Photography and the Novel

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

Photography and the Novel

Daniel A. Novak

The invention of photography (literally “light-writing”) was perhaps the most important revolution in representation for the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The development of the Victorian and modern novel—indeed, one might say modernity itself—is coterminous with the invention and development of photography and eventually film. As Michael North argues, “the very existence of a modern period, broken away from the time before, is to some extent the creation of photography, which has made all time since the 1840s simultaneously available in a way that makes the years before seem much more remote” (3). For the first time in human history, we were confronted by images made (seemingly) without the intervention of the human hand or human bias—an object more like an emanation of the thing itself than a representation. Because of this, the photograph had profound implications for how novelists imagined (and reimagined) the act of writing, depicting, and narrating, as well as how they negotiated the relationship between writer and world. Moreover, this impact was not limited to writers who considered themselves “realists” or even part of a movement like naturalism, but rather extended to literary movements that developed in response to realism, such as modernism and postmodernism. Photography produced a sustained meditation on many of the concerns at the heart of novelistic fiction: point of view, framing, context, representation, identity, desire, and the nature of the human body itself. If one thinks about the most influential texts in the history of the novel, from Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847) and Charles Dickens's Great Expectations (1861) to F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (1925) and William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury (1929), so many of them were written in the shadow of photography—what Nancy Armstrong refers to as “fiction in the age of photography.”

Photography is at once an idea—one might even say ideology, in the spirit of Karl Marx's famous comparison of ideology to an image in a camera obscura—and a specific set of technologies. But, it is important to remember that throughout the nineteenth century photography was never one technology, with each format and process having important implications for how we understand photographic meaning, production, circulation, and reception. As Geoffrey Batchen (1999, Burning with Desire) points out, the “desire” to photograph predated 1839 (Daguerre's announcement of the invention of photography), with experiments dating back to the beginning of the nineteenth century. But we conventionally associate the invention of photography with two figures: Louis J. M. Daguerre (1787—1851) in France and Henry Fox Talbot (1800—77) in England. Talbot began his experiments in 1834 but did not patent his “calotype” or “talbotype” paper process until 1841. Yet, while we refer to both of these methods as “photographic,” their different technologies represented a crucial difference in how we understand the relationship between photography and reproducibility. Daguerre's method was a direct positive process, in which an image is developed on a silver-coated copper plate itself coated with light-sensitive chemicals, producing a unique and unreproducible image. In contemporary photographic terms, the daguerreotype was more akin to a Polaroid than a traditional film camera. Talbot's process would be closer to what we think of as photography today—the negative/ positive process with the capability to produce multiple reproductions.

At the same time, while enormously different, taken together, the daguerreotype and the calotype embody what we can refer to as the “photographic imaginary,” which broadly consists of two key ideas: (1) the idea of an objective, mechanically produced image free from human intervention (what Talbot calls the “pencil of nature”) and (2) the idea of an image that can be endlessly reproduced, that, as Walter Benjamin (1892—1940) argued in his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936), is designed for reproducibility and for which there is no “original” (Illuminations, 224). Photography in this last sense represents a revolution not just in how we understand representation but also how we understand the relationship between original and copy. By 1851, with the invention of collodion (a material that was used to coat a glass plate and hold the light-sensitive chemicals), the promise of endless reproducibility became an industrial reality with millions upon millions of photographs being made, sold, and circulated. The development of the roll-film camera, popularized by Kodak in the late nineteenth century, finally extended the power of image making to the masses.

Given that photography was a key shift in how writers thought of the act of representation as well as a fact of everyday experience, it is no surprise that photographs and photographers littered nineteenth-century novels and are almost ubiquitous in those of the twentieth century. Some novelists (to name just a few), like Lewis Carroll, Émile Zola, Jack London, Eudora Welty, and Wright Morris, even took to photography themselves. Yet, beyond being a subject for novels, photography acted as a metaphor for writing. Nineteenth-century realists like Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, Gustave Flaubert, and Honoré de Balzac were praised for their “photographic” style. Mark Twain argued that novelistic characterization was like a “composite photograph...the blending of more than two or more real characters” (Rabb, 108). And this metaphor worked both ways, as photographs were praised for being “as good as a new novel” (E. Y. Jones, 1973, O.G. Rejlander, 15).

But photography could also be deployed to denigrate novels, either for not being realistic enough or for being too focused on the fragmentary and material. George Henry Lewes (1817—78) condemned the photographic “detailism” in Victorian literature; by littering the text with “unessential details” writers ended up making their texts both incoherent and unrealistic (1885, Principles of Success in Literature, 100—101; see DESCRIPTION). Such criticisms stretch into the twentieth century with theorist Georg lukács (1885—1971) condemning entire literary movements like Naturalism and Modernism by associating them with a fragmentary “photographic” style (1948, Studies, 60, 143—45; 1962, The Meaning of Contemporary Realism, 45). Writing in 1856 about Dickens's style, George Eliot uses the photograph to signify a form of representation that fails to go beyond surfaces: “But while [Dickens] can copy Mrs. Plornish's colloquial style with the delicate accuracy of a sun-picture...he scarcely ever passes from the humorous and external to the emotional and tragic, without becoming as transcendent in his unreality as he was a moment before in his artistic truthfulness” (1963, Essays of George Eliot, ed. T. Pinney, 271). The photograph's accuracy—its tie to the material and the visible—here is what prevents it from representing the invisible subjects treated by novelists: thoughts, emotions, desires.

