as art, what traits an artist should possess, and the relationship of the arts to each other and to science, as philosophers and practitioners publish revised or new theories about the arts. At the same time, the purported self-creation and self-evidence of the daguerreotype reanimates and mediates scientific and philosophical attempts to define objectivity, subjectivity, humanity, and reality in treatises written for specialists and circulating more widely. I examine through a series of case studies this interpenetration of public and professional discourses by discussions of daguerreotypy conducted in popular print, arguing that descriptions of and narratives about the medium offered a range of writers a different set of terms for engaging with new and old ideas and problems. In some cases, as we will see, this new medium and vocabulary opened up new ways of thinking; in others, they were invoked to defend old and obdurate habits of mind.

Like the history of photography in America, The Camera and the Press begins with writings about daguerreotypy before bringing specific daguerreian images into view. Liu has proposed that we understand such "narratives of new media encounter" as "the elementary form of media theory—the place from which all meta-discourse about media starts" (5). The archive of writings about daguerreotypy assembled here from a diverse array of antebellum American print publications thus becomes the starting point for all subsequent theorizations of photography. Yet neither the structure of the book nor its analysis of more written texts than of daguerreotypes should be understood to privilege the former over the latter. Similarly, it is worth noting that the close reading of both texts and images in this book is a means to an end rather than an end in itself. And the end that I have in sight is better understanding the cycle of mediation and influence between print and daguerreotypy so that we see their relationship as mutual, not hierarchical.

The case study and close reading are, of course, the dominant methodologies in literary analysis; they have been embraced as well by art history. Yet I adopt each deliberately rather than habitually because of their adaptability and suitability to a multidisciplinary inquiry that is as interested in the big picture as it is in the small. Lisa Gitelman points out in her important study of media as historical subjects that "[t]he advantage of offering finely grained case studies is that it allows . . . complexities to emerge." Her metaphor, when taken literally, is especially relevant to the case of daguerreotypy: powerful modern imaging technology now allows us to see that the unrivaled degree of detail possible in daguerreian images is the result of fine grains of silver concentrating in different amounts with their exposure to chemicals and light. In taking such a molecular-level view of either a daguerreotype or a text, we inevitably lose sight of even the small picture (the specific daguerreotype or text) until we pull back to a wider view. But we necessarily make different sense of both the small and the bigger contextual picture once we have had such a close look at their component parts. There are limitations to both micro- and macroscopic seeing and their synthesis, of course, but keeping this in mind serves as a reminder that all interpretation is, itself, a form of representation.

My literalization of Gitelman's metaphor also returns us to daguerreotypy's distinguishing material properties and reminds us amid all of these descriptions of daguerreotypy that there are important reasons for seeing the daguerreotype as both an image and an object—as part of material culture—and not just as a product of its mediation through language. The Camera and the Press contends that the materiality of daguerreotypy matters in several ways. As Elizabeth Edwards and Janice Hart explain, "Materiality translates the abstract and representational 'photography' into 'photographs' as objects that exist in time and space." More specifically, I want to call our attention to how the simultaneously haptic and optic experience of holding and looking at an actual daguerreotype shortens the distance between past and present—and, in a daguerreian portrait, between self and other—as we register that a nineteenth-century viewer would have held and moved the very object in our hand in the same way that we must to view its image. Recognizing one's own image reflected back on the surface that holds the image—actually seeing oneself in another's portrait—allows for a moment of visual identification that has the potential to activate an imaginative identification with someone who might appear so distant and different at first glance or in another medium. This experience reminds us as well that this mirror has held other faces; seeing oneself both in the image of the daguerreotype's subject and in the act of seeing makes it easier to imagine nineteenth-century viewers doing the same.

Unless you happen to have a daguerreotype on hand or remember seeing one for yourself, you will have to take me at my word; the photographic reproductions of daguerreotypes that appear in this book cannot reproduce these material effects. Yet there is something to this mediation: your experience of reading my description of what a daguerreotype looks like and my claims about how looking at and holding a daguerreotype might affect the imagination structurally resemble the experience of an antebellum American reader who first encountered daguerreotypy through newspapers, magazines, poetry, and novels. I encourage you to seek out an actual daguerreotype as you read or after you have finished; encountering one is an untranslatable multisensory experience. Seeing and holding an actual daguerreotype also would provide a different sense of the ways in which being introduced to daguerreotypy by reading about it before seeing it inflects the experience of viewing a daguerreotype and of how this experience, in turn, shapes subsequent textual encounters with not only daguerreotypes but also characters, places, and moments in time that are figuratively daguerreotyped. With these suggestions I do not mean to privilege seeing over reading but rather to point up the range of experiential and imaginative possibilities for thinking about issues of reception and experience, and not just production, in the daguerreian age and in our own.

