Posted by: helenabeliveau | November 18, 2018

William Mumler and the Spirit Photography Phenomenon

In aligning with last week’s discussion on Julia Margaret Cameron’s aestheticization of portrait photography, which marked a major departure from many portrait photographer ’s initial intents to solely capture the ‘real’, I decided to look at another form of photographic manipulation.  However this manipulation, in contrast to Cameron’s explicit manipulation, was prominently marketed to clients as capturing the ‘real.’ The advent of spirit photography allowed families to have a tangible representation of a deceased loved one who may have passed away before they had a chance to sit a portrait.  Spirit photography, in turn, played on many Victorian peoples strong spiritual beliefs and saturated a society where many people had lost loved ones unexpectedly.

Because the camera was a relatively new and explosive invention, its particularities were shrouded in mystery, and the fact that one object could capture a specific ‘real’ moment in time was so technologically unfathomable to ordinary people that it could be considered a work of magic.  The ‘ghost photograph’, however, was fairly simple to create, and was initially created by accident. These photographs were, “a result of the long exposures required by the earliest photographic processes. If the subject moved during the exposure, they appeared in the finished photograph as a blurred, transparent, ghost-like figure” (Harding). Through this discovery, many enterprising photographers began to advertise the production of portraits, that would, as advertised, have a deceased loved one in the frame alongside the living sitter.  The rise of spirit photography arrived during a particularly crowded photography studio market and allowed photographers to prey on even more consumers.  More specifically, in vulnerable family members who were still in mourning.

In addition, spirit photography arose during a particular moment in American society, in the decades shortly following the Civil War.  Within the ‘spirit photography’ market in the United States, the most notorious is William Mumler. Mumler is perhaps most known for producing one of the most popular spirit photographs; a portrait of Mary Todd Lincon.  Transposed over Mary Todd Lincoln, who is clothed in a mourning veil, is the ghostly image of her late husband, Abraham Lincoln.

Mumler’s career as a spirit photographer began accidentally, as he noticed a spectral figure in one of his traditional portraits, most likely caused by a double exposure.  Nevertheless, this carte de visite became extremely popular, and he soon began charging exorbitant fees for ‘spirit photographs’, albeit under certain conditions. In attempting to convey a sense of how ‘finicky’ these spirits were, “Mumler charged $10 for a dozen photographs, or five times the going rate, with no guarantee that any spirit “extras” would appear. Often they did not, and clients had to make repeated trips to Mumler’s studio before they were blessed with a ‘presence’.”   His enterprise even expanded to a mail order service, in which clients could mail in a description of a loved one they wanted to see in a photograph, plus seven dollars and fifty cents.

Several photographers soon became extremely sceptical of Mumler’s photographs, and launched a citywide sting operation in an effort to stop Mumler’s fraudulent business practices.  Upon taking a portrait for an undercover police officer, and failing to produce the promised spirit in the photograph, he was taken into custody.  His subsequent criminal trial produced several impassioned ommissions of innocence by several clients, and he was soon set free, as the judge was unable to find any conclusive evidence that Mumler was ‘duping’ his clients.  He soon relaunched his business in Boston and found himself photographing one of Mary Todd Lincoln’s final portraits.

In looking at this image alongside our previous discussions about the amount of power held by a photographer, I am struck by how such an unethical practice appeared during such a vulnerable time in American history.  Not only did these photographers have the power to portray their clients in a certain light, but they also had the power to enforce and manipulate the beliefs of clients whose lives were impacted by intense pain and sorrow.

 mary todd lincoln

Image 1: Mary Todd Lincoln with Abraham Lincoln. Photographed by William Mumler in 1872

Works Cited:

Image 1:

Harding, Colin. “G Is for… Ghosts: The Birth and Rise of Spirit Photography.” National Science and Media Museum Blog, 17 Aug. 2018,

Piepenbring, Dan. “The Photographer Who Claimed to Capture Abraham Lincoln’s Ghost.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 27 Oct. 2017,

“The Ghost and Mr. Mumler.” HistoryNet, 24 Jan. 2018,

Posted by: Casey L | November 18, 2018

Jonas and Vroman: Art Museum Visit Review

Having just finished reading Alice Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll, the concept of reflection was at the forefront of my mind during the class visit to the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum. The two works I studied and both Alice stories were inextricably linked, so that as I took notes, the connections spilled out more quickly than I could write.

The first more structured part of the museum visit was spent watching Joan Jonas’ work Mirror Improvisations and doing a close reading in the context of our class. After thinking through our initial impressions, we were asked to consider connections to the course and Jonas’ use of the mirror. I had briefly visited this same piece with another English class and admittedly had not had much of a reaction, lacking the context to interpret it.

With the course in mind, I had the necessary interpretive tools to read the film. As in the two Alice stories, the film begins outside of its own Wonderland. Jonas, the other subject, and the dog are first shown outside of the mirror from the direct perspective of the camera. Once thrust into the mirror world, time jolts and slows, and actions become absurd. By the end, there is no resolution or falling action, rather a few seemingly random conflicts (sword-fighting vs. creature encounters) and construction to no end in itself (compare with the courtroom nonsense in Alice).

