At the end of Image and Word (1987), his study of relations between twentieth-century photographs and texts, Jefferson Hunter notes that similar work remains to be done on those Victorian texts that mark the beginning of the relationship. Though she does not invoke Hunter’s work, Carol Armstrong’s Scenes in a Library might be considered a substantial response to it. The book offers a careful study of photographically illustrated texts from 1843 to 1875, in a hefty and painstaking examination of what happened to the photograph—and to the text on it and to which it was attached—before and during the assimilation of the photographically produced image to the page.
It is, to use a rather Victorian term, a handsome book, weighty and well-laid out, with plenty of space in the margins for notes and generously illustrated throughout—fittingly, since this is a book that pays close attention to the complex and cumulative production of meaning and import in illustrated texts. There are chapters on Julia Margaret [End Page 567] Cameron and Francis Frith, as well as exhaustive readings of such works as Sir Charles Ottley Groom-Napier’s The Book of Nature and the Book of Man (1870); James Carpenter and James Nasmyth’s 1874 work The Moon: Considered as a Planet, a World, and a Satellite; W. H. Fox Talbot’s Pencil of Nature (1844–46); Charles Darwin’s Expression of the Emotions in Man and the Animals (1872); and Anna Atkins’s Photographs of British Algae (1843–54).
The titles of those works hint accurately at Armstrong’s interest in positivism: or, as she puts it, in the early “evidentiary relationship between photographs and concepts of positive knowledge, with the paradoxical interdependence of subjectivist and objectivist vantage points characteristic of the positivist system of rationally governed empirical observation, its denial of a priori concepts and absolutist essences and its model of proof-by-induction, its tautological system of hypothesis and verification, and its theoretical reduction to the processes of synchronic comparison (‘resemblance’) and diachronic sequencing (‘succession’)—its conjunction of the empirical gaze, and the historical voice of the text” (18–19).
One of the more remarkable things about this book is the fact that the energy required to get through sentences like the above is, ultimately, worth it. Despite an erratic prose style that veers between dense thickets of jargon and simple, arresting description, Armstrong is a subtle and rewarding guide through works that tend to confound the reader. Like Armstrong, I’ve spent hours absorbed by Talbot’s early images, gazing at the photographs of bookshelves, the still lifes, the rows of china, trying in vain to make the accompanying prose draw something else from the photographs that just doesn’t want to come. One of the refreshing things about Armstrong’s approach is its acceptance of the awkwardness, even barren arbitrariness, of the conjoining of photograph with text, and while she illuminates the context of positivism within which the books must be read, Armstrong doesn’t offer any easy solution or simplistic accounting of such early unions. Equally honest is her refusal to insist upon the significance of editorial choices and endings (Talbot’s book ends, Armstrong says, just because it “happens to come to a halt just there” ; so, therefore, does her chapter on him).
I confess to finding the later chapters on Talbot, Frith, and Cameron both easier to navigate and ultimately more interesting than those which feature science’s use of photography, although Armstrong’s extensive treatment in Chapter One of Auguste Comte and of John Stuart Mill’s translation of his work into terms familiar to English philosophy, is actually a useful resource for Victorianists who draw on positivist theories in their own discussions of realism. Frith’s “place photographs,” as Armstrong terms them (an odd name for landscapes, but possibly chosen to avoid the rather precise connotations of the eighteenth-century picturesque), offer a rich archive of images for discussion...