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The Henry James Review 21.3 (2000) 253-260

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Material James and James's Material: Coburn's Frontispieces to the New York Edition

Timothy Dow Adams, West Virginia University

But force of photographic images comes from their being material realities in their own right, richly informative deposits left in the wake of whatever emitted them, potent means for turning the tables on reality--for turning it into a shadow.

--Susan Sontag, On Photography

Commentators on the complicated collaboration between Henry James and Alvin Langdon Coburn have usually tried to understand that relationship in terms of some aspect of aesthetics, economy, or personality. 1 Another way to think about James's odd decision to have the New York Edition illustrated--not by paintings, etchings, or drawings, but by photographs--lies in a consideration of the materiality of photographs and the photographic process and of James's worries about generating his own material, what Richard P. Blackmur refers to in his introduction to The Art of the Novel as "The Finding of Subjects" and "The Growth of Subjects" (AN xv).

James had a general disregard both for illustrations of his prose and for photography. While he sometimes allowed his nonfiction to be illustrated, he was more particular about allowing images to accompany his fiction--especially when not in the form of magazine publication. James's reasons for his antithetical stance toward photographs and illustrations has been established: he believed that illustrations should not be asked to perform the descriptive work of the writer, that they undercut the efficacy of literature, and that using the visual in support of the verbal pandered to a more popular audience. Beyond his disdain [End Page 253] for illustration, James's particular dislike for photography was based on his belief that photographers lacked craft and genius and that photography was more mechanical than artistic, as well as on the popular argument that writers of realistic fiction could be compared to photographers who reproduced surface details with fidelity but without insight. And yet he not only chose Coburn's photogravures as illustrations for the monument to his life's work but also assisted and directed the photographer in imagining and selecting scenes for inclusion.

When he wrote in the preface to The Golden Bowl, almost as an afterthought, of the "couple of dozen decorative 'illustrations'" (AN 331), James admitted to what he called his "invidious distinction between the writer's 'frame' and the draughtsman's" (333). James explains that the unease he had felt in the past about illustrating his own work is based on what he describes as "lawlessness": "the proposal, on the part of my associates in the whole business, to graft or 'grow,' at whatever point, a picture by another hand on my own picture" (331-32). Wanting to avoid another artist's handprints on his own corpus, the author chose photography over other forms of illustration. James realized, as Carol Armstrong asserts, that "Photography lacks a signature--the ability to attribute an image to a hand as its source" (129).

Considering how strong his opposition was to illustrations, what forces caused him to alter his mind? One clue to his change of heart can be found in a 1907 letter in which William James uses a photographic metaphor to criticize Henry's prose style which he claimed created "the illusion of a solid object, made [. . .] out of impalpable materials, air, and the prismatic interferences of light, ingeniously focused by mirrors upon empty space" (277). William James's description suggests something of the confusion about the materiality of photographs, which had been "discovered" only sixty-eight years earlier, four years before Henry was born. At a time when some photographers were attempting to prove the artistic value of their work by manipulating the surface of the negative to imitate painting, Coburn's style was clearly photographic. During the period when he was associated with the Photo-Secession group, his work involved images taken with a soft focus lens, printed on platinotype paper, followed by the application of dark...


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