Snobs and snappers

Issue: 115

Andy Jones

Steve Edwards, The Making of English Photography: Allegories (Penn State University Press, 2006), £56.50

The invention of photography was announced in 1839 and its commercial expansion began in earnest in the 1850s. By the time Karl Marx wrote Capital in the early 1860s, he would list photography as one of the small but significant new “fields of labour” created by developing capitalist industry in Britain (p1). Steve Edwards has written a fascinating Marxist account of 19th century debates generated by the growth of the photographic trade. In doing so, he explores ideas about art and work in capitalist society, and offers a rich exploration of the way in which the idea of “photography as art” upset some of the founding principles of bourgeois ideology.

Traditional histories of 19th century photography oscillate between, on the one hand, the description of technical advances and, on the other, the construction of a narrative of photography’s struggle to be recognised as an art. Both approaches take the development of photography out of its historical context, and instead reduce it to the activities of particular individuals. Edwards challenges the assumptions of this kind of history and, in an initial chapter, reframes the invention of photography within a discussion of the mechanisation of work in 19th century industry.

The development of industry involved the replacement of artisan skills by the increasing use of machines. For capitalists, this provided a means of deskilling their workforce, introducing stricter discipline and removing the degree of control over the workplace that artisans retained. This was a major issue for bourgeois intellectuals such as Andrew Ure, who, in his Philosophy of Manufactures, used the example of a spinning machine to argue that when “capital enlists science in her service, the refractory hand of labour will always be taught docility” (p31).

The arrival of photography, Edwards argues, was one instance of this pattern of mechanisation: it meant that for the first time the manual skill necessary for the production of visual images could be wholly replaced by the operation of a machine. William Henry Fox Talbot, the inventor of photography, frequently talked of photographs as images that “make themselves”. Fox Talbot was close to the “Cambridge network” of scientists, whose work was central to the development of a thorough division of labour within the field of science, and photography was initially championed, Edwards argues, by “men of science”. For them the camera was infallible (unlike humans), and the photographs it produced were wholly reliable documents of reality. This promised a valuable rationalisation and standardisation of the making of scientific illustrations, and enabled a rigid separation of observation and theorisation.

But the book’s focus is not the invention of photography in itself. Nor does Edwards argue that the real history of photography is about science and industry rather than art. In this sense, his book provides an important critique of much of the writing on 19th century photography that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s. Heavily influenced by Michel Foucault’s writings on “power/knowledge”, those histories concentrated on photography’s instrumental uses in state institutions such as prisons and asylums. In doing so, they challenged the complacency of most writing on photography, and shed light on a murky corner of the history of photographs. However, as Edwards points out, they tended to create a counter-history in which the idea of photography as art was ignored, and they thereby left that part of photography’s history, as described in the conventional books on the subject, unchallenged.

Edwards argues that it was in the 1860s that professional photographers first demanded to be seen as artists, and he shows that the photographic journals of the time were obsessed with this question. But who were the people for whom this was so important? Until now this question has been ignored, but Edwards devotes a chapter to exploring what kind of people made up the growing business in photographic studios. Whereas conventional histories concentrate on one or two examples of grand studios operating on a large scale, he shows that the majority of studios at this time were in fact small affairs, and those running them were eking out a precarious existence. He argues, “The most direct comparison for this kind of economic activity is with those manufacturer-retailers who purveyed their commodities from a small outlet, such as tailors and shoemakers, butchers and bakers” (p100). Photographers were, for the most part, petty bourgeois producers. Edwards draws on recent historical studies, and Marxist (in particular, Trotsky’s) accounts of this group, to provide a picture of petty bourgeois concerns at this time. “Caught between the rock of large capital and the hard place of labour” (p101), the petty bourgeoisie directed its resentment both at big business and—more -particularly—the working class.

Through the rest of his book Edwards argues that “the fundamental conceptualisations of photography put into place during the 1860s were born of this anxiety and hostility” (p102). Art represented respectability, a central element of petty bourgeois ideology, but uncertainty over the status of the photographic image registered in the minds of photographers as a deep unease about their own precarious social position. And this social uncertainty fuelled the nervous debate about photographic art.

