- The Camera and the Press: American Visual and Print Culture in the Age of the Daguerreotype by Marcy Dinius
When photographic technology was first introduced, it was touted for its ability to provide a level of scientific accuracy not attainable with the naked eye. Marcy Dinius’s The Camera and the Press examines those early years when the public was first learning about Daguerre’s invention and when practitioners began experimenting with artistic possibilities for the technology, including finding ways to manipulate images. In particular, Dinius focuses on the discourses surrounding daguerreotypy in both literary texts and periodicals. As Dinius points out, long before they saw the actual object, most Americans first encountered the daguerreotype through descriptions in the press that likened it to technologies of accuracy and to artistic effects—two elements that remained central to the conversation about daguerreotypes. As Dinius puts it, “What is most remarkable about America’s, and much of the world’s, first encounter with this supposedly unmediated form of representation is just how mediated it was” (13). For this reason, Dinius begins her discussion with an analysis of the ways in which press coverage shaped the discourse about this emerging technology. In Dinius’s account, the discourses around daguerreotypy were crucial for establishing how people thought about photographic technology as both a means for exact representation and as an artistic tool, as well as the role that it played in political debate. Drawing on Alan Liu’s idea of the “new media encounter,” Dinius argues that debates in the periodical press over daguerreotypy had as much to do with American ideas of identity, history, and progress as with the technology itself.
Overall, Dinius offers a useful analysis that engages the rhetorical implications of visual culture. In Dinius’s account, the idea of the daguerreotype was deployed in a wide range of political and artistic modes. As she points out, this new, more affordable technology was lauded as having a democratizing effect, allowing for both personal and political expression. Likewise, authors employed the idea of the daguerreotype to make the case for a literary depiction being “true” (as Stowe would use it), and this idea likewise opened up a space for imagining the role of the artist. In addition, daguerreotypy—and the notion that daguerreotyping one’s subject meant offering a faithful description—could [End Page 93] be used in powerful ways as evidence (even without the actual images) in political debates.
As Dinius’s analysis shows, claims for the accuracy of the daguerreotype are bound up in questions about the ways in which art is a subjective reflection of the artist’s vision. Thus, Dinius is interested in tracing the literary figurations of daguerreotypy to illustrate how it was invoked as a metaphor for accurate representation and artistic creation. In reading The House of the Seven Gables, Dinius points to the ways in which Hawthorne used the daguerreotype to define romance and to defend artistic imagination against an aesthetic of scientific objectivity. She pairs her analysis of The House of the Seven Gables with a discussion of Gabriel Harrison’s daguerreotypes. Harrison was one of the first Americans to use the daguerreotype as a straightforwardly artistic medium, and he created images imbued with romanticism, thus providing a useful example of the possibilities for creative expression in a medium largely celebrated for accuracy. Likewise, Dinius reads in Melville’s Pierre a concern with art and scientific objectivity through a philosophy of artistic creation. In Dinius’s reading, Pierre’s refusal to be daguerreotyped—or the “absent presence” of a daguerreotype—reveals a preoccupation with both mechanical objectivity and the platonic ideal of truth (95).
While Dinius’s excavation of the early debates about the daguerreotype in the press is illuminating and useful, and her reading of daguerreotypy as a literary formation is suggestive, the most compelling section of the book comes in the examination of the political uses of daguerreotypes. In the second half of her study, Dinius turns to...