- Work Sights: The Visual Culture of Industry in Nineteenth-Century Americaby Vanessa Meikle Schulman
Over the past three decades scholars have explored the visual culture of nineteenth-century American industry with increasing avidity. Recent studies have addressed images of factory labor, specific genres of industrial art, the visual culture of Pittsburgh, and the technological sublime, among other topics. Vanessa Meikle Schulman's Work Sights: The Visual Culture of Industry in [End Page 443] Nineteenth-Century Americamakes a welcome contribution to this body of scholarship. Seeking to understand how "artists working in divergent visual media helped to shape American ideas about technology" and industry, Work Sightsexamines illustrations and paintings that contended with several forms of "technical and industrial change" that unfolded in the United States between 1857 and 1887, including the expansion of telegraphic and railroad networks, industrialization in the South, the globalization of the American sugar industry, and the rise of modern industrial management (pp. 2, 4). By tracing the development of broad pictorial types and closely analyzing individual pictures, Work Sightsshows that nineteenth-century industrial images were marked by deep aesthetic and ideological tensions. Struggling to make sense of industrial modernization, illustrators and painters made pictures that employed traditional and innovative representational modes and gave voice to a host of conflicting sentiments, including enthusiasm, anxiety, confidence, and fear.
Work Sightsoffers a dazzlingly comprehensive survey of late-nineteenth-century American industrial imagery. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this sweeping account has certain blind spots. Schulman does relatively little to engage scholarship on visual culture and to explain how the "vast and diverse visual realm" that emerged around American industry fit within the larger landscape of nineteenth-century visuality (p. 4). In so doing, the book misses a chance to make the case that the images and ways of seeing that it studies constituted a novel historical formation of visual culture, a new and distinct field of perception, visibility, and visual representation that sprang from the specific material priorities and sensory dynamics of industrialization.
If the book stops short of articulating a new model of visual culture, however, it does offer a sensitive account of the common and divergent aesthetic imperatives that shaped print and painterly interpretations of industry. Arguing that the pictorial press's industrial organizational structure and ties to the business elite spurred illustrators to compose largely sympathetic accounts of industry, Work Sightsshows (in chapters 1, 3, 5, and 6) that graphic artists developed a series of innovative image types—including maps, allegorical tableaux, and cut-away views—to represent new modes of industrial communication, transportation, work, management, and vocational training that arose in the late nineteenth century.
The book also offers suggestive interpretations of important industrial paintings. Proceeding from the idea that painters had "greater room for experimentation, play, and doubt" than did illustrators, the second chapter argues that John Ferguson Weir's The Gun Foundry(1864-1866) and Forging the Shaft(1866-1868) dramatized the unnerving power and bewildering material transmutations of modern metalworking and, in so doing, gave visual form to a new aesthetic construct: the "alchemical sublime" (pp. 7, 59). Although the connection between Weir's paintings and the cultural discourse of alchemy remains somewhat nebulous, the chapter sheds new light on the subtly allusive ways that these works "explore the frightening and magical side of American industry" (p. 57). Focusing on Thomas Moran's Lower Manhattan from Communipaw, New Jersey(1880), the fourth chapter convincingly demonstrates that the artist's understudied urban canvases used the language of the [End Page 444]picturesque to engage the communication and distribution systems "at the heart of American industrialization" (p. 123).
Taken together, these analyses advance an account of industrial imagery that extends scholarship on the visual culture of industry, technology, and labor in several exciting directions. Sweeping in scope and brimming with insights, Work Sightswill no doubt be useful to scholars in...