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Susan E. Cook, Victorian Negatives. Literary Culture and the Dark Side of Photography in the Nineteenth Century

New York: Suny Press, 2019. 218 p.
Lawrence Gasquet
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Susan E. Cook, Victorian Negatives. Literary Culture and the Dark Side of Photography in the Nineteenth Century, New York: Suny Press, 2019. 218 p. ISBN : 9781438475363

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1Susan E. Cook’s essay purports to tread on a tradition that joins photography and literature in an attempt to analyse what the often oversimplified term ‘realism’ covers. Alongside interdisciplinary studies of visual culture and fiction, she endeavours to demonstrate that the history of photography contends with much more than the eye can meet; in other words, as history has shown, photography shares an uneasy relationship with the real, and literature can aptly testify to it, by exemplifying in its turn the formal features of photography coming to grips with reality. The somewhat contorted ways in which 19th-century literature reproduces the main theoretical concerns of photography is therefore Cook’s main object in this 137 page essay. Corey Keller in Brought to Light: Photography and the Invisible (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2018) aptly reminds us of the metaphorical dimension that photography can provide literature with: ‘within a scientific culture that placed great weight on empirical observation, this idea of the camera-eye served not only as a physical model but also as a metaphor that underscored the relationship between visibility and knowability’. The advent of photography seems to have crystallised the interface between what we see and what we learn to know, poised between science and art; by this very token, it provides literature with an acute suggestion of psychic depth (albeit often metaphorical) that realism has often adopted as its primary definition. Photography thus inaugurates ‘a vast mosaic of visual discernment’, to quote Jordan Bear, for whom ‘the capacity for the visual discrimination of photographic representations emerges as both a criterion for political agency and a skill to be commodified, developments that depended precisely upon an ambivalence of photography’s representational role’ (xxiv).

2Susan Cook intends to show that photography relies on much more complex issues than mere mimesis, and thereby follows the lead of theorists like Jonathan Crary, Jennifer Green-Lewis, Nancy Armstrong and Daniel Novak who successfully showed how photography pressed its own epistemological model upon knowledge and perception, arguing that various photographic devices proposed or sometimes imposed a reconstruction of the optical experience, requiring a complex and sometimes counterintuitive process of abstraction from the real, against commonly accepted appearances. Alongside Novak who moves entirely away from the usual association of photography with objectivity to a realm where abstraction and typicality dominate the world of the imaginary, Cook claims that ‘photography allows us to see that realism is an elusive/illusive whole constructed of the very things it purports not to be: contingency, interpretation, the subjective, and the fragmentary’ (xxv).

3To rest her case that photography and realism paradoxically rely on an aesthetics of fiction and abstraction, Cook aims to focus on one technical modality of photography in particular, which is the negative, a technology invented by William Henry Fox Talbot in Great-Britain (he patented the calotype, named after Greek kalos, beauty) in opposition to its earlier French counterpart Héliographie (writing of the sun in Greek) discovered by Nicéphore Niepce around the year 1823. A genius engineer crippled by debt, Niepce fathered the original process of photography, and then sold it to Daguerre, a painter and owner of the Paris and then London Dioramas, who perfected his invention until France allowed him to ‘gift the world with the invention of the Daguerreotype’ in 1839.

4The author is particularly interested in the peculiarities involved by the technique of the negative, which is multifaceted: the technique has adopted manifold processes over time (the use of wet collodion being a well-known example) and seems to highlight specific tensions surrounding the problem of authenticity and the real: reproducibility, duplication and the question of objectivity appear at the core of the fiction of the writers whose work are studied in this volume.

