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The Unreliable Camera: Photography as Evidence in MidVictorian Fiction RobertDingley Dion Boucicault's four-act melodrama The Octoroon; orUfe in Ijouinana was first performed at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York in December 1859. Its courtroom climax occurs as an innocent Red Indian is on the point of being lynched for murder. Salem Scudder, a Yankee overseer and "once a Photographic Operator," reveals that a camera has been accidentally triggered at the very moment of the crime and confronts the true villain,Jacob M'Closky, with irrefutable proof of hisguilt: SCUDDER: ... you thought that no witness saw the deed, that no eye was on you, but there was, Jacob M'Closky, there was—the eye of the Eternal was on you —the blessed sun in heaven, that looking down struck upon this plate the image of the deed. Here you are, in the very attitude of your crime! M'CLOSKY: Tis false! SCUDDER: 'Tis true! the apparatus can't lie. Look there, jurymen [shews plate toJURY] look there. Oh, you wanted evidence—you called for proof—heaven has answered and convicted you. (40) Unsurprisingly, this stirring scene has been seized on by historians of the relationship between literature, early photography, and legal evidence as a conclusive demonstration that the witnessing power of the camera was acknowledged, unequivocally embraced, and creatively exploited as early as the mid-nineteenth-century.1 The problem which this paper will address is that Boucicault's ringing endorsement of the camera's authority appears to be very nearly unique in mid-Victorian 42volume 27 number 2 The Unreliable Camera imaginative writing. The absence of photography from the repertoire of "canonical" fiction is almost complete, and the few instances in which its testimony is adduced by lesser-known writers are frequently either cursory or unenthusiastic or both. In M. E. Braddon's The Cloven Foot (1879), for example, although the murderer is finally recognized—though not apprehended—through the agency of a photograph , his identification is preceded both by the police's failure to unearth any likeness of an elusive earlier suspect and by the hero's scathing remarks about a mode of portraiture in which simpering sitters try "to look unconscious of the photographer's iron collar gripping them by the scruff of the neck" (218). Given the transformative impact upon Victorian culture at large and fictional practice in particular with which Niépce's invention is habitually credited, the widespread combination, in mid-nineteenth-century novels, of general silence with intermittent expressions of mistrust requires at least some attempt at explanation. Moreover, even the handful of generally positive fictional treatments of photographic evidence which can be found to second The Octoroon 's vote of confidence tend to make less absolute claims than Salem Scudder, and the testimony of the camera is almost invariably held to require final confirmation from other sources. In "Waif Wander'"s short story "The Dead Witness, or, The Bush Waterhole," for example, first published in TheAustralianJournal'inJanuary 1866 (and perhaps loosely indebted to The Octoroon), a plate found among the effects of a murdered photographer fortuitously captures the likeness of a ne'er-do-well shepherd called Dick the Devil lurking in the undergrowth, but absolute certainty of Dick's guilt is only finally established when the corpse of his victim providentially rises to the surface of the waterhole in which it has been concealed and shocks the killer into confession.2 Again, when doubt is expressed about the protagonist's identity and character in Thomas Sutton's novel StAgnes'Bay (1864), a photograph is sent both to the local policestation , where it inconclusively goes unrecognized, and to the Master of his Cambridge college, who is in a position to furnish, as the camera cannot, a testimonial to his moral worth (144, 190).3 By Victorian Review43 R. Dingley contrast, in Menella Smedley's Twice Lost (1863), a photograph accidentally reveals the treachery masked by the benign appearance of the unsavoury Mr. Langley, who is later proved to have been obstructing his daughter's marriage in order to appropriate her fortune (35-39).4 Smedley's use of the photograph to reveal hidden psychological depth is (I suspect consciously) reminiscent...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 42-55
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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