Joan Jonas plays on age and perspective in her piece. She and the other woman dress up as children may dress up as princesses, with tulle and paper hats thrown on top of everyday clothing. At the same time that they imitate the play of children, they are projected as larger than life from the low perspective of the mirror. Like in Alice, size and age are in flux in this mirror world. The film’s music is random, existing in a tension between childlike smashing on piano keys and adult, sophisticated jazz. Another connection to Alice in Wonderland is Jonas’ dog, as the non-human becomes incorporated into play. In multiple shots in the film, the dog is larger than the human figure, reminiscent of the terrier that Alice encounters.

Jonas and the woman are able to watch how they will appear on film in the mirror. They look at the mirror as though making eye contact with the viewer but really looking at themselves and the camera lens at the same time. Jonas subverts the truth-claim of film, its supposed ability to reveal more than photography. How do worlds change when seen through a mirror? How can the camera be a part of reimagining the world? There is something larger—stories and ideas—that cannot be captured by the camera. The subjects understand what they represent, but viewers cannot access their reality.

After discussing the film—I found a lot of what I was writing were thoughts in common with classmates—we were sent off for the second part of the trip. With two quotes from Joan Jonas in mind, we were to read an object of our choosing that related to Jonas’ thoughts about mirrors. I was drawn from afar by a piece that initially resembled Victorian photocollage. Upon closer inspection, I saw the work was composed of four cards arranged in a fan reminiscent of photocollage, with faces and bodies pasted on ordinary items. However, the subjects represented were Native peoples from New Mexico rather than members of the Victorian aristocracy. I turned to the first quote by Joan Jonas in 2001: “In addition to creating space, a mirror also disturbs space, suggesting another reality through the looking glass. To see the reflection of Narcissus, to be a voyeur. To see one’s self as the other … to see one’s self also among, as one with, the others.”


Made circa 1900, what would be the end of the Victorian period in the UK, the cards feature photographs taken by Adam Clark Vroman and produced by Lazarus & Melzer. My discomfort with the cards was framed by Jonas’ quote, which connects to anthropological projects of the late-19th and early-20th century surprisingly well. The specific kind of fascination that must have been felt when viewing these cards is within the context of colonialism, an erasure of the genocide of Native peoples in favor of presenting a depoliticized “mirror world.”

Seeing scenes and people that parallel one’s own fits into this idea of voyeurism of self and the other. As the object label notes, the images did not name those featured and were meant to be “iconic representatives of an entire people, rather than … individuals.” The card placed on top is of a Native woman, labeled “An Isleta Belle,” presumably referring to the Isleta tribe in New Mexico. By framing the photograph as one featuring a beautiful woman, the (non-Native) viewers are asked to make an immediate comparison to women in “their world.”

Unlike in Jonas’ piece, the connection to her quote and our course is not via the mirror, but is still via visual representation of the other/self. Each card’s photograph has an edge that is slightly fuzzed out, emphasizing them as near-fantasy insights into a realm that the viewer contemporaneous with the photographs would recognize as other and yet part of a shared humanity: apart in culture and land, but (however wrongly) sharing a country. The arrangement of the four cards disrupts this voyeuristic ability to peer through the scenes and fully imagine oneself in them, or compared to them; with the exception of the top card, the others are tucked behind.

In the end, the museum visit was a reminder of how our current studies and thoughts shape our interpretation of art. We wove through the museum, threaded by our shared experience in the course, what we wanted to find in connection to our ideas. We sought images that we were able to read, and when we looked at works of art, our internal selves were reflected back at us.



Carroll, Lewis. The Annotated Alice: 150th Anniversary Deluxe Edition. Edited by Martin Gardner, W. W. Norton & Company, 2015.

Jonas, Joan. Mirror Improvisation. 2005.

Vroman, Adam Clark. The American Indian Souvenir Playing Cards. Lazarus & Melzer, 1900.

Posted by: acheever19 | November 16, 2018

Victorian Burlesque: Photography & Entertainment

While doing some research on stage photography in Victorian England, I came across striking photographs from a specific genre of female entertainment: burlesque. Of course I’m familiar with modern burlesque shows but I hadn’t realized that burlesque was popularized in London from the 1830s to 1890s before reaching stages in New York and Chicago by the 1840s and 1850s. Was burlesque considered socially acceptable by Victorians? I wondered. Yet, Victorian era burlesque created a space for female performativity (and often seductive) entertainment. The archived photographs of these women suggest further discourse on the visuality of (gendered) entertainment and photography’s link to the theatrical– their costumes, movement, and the staged documentation by photographers create a niche that appealed to audiences throughout England and America.

