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Reviewed by:
  • Photography and Its Critics: A Cultural History, 1839–1900, and: Positive Pleasures: Early Photography and Humor
  • Helene E. Roberts (bio)
Photography and Its Critics: A Cultural History, 1839–1900, by Mary Warner Marien; pp. xvi + 222. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997, £40.00, $55.00.
Positive Pleasures: Early Photography and Humor, by Heinz K. Henisch and Bridget A. Henisch; pp. x + 222. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998, $65.00.

The concept of transparency, commonplace in recent discussions of photography, can be applied to the writing of the history of photography as well. Some historians use or reproduce source documents transparently with little analysis or commentary, letting the documents speak directly with their own voices. Other historians mediate the sources they use, usually through a present-day viewpoint, manipulating them and weaving them into a web of interpretation, letting them speak, if at all, only in selected fragments. There is justification for both approaches, and the two books under review provide an example of each.

Mary Warner Marien’s aim in writing Photography and Its Critics: A Cultural History, 1839–1900, is to present the changing “idea” of the history of photography in the nineteenth century, rather than a history of photographic processes or their products (xii). She uses the voices of a wide range of commentators on photography from many disciplines to “demonstrate the variety of meanings that were part of photographic discourse” (xiii). Her method, she tells us, grows out of twentieth-century cultural history and theory. She is particularly influenced by the writings of Roger Chartier, the French cultural historian, a descendant of the Annales group. Following Chartier’s lead in calling on a diversity of readings to define a cultural event, she uses voices as varied as those of Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire, Lewis Mumford, and Susan Sontag. The writings of photographers—among them Louis Daguerre, Joseph Niépce, William Henry Fox Talbot, Henry Peach Robinson, and Gustave LeGray—are also frequently quoted. Critics and historians closely associated with photography also have a voice: these include Elizabeth Eastlake, Francis Wey, Marcus Root, Robert Cecil, John Ruskin, and Meyer and Pierson.

As Chartier analyzes the meanings of a text from readers’ responses, rather than from the intent of the author or the contents of the text, so Marien describes the meaning and social impact of photography from critics’ responses to it. She carefully orchestrates fragments from the writings of these critics into an intelligent and sophisticated narrative reflecting the “idea” of photography as it changes from the “index of the obvious” (the objective recording of things) in the nineteenth century to the “experience of mediated reality” (the subjective representation of things) in the twentieth (xi).

The first part of the book presents issues frequently associated with the early history of photography: its origin (was it a natural phenomenon or a human invention? if an invention, who deserved credit for it?), its nature (was it a product of science or art, technology or magic, genius or craft?), and its ability to copy (did it copy nature or human sight? was it a mirror or a window?). These issues are discussed with the help of a patchwork of many fragmented quotations. This early discourse about photography, the author informs us, was largely dependent on notions of “nature, originality, and imitation”—already present in the culture (xiii).

Marien’s next section deals with the change in critical focus from the origin and nature of photography to the role of images in society. In the second half of the century, myths began to form around the mysterious powers of photography, with both its [End Page 565] dangers and its social benefits being wildly exaggerated. Some saw photography as a potential threat to the fine arts, with its realistic detail displaying “no soul, no heart, and no intellect” (71). But to Oliver Wendell Holmes, photography represented an “information revolution” of scientific and social documentation (76–77). Particularly interesting sections are devoted to photographic reproductions of works of art and the belief that morality could be improved through their dissemination, and to the ability of photographs to educate, especially about the visual world beyond the viewer...