In claiming they were artists, photographers came up against a problem. Notions of art at the time drew heavily on ideas elaborated by Sir Joshua Reynolds, who had argued that art was an industry not “of the hands, but of the mind” (p139). Reynolds’ argument was part of a wider discourse, rooted in the division of mental and manual labour. In Reynolds’ view, art was based on the ability of “gentlemen” to generalise from immediate sensuous experience, and was opposed to mechanical work rooted in that experience. Mechanical workers remained, for Reynolds, in “a gross state of nature” (p140), compared to artists. Art was defined in opposition to manual work. For Reynolds the generalisation he sought in art was to be signalled by artists’ refusal to merely “copy” nature—art was not about “details”.

The problem for photographers was that photographs were precisely about copying nature, and the camera’s ability to capture detail was a central part of the account of photography elaborated by “men of science”. What’s more, photographers had to contend with the fact that the camera was a machine, and the photograph was a mechanically produced image. It was commonly held that photography involved no skill or thought. As Lady Eastlake put it in 1857, “For all that requires mere manual correctness, and mere manual slavery, without any employment of artistic feeling, she [photography] is the proper and therefore the perfect medium” (p161).

Edwards carefully traces the development of the arguments photographers used to get round these problems. This takes him into some obscure, not to say ridiculous, arguments of the time—debates about whether photographs should be taken in focus, or slightly fuzzy (fuzzy was more “artistic”); disputes over the standard of studio backdrops, and so on. These debates were heavily loaded with connotations of social class (hence the “allegories” of the book’s title).

One option open to photographers might have been to reject Reynolds’ model of art. That would have meant rejecting the class prejudice on which it was based, placing themselves, symbolically, in a position of solidarity with manual workers. But by the 1860s the “radical alliance” that had once brought the petty bourgeoisie and the working class together had dispersed. Photographers wanted to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the working class. So photographers accepted Reynolds’ model and then tried to shoehorn photography into it in order to protect themselves from what they saw as a slide down the social scale.

But the status of photography was not just a problem for photographers themselves. Through the debates of the 1860s, photography ended up as a problematic form that continued to trouble bourgeois ideas about art and work. Borrowing a term from chemistry, Edwards describes photography as an “allotropic” form of representation. Allotropic elements are those that appear simultaneously in different forms: carbon, for instance, can take the form of coal or diamond. Photography was increasingly put to many uses, both in science and industry and in art; therefore, Edwards argues, from the 1860s on, it would appear in the form of both “documents” (mechanical copies of nature) and “pictures” (artistic representations).

The values associated with the “document” were those of manual work (mindless reproduction), while the values of the “picture” were those of intellectual labour (mental abstraction). Bourgeois ideology depended on the separation of mental and manual labour, but photography seemed to mix these two categories up in disturbing ways.

For a brief moment photography appeared to expose the contradictions of bourgeois ideology. In an important chapter Edwards look at how, at the International Exhibition of 1861, photography upset the rigid classification system that separated “raw materials”, “machinery”, “manufactures” and “fine art”. After a protracted argument over where photography should be placed, a compromise meant that it would appear in the “machinery” section, but a separate room in that section would be allocated to photographers’ pictures.

Photographers were not happy, but the most revealing comments came from Lyon Playfair, the man who had designed the classification. Photography had caused, he said, “a gross philosophical error” to be brought into his system, one which would “disgrace the classification” (p196). By bringing art and machine work into close proximity, photography suggested that perhaps artists were not so different from workers after all. That, for Playfair and people like him, just would not do.

The Making of English Photography is not always an easy read. At times it feels that almost every paragraph is a retort to someone else’s arguments. Nevertheless, it is a brilliant and original book and any readers of this journal with an interest in photography, or 19th century culture in general, will be excited to read a study that combines extensive primary research and a rigorous application of Marxist theoretical concepts to illuminate a subject on which there is so much other bad writing.