by Jennifer Green-Lewis. Bloomsbury Academic, April 2017. 173 p. ill. ISBN 9781474263085 (h/c), $102.60.
Reviewed May 2018
Jennifer Green-Lewis’s (associate professor of English at the George Washington University) monograph bravely embraces the fleeting nature of time in its analysis of Victorian photography and its impact on society today. It is part of Bloomsbury’s “Photography, History: History, Photography” series. Structurally, the text is divided into two parts and six chapters. The first part positions photography in time through a history of its development and use. Then the argument reverses in focus in the second part to assert how photography constructs time through its presence in literature.
The book engages with photography in a way that allows readers to reexamine common clichés associated with the art form and better understand photographic processes. In addition to further cementing the connection of photography with the past, the author strongly demonstrates that “sun drawings” are influential in constructing the present. In capturing a single moment in time, the author argues that photographs make “now” perpetual. Similarly, a parallel shift to the present tense can be seen as a defining feature of Victorian literature. Furthermore, Green-Lewis effectively addresses the technical and material aspects of photography, which are often downplayed in other critical literature. She argues that a rough photographic surface was felt to communicate the passage of time and invoke the picturesque during the Victorian age. The slightly textured surface of the calotype distinguished it as one of many types of “photographies,” distinct from the smoothness of daguerreotypes and later digital photographs.
The textual arguments throughout the monograph are strong, but an art audience may find the visual content lacking. Twenty grayscale images are present in the text. Given that the photographs being discussed are black and white and the text is interdisciplinary in nature, the downplayed role of imagery in the book is understandable. In regards to selection, the works chosen are primarily from the traditional canon, with a total of seven images from Henry Fox Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature (1844-1846). Although this is an important foundational text, its imagery does not always strongly support Green-Lewis’s nuanced arguments or the author’s tendency to bring less canonical subject matter to the forefront.
While novels by Austen, Dickens, Eliot, Hardy, and Woolf are emphasized, the text also strongly highlights the role of the popular press in influencing readers from the Victorian age onwards to see photographically. Publications cited include the Illustrated London News, The Army and Navy Catalogue, and, most prominently, The Atlantic. Interest beyond the realm of fine art is also expressed in the closing chapter through Green-Lewis’s statement that snapshots constitute most of photography from the time period and that art photography is privileged in shaping how we picture the past in spite of this reality. Emphasizing these nontraditional sources enriches the text and its arguments.