Technology and Culture 41.4 (2000) 816-817
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ReVisions: An Alternative History of Photography
ReVisions: An Alternative History of Photography. By Ian Jeffrey. Bradford, West Yorks.: National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, 1999. Pp. 119; illustrations. £17.95.
This volume, based largely on collections at the National Museum of Photography, Film, and Television (a branch of the Science Museum) in Bradford, accompanied an exhibition held in spring 1999 to celebrate the reopening of the NMPFT after a major reorganization. It is not a traditional catalog, however, nor is it a history of photography, but rather an eclectic chronology, a series of short, episodic segments in which Ian Jeffrey moves from Talbot's and Daguerre's early work capturing shadows to recent color photos of space exploration. He regards technical developments as "moments of startlement," declaring that new mechanisms and formats "suddenly confronted operatives," surprising "both themselves and posterity" (p. 13).
In the first part of the book, Jeffrey covers the period from photography's introduction in 1839 up to about 1860, musing on art, intention, and the rise of the medium's documentary function. In the next sections, on photomicrography, stereography, aerial and wire photos, Muybridge's chronophotography, the X ray, and the chemistry of color processes, he treats technical parameters together with selected subjects in an idiosyncratic discussion of photography's changing social context. Twentieth-century developments are identified by Jeffrey's shift in focus to politics and the mass media, punctuated by the appearance of formats like snapshots and television, and subjects like Edward Steichen's catalog and exhibition The Family of Man (1955) and the Vietnam War.
Jeffrey, who is not identified by discipline or connection (if any) to NMPFT, writes in a breezy style unencumbered by such scholarly apparatus [End Page 816] as bibliography or notes, although there are some textual references to both primary and secondary sources. He advocates a holistic approach to the history of photography, a field that he feels has been fragmented hitherto by the interests of art historians and scientists, yet his views are not as revisionist as he thinks. While some art historians may cling to a received canon and iconography, Jeffrey's "alternative" view of photography incorporating art, science, and literature within a broad social context is in fact widely shared by cultural historians: see, for example, Ann Thomas, ed., Beauty of Another Order: Photography in Science (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998); Mary Warner Marien, Photography and Its Critics: A Cultural History, 1839-1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997); Daniel P. Younger, ed., Multiple Views: Logan Grant Essays on Photography, 1983- 1989 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991).
There is an aura of haste about the writing and production of the book. John Carbutt may have manufactured the first commercially successful celluloid photographic film in 1888, but he did not invent celluloid (p. 63). Some of the sidebar texts are confused: daguerreotypes and ambrotypes are mixed up (p. 27); the production of stereo cameras did not cease in 1926 (p. 39). Jeffrey's discussion of wire photography also is problematic. Citing the difficulties of transmission between European capitals due to political upheavals during World Wars I and II, he claims that wirephotos came into their own only in the Vietnam era (p. 84). This decidedly Eurocentric bias ignores the wide use of photo transmission in North America, and the significant transatlantic service by the 1930s. The illustrations are superb in selection, number, and quality, but the typographic errors are shameful, including even a section heading (p. 48). One expects something better, in both style and content, from the National Museum.
The book is most stimulating when Jeffrey elaborates on the "cultural unconscious" (introduced on p. 8), by which he means the steady incorporation of photography, its imagery and its process, into all aspects of life. He sees formats like stereographs and wirephotos, together with the searing subjects of war and poverty, as influencing the imagination in critical and implicit ways. Invoking James Joyce's Dublin in his discussion of panoramic urban photography, and assessing the...