- The European Illustrated Press and the Emergence of a Transnational Visual Culture of the News, 1842–1870 by Thomas Smits
This study of mid-nineteenth-century visual news culture is an eye-opener. Smits’s book reveals the complex entanglements of the European illustrated press during its heyday and the social importance it gained through [End Page 629] disseminating images around the world. People today are used to seeing the same news pictures all over the globe, even in real time. As Smits argues on the basis of an impressive amount of material, the origins of this global news culture do not lie in twentieth-century photographic journalism, as is often assumed. Rather, its origins are found in illustrated newspapers and their large-scale commercial and piratical exchange of wood-engraved images. This exchange was not limited to Europe but spread to the colonies and the United States.
To date, studies of illustrated newspapers have tended to focus on three famous publications launched in the early 1840s: the pioneering Illustrated London News (1842), the French L’Illustration (1843), and the German Illustrirte Zeitung (1843). Smits inspects more than forty titles from different contexts, including small countries such as the Netherlands, where this book began as a doctoral thesis. He also crosses borders between disciplines, including history, media history, visual and cultural studies, and digital humanities. His investigations draw on current concepts and methods in periodicals studies, but his understanding of transnationality is inspired by the German historian Jürgen Osterhammel and refers to processes that take place in between national contexts and agencies. Such inbetweenness has been a blind spot in the history of illustrated newspapers, which have mainly been studied in their national contexts. Challenging this approach, Smits shows that the illustrated press was an essentially transnational phenomenon—not only regarding the traded pictures but also the reproduction technologies and commercial and personal networks on which the exchange of images depended. Smits does not ignore the national significance of nineteenth-century illustrated newspapers, but he offers a more nuanced analysis. For example, he demonstrates how publishers and editors often adapted images bought from a foreign source to their new national context by altering captions and occasionally even elements within the images themselves. Ultimately, Smits proposes shifting our focus on the role of periodicals, and media generally, in the production of identities “from representation, a close reading of content, to the different audiences that consumed media” (222).
The four main chapters of his book set standards for this kind of approach. Each offers data-rich analyses derived from clever methodical designs. Smits grants that transnational research on a grand scale is contingent on the digital turn and how digitization enables keyword searches across national archives. He is, however, aware of the pitfalls of the digital archive and includes undigitized material that is highly informative for his study, notably Cassell’s Illustrated Family Paper. The first chapter traces the urban, national, and international audiences of the three famous European papers mentioned above. Smits used the British Newspaper Archive and similar digital collections to calculate the dissemination of titles from [End Page 630] datasets including advertisements, postage rates, subscribers’ letters, or evidence of censorship. A case study zooms in on the Illustrated London News and its attempt to recruit international readers during the Great Exhibition.
With equal diligence, the second chapter reveals the procedures of the image trade and its networks, such as the one formed around Henry Vizetelly. As representative of the Illustrated London News in Paris, Vizetelly became “the essential link between the British and French engraving trade in the 1860s and early 1870s” (89). Smits’s data allow him to distinguish three stages of the trade: at first, the Illustrated London News was the major image provider; after 1850 major French and German papers established themselves in the market; and in the 1860s the new penny illustrated newspapers kept the trade alive because they depended on acquiring old images cheaply.
The two subsequent...