The Camera and the Press: American Visual and Print Culture in the Age of the Daguerreotype by Marcy J. Dinius (review)
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Photography, History of photography, Daguerreotype, Print culture

The Camera and the Press: American Visual and Print Culture in the Age of the Daguerreotype. By Marcy J. Dinius. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012. Pp. 320, 44 illustrations. Cloth, $49.95.)

This volume offers insightful analysis of the written explication of photographic images, specifically daguerreotypes, during and after their introduction in the United States in 1839. Marcy Dinius examines newspaper accounts, periodicals, and novels, arguing that these media influenced how Americans viewed photographic images. Centrally, she looks at how writers used daguerreotypy to shape readers' ideas about politics and race. Looking at familiar texts (Uncle Tom's Cabin, Melville's Pierre), she provides unusually close, contextualized readings of the deployment of daguerreotypes in written works. She makes a compelling argument that writers "Americanized" these images, and used daguerreotypes to "advance a national self-image based on principles of progress, industry, and democracy" (4).

The first chapter of Dinius's narrative incorporates the vast literature on photographic history. She focuses on the fact that Americans first learned of the introduction of the daguerreotype in France through newspapers, then explicates the continued significance of written [End Page 602] descriptions of the medium. Although she departs from traditional histories of photography, she fully engages that material. The supporting information about early photographic practices and the field's historiography are so thorough that one can almost read the first chapter's footnotes as an independent essay.1 Unfortunately, the book's publication schedule appears to have prevented Dinius from utilizing Steven Pinson's Speculating Daguerre, a text that amplifies previous scholars' understanding of the timing of the invention and dissemination of photographic practices in France.2

Dinius's first case study provides fresh insights into the meanings and uses of daguerreotypy in the House of Seven Gables. She interweaves her interpretation of Holgraves's biography with that of Gabriel Harrison, a fairly obscure daguerreotypist. The romantic nature of both Hawthorne's and Harrison's work is seen as a foil for scientific and mechanical objectivity during the period. Hawthorne's use of the daguerreotype of the deceased Judge Pyncheon is profitably juxtaposed with the allegorical images that Harrison produced, such as Infant Boy Bearing the Cross. The skillful interpretation of both forms, a hallmark of each chapter, augments our understanding of the ways in which cultural products informed social and political issues.

The art versus photography debate began as soon as photographic images were introduced. Herman Melville's Pierre and, particularly, Pierre's refusal to be daguerreotyped, leads the third chapter's discussions of the mechanical versus artistic perceptions of daguerreotypes. Dinius analyzes Melville's use of Pierre to address how artistic standards were applied to photographic images. She then discusses the highly artistic daguerreotypes by Southworth & Hawes of Boston. These often full plate (six-and-a-half by eight-and-a-half inches) daguerreotypes contrast markedly in terms of size, cost, appearance, and audience with more typical ones (a sixth-plate daguerreotype is two-and-three quarters by three-and-a-quarter inches). Dinius notes that Southworth & Hawes encouraged sitters' agency in shaping their images by urging people to [End Page 603] practice facial expressions in a mirror before coming to the studio. The synthesis of Melville's work and the writing and daguerreotypes of Southworth & Hawes is thorough and convincing, yet one wishes that periodicals such as Humphrey's Journal and the Daguerreian Journal had been brought to bear on the subject.

Dinius's interpretation of Uncle Tom's Cabin is the first of three chapters that address race and politics in America. The author discusses Stowe's use of daguerreotypy to make fictional characters, particularly Tom, more real. He is represented by a daguerreotype—a familiar, middle-class, white portrayal—rather than the runaway ads that influenced so many people's pictorial perceptions of enslaved people.

The life, daguerreotypes, and writings of Augustus Washington, the Hartford-area African American daguerreotypist who promoted emigration to (and lived in) Liberia, are the focus of the fifth chapter. Dinius first explores the individuals and attitudes behind the largely white proponents of the colonization movement. In a larger discussion of...