And yet, at the same time, writers were claiming that these invisible emotions, secret desires, and hidden tendencies were precisely what photography had the power to make visible. Holgrave, Nathaniel Hawthorne's daguerreotypist in The House of the Seven Gables (1851) famously exposes Judge Pyncheon's “unamiable” self: “There is a wonderful insight in Heaven's broad and simple sunshine. While we give it credit for depicting the merest surface, it actually brings out the secret character with a truth that no painter would ever venture upon, even could he detect it” (91). Even if, as Stuart Burrows has argued, Judge Pyncheon's character was never actually secret, never needed to be exposed by the power of photography (35), we are left with a vague sense of photography's association with a kind of gothic knowledge—an association often used to satirize photography as a “dark art” carried out in mysterious darkrooms. Holgrave's claim that photography has the power to photograph the interior of the subject finds its technological and historical reflex in efforts to visualize invisible ideas, from emotion and morality to ghosts and fairies. Scientists, phrenologists, and the police harnessed the medium to create images of the insane and the criminal body. Charles Darwin (1809—82) made extensive use of (often staged and manipulated) photographs in his Expressions of Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). Others, like William H. Mumler (1832—84), turned the lens on even more inaccessible realms, claiming to have captured ghostly visitations. Even a writer firmly aligned with the deductive reasoning of his master detective Sherlock Holmes—Sir Arthur Conan Doylefamously believed in the authenticity of photographs of fairies.

So thoroughly was photography integrated into literary perception, that by 1901, French novelist Émile Zola argued that “You cannot claim to have really seen something until you have photographed it” (Sontag, 87). While novelistic interest in the photograph overlaps with the equally important advent of film in the late nineteenth century, the still image remained enormously influential and important for modernism, not only because of its continued association with the objective and real, but also because of its fragmentary, abstract, and context-less qualities. Henry James (who collaborated with photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn) theorized literary form as a kind of lens—the “apertures” in the “house of fiction” in his introduction to Portrait of a Lady (1881): “The pierced aperture, either broad or the ’literary form’; but they are, singly or together, as nothing without the presence of the watcher” (7). Christopher Isherwood went further, collapsing the “watcher” and the lens, writer and camera: “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking” (1939, Goodbye to Berlin, 1). Isherwood's yearning for a kind of writing without writing is summed up in James Agee's remarks in his collaborative photo-text with Walker Evans Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941): “If I could do it, I'd do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth...plates of food and of excrement” (10). If Agee invested the photograph with the same kind of material immediacy and authenticity as the “lumps of earth” and other pieces of his subjects, others, like John Dos Passos in his fragmented and montage-like “Camera Eye” sections of U.S.A. (1930—36), associated the camera with a new kind of abstract, mechanical perception that, as North argues, in its detachment was paradoxically aligned with a subjective point of view (146; see NARRATIVE PERSPECTIVE). The fact that photography is looked to as a model and metaphor for realistic, omniscient narration as well as stream-of-consciousness and avant-garde narrative styles (see NARRATIVE TECHNIQUE) shows not only how enduring and attractive, but also how flexible the idea of photography still remains for imagining the visual, narrative, and conceptual work of the novel.

Photography and Contemporary Literary Criticism

As we have seen, photography was being linked to literature in general and the novel in particular from its inception, and critics have continued to focus on the camera as metaphor for narrative point of view. Examples include Alan Spiegel's Fiction and the Camera Eye (1976) and Carol Shloss's In Visible Light (1987). However, it is only relatively recently that the study of photography and literature became a field in its own right. Much of this is due to the rising interest in critical theory and interdisciplinary research in general, and the relationship between the visual and verbal in particular. The work of Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes has played and still plays an important role in how photography is understood, as has the work of John Berger, Susan Sontag, and W. J. T. Mitchell. Critics have been especially drawn to Barthes's Camera Lucida (1981), with its account of the photograph's historicity (its ability to record what “has been there”) and its melancholy and strange temporality (it records what will no longer be there).

But, while photography is still used as a way to understand narrative point of view and literary realism, the past decades have seen an increased interest in reading literary realism alongside photography as a material artifact and cultural practice embedded in complex social, technological, political, scientific, textual, and economic histories. Critics like Carol Armstrong in her Scenes in a Library (1998) have explored the way in which photography was bound up with textuality and the book—literally in the form of the illustrated book and conceptually as a form of “written imagery” (3). In Framing the Victorians (1996), Jennifer Green-Lewis historicizes the image of the photographer in Victorian literature by tracing how photographers were figured and represented themselves in Victorian photographic journals. Miles Orvell analyzes the intersections of photography, consumer culture, advertising, and literature to trace the shift in the discourse of realism from the nineteenth to the twentieth century—from a “culture of imitation” (based on familiar and “typological representation”) to a “culture of authenticity” (based on a mechanical objectivity that would change how we see the world) (198).