The term burlesque was first used in 17th century Italian theater, representative of an extravagant comic interlude deriving from the Italian word “burla,” meaning ridicule or joke. Eventually, burlesque also became a literary device applied to literature, music, or theater: “It’s often a form of humorous parodies or pastiches of serious dramatic or classical works. It was related and partly derived from the English tradition of pantomime, in which a musical theatre parodied a serious work such as a Shakespeare play, with the addition of music and songs and humorous verse” (Uren). The theatrical nature of a burlesque often included comic skits, and striptease acts, leading to burlesque as its own entertainment genre. However, burlesque was not considered to be scandalous, pitiable, or low-brow in nature–it was a visual and performance art form that enabled women to create characters and skits that interacted with and responded to popular culture in Victorian society, literary references, and theater.

Ruy Blas and the Blas Roue

Figure 1. Advertisement and program for Ruy Blas and the Blase Roue which made fun of Victor Hugo’s Ruy Blas. It opened in London on September 21, 1889 at the Gaiety Theatre and ran for 289 performances. This type of theatrical burlesque was known for its overt literary re-imaginings, musical scores, and playful female characters (New York Public Library Digital Collections).

In England, burlesque became the specialty of London theaters such as the Gaiety and Royal Strand Theatre. I will note that in America, burlesque took hold in large cities (especially New York) and devolved more into a strip tease. Performances also took some elements from minstrel shows, such as the three-part format and its often mocking qualities (“Forms of Variety Theater”). American burlesque moved slightly away from stage theater and became like a “sketch performance” with “quick-witted, sexually suggestive dialogue and skimpy costumes for female performers” (Uren). Whether burlesque became more or less socially acceptable after its transformation and proliferation to the widespread social classes of American cities is something I don’t yet know. However, reading the images below can help to imagine the artistic context in which burlesque formed and what it produced for its actors and audiences alike.

The photographs I have mostly include images from America during the Victorian era, taken from the Charles H. McCaghy Collection of Exotic Dance from Burlesque to Clubs, a personal collection of Charles H. McCaghy at Bowling Green State University. In England, burlesque was later replaced by Edwardian musical comedy. Although I found several London newspaper ads for burlesque shows, I found very few British photographs due to the theatrical nature of English burlesque which became more stated and obvious in American entertainment and photography.

Eliza Blasina

Figure 2. This photograph was taken on 107th & Broadway in N.Y. during the musical debut of “The Devil’s Auction” at Banvard’s Opera House. Her costume both fantasizes and fetishizes the female form and showcases how burlesque manipulated its costuming as a visual apparatus, in addition to the set of this photograph (Charles H. McCaghy Collection).

Falk & Warren

Figure 3. Left image: Vernona Jabeau, in high boots, hat, holding a candle in a long holder. Right image: Viola Clifton facing front in a sleeveless, short, fringed top and short, fringed trunks (Charles H. McCaghy Collection).

I was particularly struck by the way these burlesque photographs encompassed a wide range of female body types and gender expression through costuming. Burlesque as a parody did not seem to require specific Victorian ideals of feminine beauty or dress, which is why burlesque emerged as a theatrical site of invention, especially in America. These burlesque photographs reinforce the idea that photography is a form of theater, with characters, backdrops, and a set of conventions that can be subverted. In “Caught in the Act: Photography on the Victorian Stage,” Daniel A. Novak asserts that many have tried to separate photography and drama but the history of photography linked itself to the stage from its invention:

“As many critics have pointed out, photography had its origins in theatrical spectacle and spectacular technologies of illusion: Louis Daguerre ran a panorama theater at the same time that he popularized photography. Laurence Senelick argues that from the beginning, the photographic studio was patterned on the theater: ‘a reduced model of the proscenium stage. . . . Backed by a painted canvas as in the theatre, the studio’s confined space was akin to that of neoclassical drama.’ The use of elaborate props and costumes in the studio—-a practice so common that it was routinely mocked in print and on stage—only reinforced this association” (37). 

Novak captures the common link between photography and the stage, especially in its history and propensity for absurdity and invention. Famous Victorian photographers like Julia Margaret Cameron played into this association. Through her role as photographer, she became the stage director of her home productions, enacting the theatrical with her visitors, many of whom were actors themselves. Burlesque, in particular, opened up a new medium for these connections where posing for a still photograph captured part of the lively parody intended for the stage, in which females could play new parts.

Works Cited:

“Charles H. McCaghy Collection of Exotic Dance from Burlesque to Clubs.” Knowledge Bank, The Ohio State University,

Daniel A. Novak. “Caught in the Act: Photography on the Victorian Stage.” Victorian Studies, vol. 59, no. 1, 2016, pp. 35–64. JSTOR, JSTOR,

“Forms of Variety Theater.” American Memory: Remaining Collections, Library of Congress,

“Ruy Blas at the Gaiety Theatre, 1889.” The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints, and Photographs, New York Public Library Digital Collections,

Uren, Amanda. “1890: Victorian Burlesque Dancers and Their Elaborate Costumes.” Mashable, Mashable, 11 Nov. 2014,

Posted by: lederniermot7 | November 14, 2018

Seeking Perspective

Something I am always struck by is the affect of art to depict subjects other than the obvious subject at hand. In considering Joan Jonas’ work, for one, her direct use of mirrors helps display this sense of othering, presenting skewed versions of reality which make us as her audience consider the veracity of that reality and our experiences within it. In a similar way, painted portraiture evokes that disruption of space and of truth-comprehension through its representations of individuals, of fantasy-lands, landscapes, and even stories taken as myth and fiction, given shape and a reality all their own through their rendering.

