Photography & Periodicals, 1870-90


A review of “From a Photograph”: Photography and the Periodical Print Press 1870-90, by Geoffrey Belknap.

This dissertation analyzes the reciprocal development of the periodical press and photography in Britain in the period 1870-1890, with a particular focus on the representation and communication of issues relating to science.

The Introduction places the argument of the dissertation in the relevant historiographical and theoretical contexts. Drawing particularly on concepts developed by Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer (virtual witnessing), Bruno Latour (circulating reference) and W. J. T. Mitchell’s philosophy of iconography, Belknap emphasizes that visual and textual discourses are inseparably interwoven. The definition of the photographic image is thus “not the image alone” but “both the textual and discursive systems which surround the image and the process of reproduction which the image underwent in order to be reproduced on the page” (p. 15). In addition to photography, the core subject matter of the dissertation is late-nineteenth century British periodicals. The approach to the periodical genre draws particularly on the historiographical insights from the “Science in the Nineteenth Century Periodical (Sci-Per)” project and on James Secord’s notion of “knowledge in transit.” Belknap argues that periodicals constituted the main site of scientific controversy in the Victorian period and that in this media the production of knowledge and the communication of knowledge were inseparably interwoven acts. As such the dissertation aims to examine how images (analyzed as clusters of visual and textual systems) were used by different agents in knowledge making and communication in the periodical press. These usages varied greatly and produced different effects. Hence the dissertation is critical of the idea that the technology of photography produced a coherent epistemological shift — as implied for example in Peter Galison and Lorraine Daston’s notion of “mechanical objectivity.” While the periodization of the dissertation is 1870-1890, it mainly focuses on the 1870s which was a highly transformative period in the usage of photography in the periodical press. This decade saw the formation of some of the most influential, illustrated periodicals, including Nature and The Graphic, as well as number of technological breakthroughs such as “instantaneous photography” — the subject of the penultimate chapter of the dissertation.

Chapter 1 is devoted to the popular periodical press, while Chapter 2 analyzes the use of photography in scientific journals. The two chapters are intended to be read together and they bring out a number of illuminating parallels and differences in the epistemological status and functions of photography within and between these periodical genres. Chapter 1 unfolds as a detailed study of The Graphic, a highly successful journal that relied extensively on the authenticity of photography to position itself within the market for illustrated journals. The Graphic used photography very actively alongside text and the chapter aptly discusses this “duality of visual information” in relation to how the journal presented portraits, objects and foreign landscapes to its readership.

Chapter 2 then takes up a similar line of analysis but with a focus on journals in which scientific data and information were communicated. In this genre issues of credibility, trust and authority in the use of photography were further accentuated and the chapter analyzes the implications of this difference from the popular periodical press. Belknap aims to assess the epistemological weight of the photography in the production of scientific credibility and the strategies employed by editors, photographers and others to establish or debunk this credibility. Specifically, the chapter analyzes the status and usage of photography in establishing scientific authority in the journal Nature, its competitor Knowledge and a number of other journals. The argument engages here with the extensive, existing historiography on these journals and the Victorian men of science who created them. Belknap’s analysis also demonstrates that a wide range of less-known agents shaped the content of these multi-vocal publications through the usage of photography and text. Belknap argues that the status of photography changed during the period in tune with developments of photographic technologies and that, in journals such as Nature, the credibility of the photographic representation increasingly came to depend on the perceived reliability and transparency of the chain of translation that connected the photographic source with the photographic object on the page. Overall the chapter clearly demonstrates that visual, textual and material developments are intertwined in the source material and therefore need to be encompassed in the same analytical framework when analyzing the development of scientific communication in Victorian periodicals.

The analytical strategy developed in the first two chapters is pursued and fleshed out further in the chapters that follow. Chapters 3, 4 and 5 are each devoted to a detailed case study of a journalistic and scientific event that raised questions over the use of photographs in the periodical press. Chapter 3 addresses the way that photography became enrolled as a technology for solving the problem of communication between besieged Paris and Europe during the Franco-Prussian War through the use of hot air balloons, pigeons, microphotographs and newspapers. With his focus the chapter analyzes photography as an object which materially moved between places. In this respect it investigates photography as a technology of communication as much as a technology of representation. The chapter makes ingenious use of diary/scrapbook evidence, popular and scientific periodicals as well as books in order to examine the relations between print culture, photography, science and communication during the besiege. The main focus in the chapter is on how information travelled by means of hot air balloons and photography and on the ways in which popular and scientific journals in Britain construed the attempts to overcome the barriers to the communication flow from the besieged city as scientific and/or political endeavors.

While Chapter 3 examines the flow of photographic information across space Chapter 4 supplements the spatial analysis with a focus on the aspect of time. It does so by investigating how instantaneous photography was developed, discussed and reproduced within the periodical press. The chapter differs from the traditional narrative on the invention of instantaneous photography by analyzing the broader discussions and textual discourse of instantaneity within both the scientific and the popular periodical press. In doing so it refocuses the narratives of photographic technological development from an innovation-centric model towards a history of instantaneity in which the periodical press plays a central role as the place in which this technology was tested, discussed and reproduced.

Chapter 5 is devoted to the transit of Venus in 1874 and in this chapter the issues of trust and authority again take center stage in the analysis. Its core focus is on the ways in which a scientific observational phenomenon that was invested and surrounded with problems of visual observation moved into the periodical press. The meticulously executed case study focuses on the relations between visual technologies of observation and of representation and engages also with the work of Chitra Ramalingam and that of Nick Hopwood, Simon Schaffer and James Secord on the relation between “seriality” in scientific investigation and the communication of science in serial print.

The dissertation finishes with a short Conclusion that draws together its main findings. It emphasizes that it is the periodical — rather than the development of photographic technologies — which serves as the starting point for an investigation aiming to analyze the complex ways in which genre, readership and content of periodicals shaped the ways in which photographic opportunities were utilized during the transitional period of the 1870s and 1880s. The rich findings and argument of this dissertation clearly demonstrate the fruitfulness of adopting this analytical strategy.

This dissertation constitutes an invaluable contribution to a number of historiographical fields, including the history of Victorian science, the history of science communication, the history of visual culture and the history of popular culture. Moreover, its elaborate theoretical discussions will also be of much interest to scholars working on the epistemological status of visual representation and photography in the sciences.

Casper Andersen
Department for Culture and Society (CAS)
University of Aarhus

Primary Sources

The Graphic
Archives of George Biddle Airy, Cambridge University Library
Sidney M. Markham Collection of Muybridge Prints, Tulane University, Latin American Library

Dissertation Information

University of Cambridge. 2011. 304 pp. Primary Advisor: Simon Schaffer.


Image: The Horse in Motion by Eadweard Muybridge. “Sallie Gardner,” owned by Leland Stanford; running at a 1:40 gait over the Palo Alto track, 19th June 1878. Public domain image. Wikimedia Commons.

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