Photography and Victorian science is on my mind this evening. My curiosity arose initially on the subject of how photography impacted science of the age and expanded somewhat to how it impacted both culture then and our view of the age. ”
“Any dodge, trick and conjuration of any kind is open to the photographer’s use…. It is his imperative duty to avoid the mean, the base and the ugly, and to aim to elevate his subject…. and to correct the unpicturesque…..” Henry Peach Robinson
Two primary directions of thought seem to stand from the period regarding photography and it’s use when you are not looking at those simply opposed to it’s use in the area under consideration. One is seen in the quote above and relates to the artistic form and use of photography designed to please others and trick the eye. The other is one you see more in scientific arenas both formal and in the large amateur practitioner field of the time, though mostly concentrated in upper class groups. Bacteriology owes much of it’s development and direction to photography. Naturalism and the natural sciences that impacted many fields and aspects of life both owe a great deal to photography and by means of photography they impacted many fields of study and development. Meteorology in Europe found direction in photography and those looking to find technological answers to society’s ills found concrete images of their issues. By the end of the century, cameras were widespread and in common use. Many of these layman images were used in scientific studies such as meteorology, naturalism, and social and criminal studies.
“To understand the special burden of representation borne by photography as a witness in meteorology, however, we must reflect not just on the parallels that Victorians invoked between scientific photography and legal witnessing, but also on the impact of transformations in meteorology…” Victorian Science in Context edited by Bernard Lightman
My readings indicate several factors as dominant in the impact of photography. Accurate representation free from artist interpretation and viewer skepticism allowed experiments, observations, images of life, and models to be shared across distances and with many people. They also allowed a view that was held to be more trustworthy and true to life than even the human eye. Acceptable in life and word seems drastically opposed to what was acceptable in photography of the time. Victorian erotica and pornography stands beside a culture that held and taught such strict codes of social conduct whole languages of innuendo, plants, and fans grew. Courts accepted photographic evidence and many researchers used the images.
The Great Exhibition of 1851 saw a major explosion of photography and its impact as it showcased the new development of visual arts. Queen Victoria herself was the first monarch to be photographed and families began to more commonly have photographic family records. Families at more levels of society could have photographic records, when only limited access to good painted records existed. As photography spread, this grew increasingly true. Thus we see one area the spread of photography impacted science in culture simply by involving the middle classes. One no longer needed to be specialized to contribute or to see the results of another’s work, they simply needed to have access to an image and/or a camera. Combine this with the spread of individuality in backlash to religious and other wars that were devastating to middle and lower classes, with no regard for them whatsoever, and you see potential for a vast explosion of ideas and information distribution.
Steampunk is a culture based on the explosion of creative scientific ideas and the individualistic willingness to try and to experiment. Even before photography became widespread, the use of imaging technology was there and having the beginnings of this very change. Suddenly there was a known, concrete method of accurately recording and sharing images of how things really looked. Think of the impact on the minds of a frustrated populous on the edges of an explosion of ideas all boiling over. Obviously, a major change occurred in impact when photography moved away from exclusively prepared, considered views and images into the frozen moment as it happened of the cameras released late in the century. Even as a prepared piece or time consuming process, images returning from abroad and published in newspapers and magazines captivated the mind of much of the public. Archeologists, Trade expeditions, military excursions, and expeditionary hired someone often at great expense to document moments or discoveries of importance and return them from across the empire to England. These came accompanied by letters, artifacts, prisoners, animals, drawings, and verbal descriptions. Emotionally and mentally the world was both much larger and yet smaller than a few years before. Faraway places in the empire became more real, thus ideas from there or from the idea of there also became more real. We now look back on these descriptions, on the authors that inspired us and our mind connects images from the time and drawings from and about the time to those words.
Early exhibitions such as the one in 1842 spread the artifacts and descriptions of China but one cannot help but wonder if the much greater impact of the Japanese culture on the period late in Victorian age was related to the emergence of improved imagery. Many people relied on the drawings and reviews of the early exhibitions to learn what they brought. China was seen as to far gone from their period of greatness and held no appeal for a populous bound into rapid and unceasing development at all costs. Japan, on the other hand was only recently out of their high point and embraced the Western 19th century. This leaping headlong into the period and technology was appealing to the sentiment of the time. These exhibitions were becoming extremely popular and very well visited, thus they led to the Great Exhibition we all know. This would be the place that allowed the explosion of photography by showcasing it with the greatest technologies of the time and the best developments of the time. Many people when they think Victorian age, thing first of the Great Exhibition or the period right before or after that when so many of the technologies loved by the Steampunk world emerged.
All photography done by me. All images property of Bethany Jordan, as always. thank you.
- The World of Francis Cooper: Nineteenth-Century Pennsylvania Photographer
- By Jay Ruby