5Charles Dickens, a celebrity who was photographed at least 120 times in an era where sitting for a photographic likeness was both a tiresome and expensive experience, was as much anxious about photography as he was fascinated by it, as his fiction testifies to. As a person, he was concerned that his portraits were giving spectators a ‘counterfeit presentment’ (2), a false sense of his presence, as well as the sheer multiplication of his image would imply a definite sense of a loss of control (this loss of control he also feared in the publication of his written work on the American market, as a matter of fact). Cook argues that the negative goes counter to the mimetic illusion as a technique, the negative image implying distance and even reversion of reality in terms of colour scheme: ‘the idea that a photographic reproduction requires an inversion of light and dark challenges a centuries-old metaphoric system and calls the very nature of representation into question by showing things not as they appear but as their tonal opposites’ (3). Cook sees in Dickens’s fiction an encoding of the photographic inversion enacted by the negative; A Tale of Two Cities (1859) and Bleak House (1853) lend themselves to a metaphorical photographic reading in their treatment of the plot, built around the notion of the counterfeit, the quite-not-real, the unobtainable. Just as photographs offer fake surface realism, Dickens’s realism in fiction seems to retain a totalising sense of reality while offering an excess of things, people, places and scenes; Cook sees in this a parallel with his ‘withholding the self while displaying an excess of images’, claiming that his practice of portraits works like that of his realist fiction. Indeed this is what Susan Sontag’s On Photography taught us from 1977 on, and we may wonder if that is not one characteristic of all representations over time.

6According to Cook, Dickens’s Little Dorrit can be read as a metaphorical illustration of the process of solarisation, also known as Sabatier effect, in so far as ‘the novel uses light and dark to interrogate truth and realism and to suggest a persistent focus on unreality in place of both’ (40). Cook thus analyses the text in terms of a possible wilful correspondence between a photographic technique and metaphorical language, which can sometimes err on the side of overspeculation, as indeed the treatment of light and shadow can by no way be restricted to the photographic field.

7The author analyses in a third chapter how photography crystallises the dichotomy between science and art in Conan Doyle’s fiction. Photography is seen as operating as a contradiction: ‘it is a science yet somehow beyond science, it is a marker of objectivity yet also the vehicle through which Holmes’s objectivity is undermined’ (50), and albeit a source of truth it is rejected for the written word, a worthier type of evidence in the short-story ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’. Again Cook relies on a metaphorical interpretation of the truth in the fictional production of Doyle, seeing reproducibility and inversion as the main pattern linked to photography and to the negative in particular. The analysis mainly focuses on the aforementioned short-story, and since Doyle’s affinities with photography at large and with spirit photography in particular are tackled by the author, one can regret that several important episodes involving Doyle and photography are neither mentioned nor used as scientific material. One may think of The Crime of the Congo, a pamphlet written in 1909 by Doyle after being solicited by journalist E. D. Morel to denounce the colonising outrages of Belgium in Congo, and which he meant to illustrate with Kodak photographs (taken by missionaries along Alice Seeley Harris) showing the abominations committed by the colonisers (severed hands and limbs as trophies); a remarkable fact is that the Kodak picture soon became the symbol of the whole campaign against King Leopold II, and therefore photography and its scientific value were used by Doyle (notably on cover and frontispiece) as irrefutable evidence of a manipulated political truth. The Lost World (1912) also interestingly uses photographs as illustrations meant to prove the veracity of the fiction described, Doyle appearing himself in one of them disguised with a beard as Professor Challenger; using photography as evidence, Doyle shows his understanding of the power of the new medium in his new avatar of the scientific novel. Lastly, the publication in 1922 of The Coming of the Fairies deserved analysis, after Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright claimed to have photographed fairies in Cottingley, a Yorkshire village. Albeit the pictures exhibited grossly manufactured cardboard cut-outs, Doyle adamantly defended the girls and argued that ‘it is no exaggeration to say that they will mark an epoch in human thought’ (Chapter II). Photography functioned in that case as the interface between two worlds which could not communicate, and operated as a medium in between two realms of visibility, the reader finding himself in the position of Sherlock Holmes looking for clues (‘The diligent reader is in almost as good position as I am to form a judgement upon the authenticity of the pictures. This narrative is not a special plea for that authenticity, but is simply a collection of facts, the interferences from which may be accepted or rejected as the reader may think fit.’—Preface). Investigating this odd episode would have efficiently contributed to Susan E. Cook’s essay, illustrating the multifaceted contest between science and art in the work of Doyle.

