- Disillusioned: Victorian Photography and the Discerning Subjectby Jordan Bear
In recent years, photographic historians and interdisciplinary scholars have done important work to complicate our understanding of how the Victorians responded to and theorized photography. In his smart, wide-ranging, accessible, erudite, and deeply researched new book, Disillusioned: Victorian Photography and the Discerning Subject, Jordan Bear takes an important next step, linking the ambivalence about photographic objectivity and the figure of the individual observer to questions at the heart of political, economic, epistemological, and pedagogical debates in the nineteenth century. He creatively and convincingly shifts a number of theoretical assumptions about photography's relationship to laissez-faire capitalism, the standardization and regulation of time, the rise of corporate personhood, surveillance and state power, and the rise of statistics. If this list sounds ambitious, it is. Yet Bear manages all of these interventions with a remarkable critical generosity and deft touch.
Disillusionedbegins with an introduction and seven (roughly chronological) chapters, and ends with a conclusion which in itself should be required reading for everyone who works on photography, from students to advanced scholars. Bear's main interest throughout the book is the relationship of systems of knowledge, visual discernment, and the politics and discourse of individual agency in Victorian liberalism. While building on past work that critiques narratives of Victorian faith in photographic objectivity, Bear's historical and theoretical orientation marks an important departure. First, by contextualizing the rise of photography alongside research on subjective vision, scientific pedagogy and demonstrations, magic shows, and philosophical games, Bear argues that Victorian audiences were "primed notto receive photography as unquestionably objective" (5); in its early decades, photography constituted one of many objects in the Polytechnic [End Page 328]Institution of London's "cornucopia of visual illusion" (27). Second, the very exercise of visual discernment and active viewing in the age of photography was predicated on the tenuousness of photography's claims to objectivity (15). More broadly, Bear traces the ways in which photographic referentiality and persuasiveness was ultimately not tied to "objectivity" and not even always to the idea of photography as an image without an author—a technology of "nonintervention" (15). Photographers and their audiences both shared "a recognition of photography's fundamentally mediated status" (33). Fourth, and most importantly, even as the active individual observer seemed to embody the ideal liberal subject and ideal consumer, "this freedom to judge" was only a temporary and illusory freedom that "supplant[ed] more concrete liberties" (15). This last argument represents a subtle but crucial intervention into arguments over Foucauldian and instrumental readings of photography. Instead of the passive subject of the disciplinary gaze, Bear argues it is precisely the idea of individual agency—of the actively discerning viewer—that serves the interests of and embodies the "laissez-faire ethos of liberal capitalism" (31).
While the book explores a number of photographic forms and individual photographers, the composition photography of Oscar Rejlander and Henry Peach Robinson constitute the center of the book. While a number of critics (most notably Lindsay Smith) have made these photographers central to our understanding of Victorian photography, Bear's reading of this work (especially Rejlander's most famous image The Two Ways of Life) is particularly original and ingenious. While most readings of Two Waysstill understand the image in the supposed apolitical terms of moral indignation expressed at the time of its debut, there is an important political context both for the image and the technique of combination printing (the practice of using multiple negatives to produce a single tableaux). "Combination" of course also referred to the formation of working-class trade-unions, and the exhibition at which Rejlander's image debuted took place in Manchester at a time of industrial crisis. Pointing to a pair of figures barely visible in the left-hand corner of the image (the so-called sinister side), in which two women whisper and conspire together, Bear ties the question of visual secrecy to "anticombination" texts and legislation which were...