The 1600’s “Joseph Interpreting the Dreams of Pharoah’s Butler and Baker” held in the Mount Holyoke College art museum is one example of story turned truth.


Through Volmarijn’s work, the well-known bible story is given a new form, one in which we can easily imagine the three figures interacting as they are supposed to have done. The realism of the oil and the recognizability of the scene to general audiences makes it out to be something more than a fictional imagining – we believe it, and at some fundamental level, we are expected to believe it. The closeness of the figures and the light from the candle working to illuminate them together urge us to find some truth in their depiction, much as the story of Joseph itself asks the Butler and the Baker to believe his explanations of their dreams. In this we find a kind of two-way interpretive street, one side relying on our perception of the work as a rendering of truth, the other conveying the perception of truth by the subjects therein – their belief in Joseph’s tellings influential on our own belief in their situation as here captured. This strikes us as a sort of mirroring as our opinion of the story told by Volmarijn becomes tainted by the knowledge of the painting itself; we are able to see both our own comprehension and that of the subjects while imposing our distanced selves from the scene at hand. We are a part of it in that we are invited to sit at the table beside them, to take a place within the action of the image, however we are simultaneously excluded from the scene at large in our limited view by the candlelight. While we can see the chains hidden behind them, we are blind to the room on the whole, that in itself allowing us to imagine what that space must be; we are directed then to invent the reality of the image just as the image itself has been inventing reality for us.

Jonas’ work, then, and its use of literal mirroring to create (and displace) reality functions in the repetition and alteration of images to transform them out of their familiarity into the realm of fiction. Mirror Improvisation (2005) for one presents us with an actual backward-view of the world and forcing us to figure not only our understanding of her art but quite literally where we stand in relation to it. At the same time, however, Jonas allows us to see the purveyor of her images: the camera tripod, in view though known to be located behind us. The misconstruction of perspective in the film forces us to grapple not only with any sense of grounding we expect (of course while the camera angle shifts and the mirrors are adjusted), but with a self-awareness the lack thereof demands; we become self-conscious while watching as we become aware of our position, separated from the action of the work not only as audience, but physically turned away from it, witness only through the mediation of the camera and its image in the glass.







Mount Holyoke Art Museum. Joseph Interpreting the Dreams of Pharoah’s Butler and Baker. 1631-37. Web. Date Accessed: 14 Nov. 2018.

Posted by: helenabeliveau | November 13, 2018

Review: Keith Hamilton Cobb’s American Moor


This past Sunday, I had the opportunity to attend the final performance of American Moor and an intimate post-show talk, reserved for Mount Holyoke students.  This performance capped off a two-week residency at Mount Holyoke for writer and actor Keith Hamilton Cobb and director Kim Weild. American Moor is a play that tells the story of an actor auditioning to play the titular role of Othello.  This audition, in turn, takes an unflinching look at race relations in contemporary America, as told through the lens of an African American actor struggling to have his voice heard and his experience recognized.  Although not explicitly autobiographical, Cobb told the audience in the post-show discussion that many of his experiences as an African American actor are injected into writing this play.  He wrote this work in the fall of 2012, and it was initially performed in March 2013.  

Cobb has had an accomplished career in theater and TV following his graduation from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts in 1987.  Most notably, he has garnered a Daytime Emmy nomination for his role in tv series All My Children, in addition to playing multiple Shakespearean characters ranging from Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet, Octavius in Julius Caesar, and none other than the title role in Othello. The play’s director, Kim Weild, received her BFA from NYU Tisch School of the Arts and her MFA from Columbia University.  She is currently an associate professor at the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama. Her directing work has spanned to several theaters.  In addition, she has been the associate director to multiple Tony-winning director Michael Blakemore on Broadway. This dynamic proved to be especially compelling in the post-show talks, in which Weild and Cobb discussed the fairly parallel experience of having a white woman direct an African American actor.  

 Cobb was present on stage consulting a book as the audience filtered into the theater.  The play begins with a monologue chronicling this ‘actor’s’ beginnings as a young aspiring actor.  Working his way up to his time in acting school, he humorously critiques the institutions that trained him.  In these anecdotes, he expresses disdain towards the elitism of contemporary theater, especially in the realm of Shakespeare, as many scholars seem to believe they are Shakespeare’s ‘personal therapist.’