The chapters that follow examine how a range of American writers contributed to popular, professional, and political conversations about daguerreotypy; established, then borrowed on, its representational capacities; and engaged with its materiality. Some of the texts I examine describe these new images and objects for curious readers who could not encounter them otherwise and train potential daguerreian subjects on how and how not to behave in front of the camera. Others take daguerreotypy as an occasion to debate the importance of imitation versus imagination in art and use this new form of representation to reconsider age-old philosophical questions. And some seize on the possibility of an imagined identification between the viewing subject and the subject of the daguerreian image and attempt to approximate these material effects through fictional and figurative daguerreotypes as part of efforts to end slavery, to transform a colony into a country, and to establish the black race's humanity.

As I have suggested, as part of my analysis of these images and texts, I consider how different types of nineteenth-century Americans might have viewed and read them. I do so in the interest of understanding how their range of experiences—or at least writers' and daguerreotypists' ideas about these experiences—shaped the production of texts and images and to argue that production and consumption are as inextricable and mutually mediating as word and image. I also try to imagine how these experiences may have opened up other ways of experiencing the world, from understanding time and history differently and reading novels in new ways to empathizing with the suffering of slaves and recognizing blacks as human beings. Of course, it is always more difficult to recover ephemeral experiences than solid objects. And as the best of book and art history and material culture studies teaches us, we necessarily experience such objects differently than people did in the past. In the chapters that follow, I look for written representations of different kinds of experience and incorporate what I have learned from my own firsthand interactions with some of the daguerreotypes that I discuss with attention to the layers of mediation inherent in both approaches. Once again, keeping mediation in the foreground places experience within the realm of representation as well and subjects it to analysis as such.

Chapter 1 begins with the first reports about the invention of daguerreotypy that were reprinted from abroad in American newspapers and magazines. It examines how their French and British authors set about making this new imaging process knowable in terms of old ones, using a strategy of analogy that Gitelman argues is typical of responses to any "new" medium. These reports and their American equivalents analogize the daguerreian image with that reflected in a mirror and with paintings, drawings made with a camera obscura, and engravings. As happens with any analogy, the daguerreotype emerges as both like and unlike the things to which it is compared. In the case of daguerreotypy, I argue, its simultaneous likeness and unlikeness to existing art forms proves significant well beyond these first attempts to understand its appearance and potential uses. As we will see, two competing ways of thinking about daguerreotypy emerge from this contradiction. One contends that the fine granular detail of the daguerreian image should be understood as the result of natural rather than human agency and, thus, as mechanically objective and accurate. The other asserts that the material characteristics of the medium—the fine detail, the reflectivity, and the flicker of the image between positive and negative in different angles of light—produce seemingly supernatural visual effects and require significant skill in the daguerreotypist to manage. I contend that these competing ideas of daguerreotypy—developed and held in productive tension in the popular periodical texts that are the focus of Chapter 1—make the daguerreotype available to be put to the aesthetic and political ends that Chapters 2 through 6 explore.

Chapter 2 follows daguerreotypy's textual history in America into the most explicit and extended engagement with daguerreotypy in American literature: Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables. I argue that Hawthorne borrows on popular descriptions of daguerreotypy's material characteristics not only to define romance but also to transform one of his romance's chapters into a narrative approximation of a daguerreotype. He does so, I contend, to defend the place of the imaginative in artistic creation against the encroachment of the idea of scientific objectivity on aesthetic standards. In Hawthorne's romantic view, to remove the artist's imagination from any form of art, including daguerreotypy, is to destroy art, not to perfect it. Similarly—and in the same moment that the reading public is introduced to Hawthorne's fictional daguerreotypist Holgrave—the real-life daguerreotypist Gabriel Harrison defies the popular idea that his medium's fidelity to reality and ability to freeze time are its most significant artistic accomplishments. His daguerreotypes, as well as his romantic writings about his work as a daguerreotypist, depict ideals and unfold fantastic stories. Both Hawthorne's and Harrison's aesthetic experiments, I contend, make a space for artistic imagination in the daguerreian age. In doing so, their words and images expose the idea of objectivity itself as a product of the imagination.

Chapter 3 turns to even more anxious responses to the gaining influence of scientifically inflected conversations about image making on ideas of art and the artist. I read Herman Melville's novel Pierre as a complicated objection to the emerging idea that art and science should be working together toward realizing less subjective forms of representation like the daguerreotype. The chapter situates the novel's ideas about what counts as art within the context of classical and eighteenth-century aesthetic theory and nineteenth-century conversations about scientific objectivity, recognizing for the first time their influence on the novel's previously misunderstood philosophy of artistic creation. Specifically, I argue that Melville traces the idea that the sun is the ultimate source of truth from nineteenth-century conversations about daguerreotypy back to Plato and uses Pierre to dramatize the artistic, philosophical, and individual consequences of fleeing the cave and committing to Truth as the ultimate aim of art. The chapter also reads Pierre in the light of several contemporary and insistently aestheticized portraits by the self-designated daguerreian "artists" Albert S. Southworth and Josiah Hawes. These images bring an important visual, and specifically daguerreian, dimension to the chapter's consideration of daguerreotypy's influence on aesthetic theory and practice during the rise of positivism and mechanical objectivity. Like Gabriel Harrison, Southworth and Hawes defied popular expectations of their medium, creating portraits that were more expressive than the mechanical likenesses produced by most daguerreotypists. But like Melville, they paid a professional price for their contrarian aesthetic, finding more critical recognition than popular success.