8Chapter 4 purports to show how the figure of the double exposure (metaphorically speaking) pervades Victorian fiction. Susan Cook here studies E. W. Hornung’s ‘A Spoilt Negative’, Cyril Bennett’s ‘Spirit Photograph’, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. The double exposure (formed when two photographic negatives or images are combined to create a single positive image) forms a convenient support and a logical symbol for fictions hinging upon psychological duplicity and formal secrecy. Photography fakes, and photography relies on its close acquaintance with verisimilitude to fake even better: such is the paradox. Again, Susan Cook’s reading is mostly metaphorical, which often weakens the valid analyses that are exposed—it can seem artificial to see photography where photography doesn’t appear stricto sensu—a sort of forced rhetorical extension to prove a point which does not really need photography to be valid and interesting. The same can be said of the extensive use of the concept of ‘celebrity’ that is often used as a token justifying the importance or interest of a photographic technique, but it seems that celebrity does not add much to the debate; whether of a celebrity or not, the photographic technique is, or would be, as interesting per se.

9The last chapter is especially fascinating as it engages in a debate on the representation of the fictional, and the extraordinary powers it can have (one could liken this phenomenon with a sort of placebo effect of photography). Susan Cook here uses Thomas Hardy’s fiction to show his paradoxical use of photography so as to create and prove the existence of that which never was. A Laodicean, Jude the Obscure and the short-story ‘An Imaginative Woman’ all stage photography used to document absence, whether the absence of human beings or places: ‘photography operates as powerfully captivating but ultimately deceitful—a lie that cannot be avoided in an era of modernization and nostalgia’ (108). The theme of the postmortem photograph is particularly striking in Jude the Obscure, where Sue insists on digging out her children’s tombs to see their faces; it is definitely telling that in a text that features modern technologies and photography in particular, Jude and Sue possess no photographs of their children, whether alive or dead. At that time, postmortem photography was a common and very acceptable form of memento mori. Hardy thus carefully manages his use of photography, this culminating in the way he chose to represent Wessex from the 1912 edition on; choosing to have photographs to represent for the reader the sense of a lost past of a place which never was is a fascinating paradox. The palimpsestic nature of Hardy’s Wessex has been studied in depth, from the superimposition and conflation of Dorset and Wessex to the map representation supplied to the reader, but the treatment of photography here definitely adds to the fascination of the fictional trick performed by Hardy for the sake of verisimilitude: ‘like postmortem photographs, the Wessex edition photographs offer a false sense of pretence—they negate the thing they purportedly represent—and thus the subject of these images is absence itself’ (122).

10Susan Cook concludes her essay by evoking the image-elusive figure cut out by Bram Stoker’s Dracula, who seems to be all the more famous as he resists all forms of representations in the diegesis. Cook ventures the hypothesis that Dracula might himself paradoxically incarnate photography, since the act of taking a photograph has been labelled as vampiric, as predative by essence. It seems that the Victorians presaged the disjunctions between representation and context, between represented subject and reality, between art and science in a time that seemed obsessed with seeing and knowing beyond natural capacities, and this essay reminds us of the numerous intuitions of the authors singled out here; one might simply regret the absence of Lewis Carroll among them, as he was one of the best celebrators of the admirable plasticity inherent in both media, and as his lesser known works precisely lie at the interface of photographic practice and literary fiction.

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Lawrence Gasquet, « Susan E. Cook, Victorian Negatives. Literary Culture and the Dark Side of Photography in the Nineteenth Century »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 95 Printemps | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2022, consulté le 20 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Lawrence Gasquet

Université Jean Moulin—Lyon III

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