The actor’s musings push the audience to become involved in the performance.  This involvement is cemented once the actor declares that he is “breaking the fourth wall”,  and jumps from the stage and speaks directly to the people in the first row. The audience then feels as if they are confidantes to the actor’s comments on his early life as an actor.  In relaying a memory of his time in acting school, the actor recalls a moment where a teacher asked his students to come prepared with any monologue from a Shakespeare work. When the actor tells him that he would like to do a monologue of Titania, Queen of the Fairies, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he is immediately shot down.  What follows is an exchange in which the actor is consistently told that he cannot portray any of the characters that he chooses, and is ultimately told by the teacher that he, unsurprisingly, should do a monologue as Othello.  The actor and the audience is soon roused out of this memory by a voice in the audience yelling “Keith!”, followed by, “So… the Big O huh?”.

What follows is a searing look at not only racism within the theater scene, but racism in contemporary America, as contained in an audition for Othello.  This is demonstrated as the white director proceeds to subtly belittle ‘Keith’s’ interpretation of the character of Othello, essentially denying Keith’s own experiences as an African American man, and how he applies them to a character, who has also felt like the ‘large black man’ in the room.  During this exchange, what was once a moment of closeness between actor and audience, quickly transforms to feelings of complicity. This transition is almost instantaneous as the audience witnesses the uncomfortable nature of a white man telling a black man how he should act, or how he thinks a black man should act.  

The second half of the play is Keith’s deft oscillation between a conversation with the director, and a conversation with himself, as he contemplates his frustration in having to play this black character, as filtered through a white man’s eyes.  Keith’s anger and despair are palpable as he slowly becomes unable to keep up the veneer of conviviality with the director. In a moment that can only be described as uncomfortable and farcical, the director compares Othello’s ‘irrational jealousy’ to a news headline involving a former astronaut, jilted lover, and an adult diaper.  Finally, Keith can be silent no more, and unleashes on the director for acting as authority to a character so far removed to his experience as a white man.

There is a certain catharsis reached at the end of the play, albeit it is quickly undercut by the director’s curt and dismissive “thanks” and “we’ll keep in touch.” The audience realizes that the director has failed to recognize this actor and his experience, yet again.  Although it was difficult to watch the end of the play, as it proved to be devoid of reconciliation or understanding, I found it to be extremely effective and necessary in conveying the frustration of the experience of feeling othered and silenced. The nature of the one-man show, in addition to the decision to embed the director within the audience, pushed the viewers to become actively involved with the production and these ideas.  Through this interactive approach, I felt that the audience was then pushed to recognize their own complicity in certain situations, or their own feelings of ‘otherness’ in certain experiences. I left the production feeling contemplative, yet slightly unsatisfied with the unresolved nature of the play.  However, I feel like the addition of a post-show discussion reinforced the importance of facilitating discussion, something that never comes to fruition in the play.  This play is relevant to our contemporary social and political climate, and I believe that the play and post-show talk invokes an urgent and necessary message: to listen.

Works Cited

American Moor.  By Keith Hamilton Cobb, Directed by Kim Weild.  Performances by Keith Hamilton Cobb and Josh Tyson.  November 11, 2018. Rooke Theater.

Posted by: Lily DeBenedictis | November 13, 2018

Invisibility in “Passing”


The relationship that Cullwick and Munby had is quite the enigma. There are so many facets to speak to and discus. However, one of the most fascinating is about the identity of Hannah Cullwick, or rather I should say the non-identity of Hannah.

Munby and Cullwick’s relationship hid Hannah from society due to her lower status and her instance on always being a servant. Her invisibility relies on this relationship as well. Munby’s fascination with the working-class female body was provided a platform through Cullwick’s form. At his request, she masqueraded her own identity behind the labels of male, female, servant, clean and dirty.


Today, there is a term that the trans community uses which is called “passing. It means that the person is able to “pass” as the gender that they wish to be. This term is problematic in it of itself as it promotes acceptance of a particular standard of beauty and normalizes trans people and the trans experience. Sometimes, people who identify as trans do not want to pass because they do not want to buy into this perception of what is male and what is female.


In these images, Hannah seems to “pass” as male or female in accordance with what society at large understands as such. According to her diaries, Hannah frequently dressed as a male and walked through the streets with Munby with no one the wiser that she costumed. Able to pass as easily as a lady of the house, as a male of status or as a dirty servant cleaning the floors, Hannah slid the scale of social mobility at a time when social. This ability to pass social boundaries is a unique one and addresses this idea of normalizing what the male figure or the female figure is supposed to look like.


While dressing in these different personas, we as the consumers of these images, begin to lose Hannah as an individual. Who was she really? Who is the woman under the costume? To this effect, we can’t really begin to explore the woman under the disguises to more of an extent to what her diaries say. However, what we can explore is this lack of identity. In this course, we have been fascinated by the idea of identity and how a portrait, photograph or advertisement can come to identify an individual, an archetype or a particular market of people interested in a product. This idea has been flipped on its head. Instead of giving the consumer a clearer vision of “who is Hannah” it confuses the viewer and causes us to ask more questions of the subject.


What is important to remember here is that we were never meant to consume these photos in the way that they are being on display now. These were private images were intended only for the visual pleasure of Cullwick and Munby. The interpretation that I have offered here is only one in hundreds who have speculated over these images. Thinking about these images today, there is something so contradictory, confusing yet wonderful and speculative about them which makes them frustrating and fascinating to study.