Chapter 4 turns the book's focus to writers who recognized the political ends to which ideas about daguerreotypy's mechanical objectivity and its unique material qualities could be put, particularly with respect to the issues of race and slavery. As Alan Liu has observed, the "life story of the new media encounter plays out in the key registers of human significance," including "[r]acial, gender, class, age, and other social relations" (7-8). I argue that Harriet Beecher Stowe strategically deploys daguerreotypy in Uncle Tom's Cabin as both a rhetorical and material figuration to create a more affectively and politically powerful representation of slavery and its consequences. To ensure that readers see Tom, recognize themselves in his image, and, thus, feel for him and act on his behalf, the novel "must daguerreotype" him for its readers. The narrative also daguerreotypes its angelic heroine, Eva, so that her example in life and death as an abolitionist will move readers to form themselves and their actions in her image. By borrowing from written descriptions of daguerreotypy that promote its mechanical objectivity and, thus, its fidelity to a verifiable reality, Stowe's novel suggests that its most important fictional characters are real and like them; this "real presence" and likeness, in turn, will inspire readers to take real actions to end slavery. A new reading of the novel's proposed solutions to the problem of slavery leads to Chapter 5, which follows Uncle Tom's Cabin's remaining black characters and the Hartford daguerreotypist Augustus Washington to Liberia. A committed abolitionist and colonizationist, Washington wrote a series of essays and letters condemning slavery and promoting black immigration to Africa. After emigrating himself in 1853, Washington daguerreotyped members of the first Liberian government. I use Washington's understudied writings and portraits to consider the role of daguerreotypy and popular writings about the medium in "realizing" Liberia as a viable, if problematic, alternative to racial integration. Taking seriously both Stowe's and Washington's arguments in support of colonization realizes a more nuanced, if complicated, picture of the range of political positions on slavery, race relations, and citizenship that were available to both blacks and whites in public culture, fiction, and early photography.

Chapter 6 focuses on Frederick Douglass's writings about the representational virtues of the daguerreotype, with particular attention to his politicization of popular writing about the medium that stressed its mechanical objectivity and inspired public faith in daguerreotypy's representational authority. In his newspaper writings and public lectures, Douglass seizes on other writers' representations of the daguerreotype as a "natural" and impartial imaging process, recognizing the medium's potential to contradict willful misrepresentations of blacks in images drawn by racist artists' hands. Like Stowe, he also borrows on its mirror-like quality for its potential to bridge the distance between self and other by effecting their recognizable likeness as subjects on the surface of the image plate. In a daguerreian portrait, as Douglass sees it and wants others to see it, the slave becomes a man. To weigh this claim, the chapter looks closely at a rarely discussed daguerreian portrait of Douglass in profile for its resemblance to and differences from other daguerreotypes of Douglass, illustrations in the major ethnological texts of the day, and the infamous "anthropological" daguerreotypes of several slaves commissioned by Louis Agassiz and taken by J. T. Zealy. In light of such opposite purposes to which daguerreian portraiture could be put, I conclude, these images and the stories that people told about them ultimately reflect rather than reconcile the impossible binary of race in antebellum America.

The Camera and the Press closes with a brief epilogue that considers selected reflections on daguerreotypy that began circulating in print later in the photographic age, when this once-new medium and its practitioners had become old and the details of the process nearly forgotten. Nostalgia for daguerreotypy at the turn of the century made it once more a popular topic of conversation; as happened in the first conversations about the medium, contradictory ideas about its technological and cultural significance emerged. From the vantage of retrospection, some saw daguerreotypy as a necessarily crude medium and process in its infancy that was replaced by improved forms of photographic imaging in its maturity; this narrative arc makes photography part of the larger narrative of technological progress. In the same moment, others reached the opposite conclusion—that daguerreotypy was the finest form of photography ever realized and, thus, that all subsequent photographic processes and media were inferior. Positioning daguerreotypy as such disrupts the progress narrative not just for photography but also for technology in general by insisting that more is lost than gained with the forward march of both innovation and time. Both are powerful stories; they remind us that to call any medium "new," "old," or "improved" is to place it in a plot.

To attend to the place of narrative in media history, then, is to move beyond the limited paradigms of literature and photography and photography in literature to recognize the history of media as a form of literature and to understand narrative and literature themselves as forms of media. Friedrich Kittler argues that an "analysis that examines both the intersections and dividing lines between writing culture and image technology within a historical context is precisely a methodical preparation for the pressing question of what the status of writing or literature can be today." It is my hope that the analysis I offer with this book also helps answer the pressing question of what the status of literary studies can be today.

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