More broadly, critics have theorized the relationship between literature and material photographic culture. In Confounding Images (1997), Susan Williams usefully outlines a methodology for reading literature and photograph which recognizes both how the photograph “affected American literary culture” but also how literary culture “affected popular conceptions of the daguerreotype” (3). Nancy Armstrong (1999) extends this reciprocal relationship into a reevaluation of literary realism itself. She theorizes a circular, reciprocal relationship between literary and photographic culture in which “fiction and photography had taken up a mutually authorizing relationship” (247), together defining what readers would consider “real” in the textual and visual realm.

Along the way, critics interested in realism have turned to photography, its cultural history, and the language in which it was described as a way of understanding a variety of novelistic preoccupations that intersect with realism, including race, nation (see NATIONAL), SEXUALITY, GENDER, surveillance, and power. Allan Sekula's essay on “instrumental” uses of photography to identify the unfit or deviant body by the police and the state in “The Body and the Archive” (1986) and John Tagg's The Burden of Representation (1993) have influenced a number of studies that employ the theories of Michel Foucault to understand the relationship between realism and social control. For example, Jennifer Green Lewis has chapters devoted to photographs of the criminal and insane body. Ronald Thomas's Detective Fiction and the Rise of Forensic Science (1999) reads novels from Dickens to Raymond Chandler in the context of photography's associations with surveillance and detection (see DETECTIVE). Others, like James Ryan, Catherine Lutz, Jane Collins, and Kobena Mercer, have explored the relationship between photography and colonialist ideology.

Most recently, however, scholars have explored the ways in which photography was associated with a way of seeing that was not reducible to the kind of instrumental realism discussed in earlier studies. Katherine Henninger argues that the critical habit of seeing the camera as “inherently a ’master's tool’” or an instrument of the “male gaze” functions as a kind of “ideological fantasy” dependent on accepting photography's “realism” as “natural” and ignoring photography's “radical indeterminacy” (116—17). Henninger locates this indeterminacy in contemporary Southern women's literature and its use of the “fictional photograph”—the photograph described in language. For Henninger, translating the photographic object into language has the effect of foregrounding “the cultural dynamics of vision and visual representation” (9) and opens a space for resisting patriarchal (see FEMINIST) and racist ideologies (see IDEOLOGY).

Others, such as Daniel A. Novak, argue that, while some Victorian writers associated photography with objectivity, they also aligned it with fiction and the unreal. Rather than a process that recorded accurate “likenesses” of individuals, photography was seen as a medium that effaced particularity and individuality. In this context, he reads the often spectral, abstract, and typological figures in texts considered part of Victorian “realism” not as failures of realistic representation but as figures aligned with photography and photographic discourse. Along the same lines, Stuart Burrows argues that “the relationship between photography and American fiction is one not of likeness but about likeness” (19). For him, photography embodied a flattening of difference and redundancy that rendered American identity and history both homogenous and “endlessly reproducible” (11). Like Novak and Burrows, Richard Menke (2008, Telegraphic Realism) associates photography more with the abstract than the real; he places photography in the context of the nineteenth-century invention of disembodied and immaterial “information.” Finally, North points to the ways in which photography transformed both vision and writing itself but in unexpected ways: “Photography is itself a kind of modern writing...neither linguistic nor pictorial but hovering in a kind of utopian space between, where the informational utility of writing meets the immediacy of sight” (4). For North, the shifts in perception away from realism and even the visible itself that we associate with modernism started with the invention of photography in the nineteenth century.

This rich and diverse body of critical work on photography and literature—even and especially work that reaches back into history—forms the contours of a field that will only become more important for understanding our contemporary culture, a culture that increasingly accesses text in a digital and visual environment.

SEE ALSO: Adaptation/Appropriation, Graphic Novel, Intertextuality, Memory, Novel Theory (19th Century).


1. Armstrong, N. (1999), Fiction in the Age of Photography.

2. Barthes, R. (1981), Camera Lucida.

3. Burrows, S. (2008), A Familiar Strangeness.

4. Green-Lewis, J. (1996), Framing the Victorians.

5. Henninger, K. (2007), Ordering the Façade.

6. Mitchell, W.J.T. (1994), Picture Theory.

7. North, M. (2005), Camera Works.

8. Novak, D.A. (2008), Realism, Photography, and Nineteenth-Century Fiction.

9. Orvell, M. (1989), The Real Thing.

10. Rabb, J., ed. (1995), Literature and Photography.

11. Sontag, S. (1977), On Photography.