Works Cited:
Mavor, Carol. Pleasures Taken: Performances of Sexuality and Loss in Victorian Photographs. I.B. Tauris, 1995.
Posted by: madeleinerolson | November 12, 2018

A Comparison between Julia Margaret Cameron’s Madonnas

In her chapter, “To Make Mary: Julia Margaret Cameron’s Photographs of Altered Madonnas “ from Pleasures Taken: Performances of Sexuality and Loss in Victorian Photography, Carol Mavor examines the multi-dimensional representations of Cameron’s subjects. As Mavor discusses, Cameron’s Madonna alluded photographs embody both reflections of the biblical Virgin and of Mary Hillier herself. I find this double identity fascinating and began thinking about how this serves Cameron’s photographic ambitions.


Left: La Madonna Esatta / Fervent in Prayer, 1865 ; Right: La Madonna della Pace / Perfect in Peace, 1865

Here we see two photographs with Mary Hillier as the sitter costumed as the Madonna. Put side by side, these two photographs show us how Cameron’s deliberative staging decisions classify her work as art photography. Mavor points out how “the deathly effect of the child stands in contrast to Hillier’s movement” (54). While the child’s remains still between both, we see Hillier’s face position has changed. The slight difference in Hillier’s head shows Cameron’s will to experiment in a theatrical way by playing with small alterations of the face angle. It is as if Cameron asks, “What would it look like if I positioned the head this way. What would it look like if I then positioned it that way?” There are certain creative choices to be made as a photographer, and Cameron demonstrates this to suggest photography was an art. The allusion to allegorical characters additionally begins to put her photographs in conversation with “high art.”

When I view Fervent in Prayer, I interpret a clear religious ode. Hillier’s face looks up as if at a heavenly light casting down upon her. She shows devotion and connection to an ethereal space. By not looking at the camera, Hillier is innocent from engaging from the viewer who gazes upon this scene. Instead, she becomes the pathway to the light shining down, guiding us to follow her look upwards to an unknown, presumably to a higher adoration. Here the Madonna  biblical sense of innocent devotion.

Meanwhile Hillier’s expression in Perfect in Peace looks less emotive, and dare I say, somewhat bored. Cameron lets us see her facial crease lines under her eyes, showing realistic human flesh. Hiller’s gaze targets you as a viewer. It targets someone on a level ground on earth, rather than something heavenly from above. Cameron has moved slightly closer to her subjects, allowing us to focusing on them, rather than creating space for another external existence as Fervent in Prayer does alludes to. Because we focus on the subjects rather than a suggested space, Perfect in Peace seems to fixate solely on her maternal devotion without as much religious duty as Fervent in Prayer does. While religious connotation exists in both, I see Cameron favoring realism by deliberately capturing Hillier’s look through the straight face angle, details of the skin, and an earthly grounding.

These subtle changes in positioning yield dramatically different interpretations. It makes sense Cameron’s work is can be classified as art photography because of the manipulations involved. Mavor notes Cameron unique choices with the medium. She would “physically scrub, scratch, brush, and fingerprint her glass plates” (48). Cameron must have wanted to assert her role as photographer. People often would call her a performer and stage director. Mavor notes how “she subjected them [her sitters] to hours of character modeling…no one could escape her artistic clutches” (45).

Beyond the photographer’s imprint, Perfect in Peace allows us to also recognize the actual sitter’s mark as Cameron allows Hillier to have a voice of her own. There are various ways to interpret Hillier’s expression. She looks unapologetic, somber and even irritated. I find this photograph perplexing because of its ambiguity because of these multiple possibilities that stray from portraying just a devotional look. The sitter has an agenda of her own that makes us question her complicity in Cameron’s staging. Mavor’s claim, that Cameron could “bypass the confines of her gender by enlarging the bourgeois Victorian woman’s part in both her art and life” (45) can be realized through the comparison of these two photographs. While Camerson can costume Hillier as the devotional and maternal Madonna expectation of woman, she allows Hillier’s individuality and all her complexities speak back.

In forcing her direction over her servants, as once quoted, “for my will against their will,” we might think she has disregarded the identities of her sitters for her own artistic endeavors. I actually see her close up focus and soft gaze as a move to invite the viewer into an experience of intimacy and lingering upon these subjects. Their flesh makes their presence seem very real. These photographs were placed in succession to one another in a special album Cameron presented to her friend, Lord Overstone (55) with Perfect in Peace proceeding after Fervent in Prayer. In doing so, this must have allowed any viewer to experience both Cameron and their own progression of deeper curiosity about the Madonna archetype.

There is a unique dynamic between misrepresentation and representing the Madonna idealization in her photos. Cameron’s rendering of the Madonna in these two photos reveal her use of the photographic medium to both obey and resist the maternal expectation of devotion.

