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  • Literature and Photography in Transition, 1850–1915 by Owen Clayton
  • Paul Baggett (bio)
Literature and Photography in Transition, 1850–1915, by Owen Clayton. New York: Palgrave, Macmillan, 2015. ix + 233 pp. Cloth, $95.00; Paper, $90.00; Ebook, $74.99.

Readers of Studies in American Naturalism will find Owen Clayton's Literature and Photography in Transition, 1850–1915 appealing not only for those chapters devoted to William Dean Howells's and Jack London's relationship to photography, and in London's case, to early cinema, but more broadly, for the remarkable sensitivity Clayton brings to the development of visual culture over the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. According to Clayton, scholars have too often reduced the history of technological innovation in photography and early film to a simple, linear evolution. This conventional historical trajectory begins in the 1820s and 1830s, with Nicéphore Niépce and (more famously) Louis Daguerre's development of the silver-plate daguerreotype and William Henry Fox Talbot's paper calo-type; progresses to the 1850s, when Frederick Scott Archer developed the collodion or wet plate process; and culminates with Charles Bennett's introduction of gelatin emulsion or dry plate in the 1870s. Gelatin emulsion then facilitated George Eastman's invention of roll film and his introduction of the mobile Kodak camera; which led to William Dickson and Thomas Edison's invention of the kinetograph camera; and eventually resulted in the kinetoscope, that turn-of-the-century, moving-picture device through which one could view spectacles such as bodybuilder Eugene Sandow's muscle displays or actress Annabelle Moore's serpentine dance. [End Page 84]

While this may appear an acceptable description of photographic and early cinematic history, Clayton contends that it glosses over a more complicated story, ignoring not only the co-existing, often competing, photographic technologies of this period, but also the varying aesthetic goals of those who integrated visual images into their works of fiction and nonfiction. Clayton thus highlights photography's transitional status over the sixty-five year period he discusses. Building on work by Daniel Novak and John Tagg, Clayton prefers the plural term "photographies" when referring to the developments of nineteenth-century visual culture to reflect its heterogeneity and its methods of production. Providing us a transatlantic study beginning in 1850 and ending during the momentous years before cinema becomes a dominant cultural medium, Clayton fills a significant gap in scholarship, not only by identifying the dynamic relationship between literature and photography in the works of Henry Mayhew, Robert Lewis Stevenson, Amy Levy, William Dean Howells, and Jack London, but also by attending to how these authors negotiated the different technologies available to them.

As his earliest example of photography's transitional status, Clayton focuses on Henry Mayhew's Labour and the London Poor (1850–62). Originally published as a series of investigative articles about the city's poor, Labour and the London Poor documents the lives of various sellers, scavengers, and entertainers working in London's streets, from Charles Alloway, a crippled seller of nutmeg-graters, to "Old Sarah," a blind, hurdy-gurdy player. Clayton is most interested in the hybrid, daguerreotype engravings of these various characters. While many have disregarded these images, Clayton approaches them as a cultural materialist, drawing insights into their production, composition, and reception. He considers, for instance, why Mayhew chose daguerreotype photographs, which he could only reproduce from silver plates to paper by wood engravings, unlike calotype images, which he could have produced directly onto iodized paper. But while calotypes may have been easier to reproduce, they lacked the clarity and dimension of daguerreotypes. Clayton explains that such qualities were important to Mayhew, who approached his subjects much like the scientists of his generation, gathering empirical evidence through disinterested observation and rendering them with the highest degree of objective accuracy possible with the tools available to him. But Clayton also argues that while his images often seem to reduce his subjects to a series of "types," Mayhew nonetheless tries to preserve their individuality by investing them with a "picturesque nobility," an aesthetic standard best achieved [End Page 85] through engraving. Clayton highlights more subtle details of these hybrid images to demonstrate how Mayhew...


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