-Madeleine Olson

Posted by: simmo22hmtholyokeedu | November 12, 2018

A Love letter to At Home by Bill Bryson

I cannot overstate how much I love At Home by Bill Bryson. At Home by Bill Bryson is a great, pop history read for anyone who is into the subject matter of our class. Every interesting anecdote I ever mention in conversation is invariably taken from this book. My friends make fun of me for how much I bring it up in conversation, and I have forced all of them to read it because of this. I have a beat up, paperback copy which is my loaner copy, and I have the special illustrated edition just for me. Yes, it’s weird that my favorite book is a seemingly stuffy history book by some old dude, but at this point i’ve leaned into the weird. At Home is a “history of private life,” so essentially an in depth explanation of why western homes are the way that they are. Since a lot of our current cultural practices took root in the victorian period, stuff from that time comes up frequently in this book. For example, Cullwick and Munby are mentioned in the chapter about the scullery, which examines the labor of domestic workers in the home. though their relationship is not talked about in the most….delicate manner, it’s still cool to read about Hannah Cullwick’s diaries in the context of their evidence of what a domestic servant did every day, even if those recollections are interspersed with the sexual content we discussed last week. Below are a few other of my favorite stories from this book that pertain to our study of victorian visual culture. Hopefully it sparks your interest so that you read it, and my evangelizing about this book can reach greater proportions.


Image result for at home bill bryson

1. The Crystal Palace
Bryson basically frames the entire book around this exhibition. The first chapter, “The Year,” details how the exhibition came to be, focusing especially on the architect behind the massive glass and iron structure that housed it. I love this chapter because Bryson tracks how becoming the head gardener at Kew Gardens inspired Joseph Paxton to enter into the competition for the design of the exhibition hall. He based his plan on greenhouse architecture, which was made possible by the recent advent of a new kind of glassmaking which allowed for bigger, more stable panes of glass to be manufactured. Essentially, the exhibition which revolutionized modern consumer culture was housed in a giant weird birdcage. Huge buildings made of iron and glass might seem pretty normal to us, because of the prevalence of towering skyscrapers with entirely glass facades, but in 1851 it was totally new.
2. The Bathroom chapter
Here’s a small excerpt from this fun section on bathroom practices:
“What really got the Victorians to then to bathing, however, was the realization that it could be gloriously punishing. The Victorians had a kind of instinct for self-torment, and water became a perfect way to make that manifest. Many diaries record how people had to break the ice in their washbasins in order to ablute in the morning, and the Reverend Francis Kilvert notes with pleasure how jagged ice clung to the side of his bath and pricked his skin as he merrily bathed on Christmas morning in 1870. Showers, too, offered great scope for punishment, and were often designed to be as powerful as possible. One early type of shower was so ferocious that users had to don protective headgear before stepping in lest they be beaten senseless by their own plumbing” (430).
Ok, isn’t that a fun read? Granted, it does utilize the same repressive reading of Victorians that we have been attempting to nuance in this class, but it does offer a fun glimpse into the daily rituals of people in this period, even if it does make fun of them a lot. This story shows the irreverence in this take on history that I love so much. It’s not a critical look into the racist, imperialist origins of bathing in the UK, which [scholar] did a wonderful job of, but it does humanize the people in this period a lot (for me).
Also, look at this image and caption! There’s so much to unpack here.
3. The Pre-Raphaelites
There are a few anecdotes about the Pre-Raphaelites scattered through this book, and all of them are wacky and entertaining.
The first concerns John Ruskin, the writer most involved with this artistic movement. In the chapter on the bedroom, Bryson discusses Ruskin’s brief and ill fated marriage to Euphemia “Effie” Chalmers Grey, who annulled their marriage because it was never consummated. The reason Effie gave was that apparently the female body was pretty different than Ruskin had imagined it, and he was disgusted (397). Eventually the whole thing was so covered up in the press that “W.G. Collingwood could, without a blush of embarrassment, write The Life of John Ruskin without hinting Ruskin had ever been married, much less sent crashing from a room at the sight of female pubic hair” (398). Come on. That’s so funny. Please read this book.
The second anecdote, which doesn’t actually feature in the main text, but appears in a footnote, is a personal favorite. It talks about Elizabeth Siddal, who was the muse for most of the Pre-Raphaelites. She was a striking redhead with a distinctive angular face. If you have ever seen a Millais or Rosetti painting of a woman, she is probably the model. She is most famous for sitting for Millais’ Ophelia, for which she had to lay in an unheated bath tub for hours causing her to contract pneumonia. Anyway, Bryson’s story about her is this:
“Overcome with grief, [Siddal’s] husband buried her with a sheaf of poems that he had failed to copy; seven years later he thought better of the gesture, had the grave dip up and retrieved the poems, which were published the following year” (467).
Even the footnotes of this book are excellent.
I tell this story about Siddal every time I’m in a museum that houses a Pre-Raphaelite piece. Seriously, if you read this book for no other reason, read so you can tell weird stories in museums. It’s the most fun I ever have as an art history major (sorry Anthony Lee).
I love At Home by Bill Bryson for so many reasons. It’s irreverent, educational, and a great light read for planes. I’ve reread it so many times that I wrote the entire first bullet point of this blog post from memory, so I clearly find some value in it for this purpose. It’s a great way to learn about Victorian culture from a fun angle, and it’s a great way to impress people in museums. Yes, it’s really weird how much I love this book, but if you read it I think you’ll understand why I’m so fanatical about it.
Posted by: helenabeliveau | November 10, 2018

A Closer Look at Contemporary Soap Advertisements


I became interested in exploring contemporary advertisements after last week’s discussion on commodity culture within soap advertisements, and the continuation of that discussion this week. More specifically, in the relationship between commodity culture, the domestic sphere, and the ‘invisibility’of those conducting labor in the domestic sphere.  In thinking about more recent advertisements for products used mostly for cleaning the home, I found that they were eerily similar to the various antiquated soap advertisements that we looked at last week.

Although not as overt, advertisements for cleaning products are still mostly targetted towards women, particularly in a very specific family structure consisting of an image of a mother, her mischevious children, and a noticeably absent father.  In addition, the family that constitutes these characters, the product at hand acts as, one could argue, the main character. This configuration, more specifically in the element of the object as a character, creates an interesting dynamic between the ones who use the product and product itself.  This dynamic results in a tension between commodity as a way to alleviate domestic labor and facilitate leisure, and the simultaneous erasure of the people who still have to conduct that labor. This image of the Dawn dishwashing soap with Olay hand renewal I’ve found exemplifies several elements of the beginnings of commodity culture.  In addition, this advertisement utilizes the notion that one’s hands portray one’s relationship to labor. 

The eye is immediately drawn to the perfectly manicured hands cradling the sponge, and a dialogue coming from the sponge that says- “So I do the dirty work, and your hands get the beauty treatment?  Thanks a lot.” First and foremost, one can deduce that the extreme feminization of the hands suggests, that in the imagination of society, the one conducting this type of labor within the home is the mother figure of the household.  The use of both a pink bottle and a pink sponge enforces that image drastically, as it connotates a binary of pink and blue used to portray an image of a man and woman.

The nature of the hands are particularly interesting, as they appear extremely manicured.  In McClintock’s Chapter “Massa and Maids” more specifically on the discussion of hands, she argues that, “hands expressed one’s class by expressing one’s relation to labor.  Dainty hands were hands that were unstained by work” (McClintock 99). The display of the unworked hands indicates a similar anxiety of the Victorian era in which middle-class women who might have toiled in cleaning and cooking due to being unable to afford hired help attempt to hide that fact through counteracting the effects of that labor on their hands.  In attempting to emulate the aristocratic class in conveying a sense of leisure in their lifestyle, the women who conduct this work are simultaneously erasing their own unpaid labor. So then, even today, there is this attempt to emulate a certain lifestyle through erasure of those who conduct this labor.

This erasure is endorsed even more through the use of the sponge as a character.  Rather than using the actual subject of the one cleaning the dishes to speak in the advertisement, the sponge is portrayed as the main character through its speaking part.  Albeit used for comedic effect, the sponge suggests that it is the sponge doing all of the work.  This focus is doubly enforced through the rather detached and depersonalized nature of the hands. Rather than include an actual person, the ad further detaches the actual person from the work that they are doing, and further minimizes their role in this activity, even though it is this type of person that they are targetting.  

Although this particular advertisement was released in 2013, many advertisements of this nature can still be seen today. It is rather surprising that there is still a particularly antiquated notion of the domestic sphere, and how that translates to marketing for the consumers of these products.


Dawn advertisement smallWorks Cited

Image 1:

McClintock, Anne. Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest. Routledge, 1995.

Posted by: Casey L | November 7, 2018

Experimenting with Victorian Photocollage

To immerse myself in photocollage and attempt a multimedia exploration of this course’s concepts, I created my own Victorian-inspired photocollage.
Originally, I intended to use photographs of friends and/or family in the collage. Remembering that the post would be public on the internet, however, made me change my mind. Perhaps if I knew the collage would only be seen after my death and out of context, I would have felt more comfortable. My desire to maintain the privacy of people featured made me consider more fully the question of the invasion of privacy of the collages and similar work.
linenberg collage.png
The primary difference in my process was the vast number of expressions per person to choose from—as they all appear on TV, there are frames upon frames available to the public, endless representations of the self. Like the phenomenon of having one or a few photographs of public figures in the Victorian era, it shapes the way we interact with photographic representations of people. Though these actors did not give permission for their faces to be used here, there is an underlying assumption taken for granted that once these media are made accessible, people can use them, at least within the realm of the law.
In keeping with collage tradition, I used watercolor for the scene. Kate Edith Gough’s work was the strongest influence. I wanted to use the roles of each character/persona in my representation of them, such that without context of who they are there is something lost in the appreciation of the composition. Rather than functioning as a social commentary, this functions more as a fantastical, Victorian representation of a media landscape and how certain figures interact with each other in the imaginary realm of entertainment. Were each person to create a similar artistic map of the foremost figures in their personal relationship with entertainment, it would reveal something unique about their person and the moment of time in pop culture.

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