Posted by: Casey L | October 14, 2018

“The Famine Year”: Culpability and Decomposition

Depictions of the famine-stricken Irish in photography often relieve the Victorian viewer of blame. They may indulge in sympathy for the suffering without feeling any responsibility or outrage. At best, the feelings evoked are of charity, an abstract desire to help, particularly since the Irish are generalized as other, a helpless mass. Jane Wilde (née Elgee) uses this convention of pathos in “The Famine Year” to produce a different effect, one that is grounded in evoking guilt.

A few important shifts in the poem mark the loss of the Irish’s humanity. The “gaunt crowd” (15) that is composed of the Irish forced from their homes becomes at the end of the poem a “spectral army” (47). Parallelism is important because it reinforces the cause and effect relationship between the abandonment of the Irish people, their loss of life, and the uniting effect of their shared suffering. Expounding on culpability, the full line is “A ghastly, spectral army, before the great God we’ll stand,” a line that personifies the dead. Losing life ironically empowers the Irish to take on a new, united form—ironic because the dead will not rise, and because famine is disempowering. In both lines, and throughout the poem, the individual is erased in favor of the masses.

The language and imagery used in the poem are overwhelmingly negative. There are only three lines with positive words, and each can be thought of as the deprivation of presupposed comforts: “God meant you but to smile within your mother’s soft embraces” (10), “Better, infant, thou wert smothered in thy mother’s first caresses” (24), and “Now is your hour of pleasurebask ye in the world’s caress” (43, emphases added). Lack is felt better when juxtaposed with what the Irish deserve. Unlike the physical, racialized markers of difference depicted in cartoons, the markers of difference in the poem are between the healthy potential (or healthy English) and unhealthy reality (or unhealthy Irish). Line 10 sets up the idea of a God-given right to pure bodily comfort. Line 24 seems even more unnatural as a result, since the mother directly unwillingly opposes God’s intent. The ultimate sympathetic figures to strike down are the child and its mother. With the simplest pleasures squashed by the speaker—smiling, embracing, experiencing a mother’s love—the reader is forced to acknowledge what they have taken for granted. This culminates in line 43, in which the speaker unites these arguments to argue the supposed English readers (or at least the upper classes among them) have enjoyed relative safety and comfort of their privileged stance in the physical realm, not where God wields the most power.

Compared to a single photograph or an ad requesting aid for those in need, the poem is more akin to a lengthy documentary; Wilde strives to show the process of starvation and mass suffering over time. Through famine, the Irish become animal and skeletal. “Some of us grow cold and white” (14) becomes “our whitening bones” (44), a depiction of the body decomposing. Although the poem is not grounded in political context, the perpetrators are bookended in the first and last stanzas, so the deterioration is not inevitable. While those who deprived the Irish of food were aware of the “Fainting forms, hunger-stricken,” (3) from the beginning, they allowed the fainting to become deadly: “One by one they’re falling round us, their pale faces to the sky” (33). The causality of the tragedy is created by parallel imagery, an escalation that may be partly obscured by the repetition within stanzas. Among the shifting perspectives and smaller-scale comparisons, this parallel imagery penetrates deeper into the psyche. Ultimately, the inhumanity and dehumanization in the poem create a want of humanization that could have only been granted from the English state, but that, in Wilde’s view, can now only come from God.


Wilde, Jane. “The Famine Year.” 1847.

Posted by: Isabelle Kirwin | October 13, 2018

Review: “Promise of the Infinite: Joan Jonas and the Mirror”

Review: “Promise of the Infinite: Joan Jonas and the Mirror”

In Dance 390, the capstone course for senior dance majors, I visited the Joan Jonas exhibit in the MHC Art Museum. We experienced each of the four installations, then discussed as a group with museum director Tricia Y. Paik. She focused our discussion mainly on Mirror Pieces Installation II, which is positioned directly across from the doors to the museum proper. Three full-length mirrors, frameless, lean against the wall beneath two hanging garments. The left garment is a black dress with small rectangular mirrors affixed to the chest, elbows, and skirt hem. On the right is a men’s double breasted wool jacket, also black, with mirrors on the lapels, front panels, and hem. Somehow the last noticeable piece of this installation, a black cubic monitor – outdated in style, facing toward the mirrors – is playing a recording created by Jonas in 1969. On Super8 film transferred to HD video, the monitor plays Jonas’s Nudes with Mirrors so that it reflects in the leftmost mirror of the three in the gallery.

The viewer is watching a reflection of the film, which consists of a line of nude people, all women but one, holding full-length mirrors in order to reflect perfect vertical symmetry of their bodies. Another man, also nude, walks through the line of people to retrieve a mirrored jacket, a replica of which is hanging above the mirrors in the gallery. He dons the jacket, then removes it, in a cyclical pattern, walking sideways along the line of mirrored people. They do not acknowledge each other, but the mirrors on the man’s jacket force each person to confront a collection of fragmented images of bodies reflected onto the jacketed man’s body. This experience of the people in the recording is relegated to only one corner of the installation, leaving the remaining mirrors open for reflection of us as viewers. As the nude people see fragments of themselves reflected in the jacket, we too see ourselves, both wholly in the full-length mirrors, and in fragments in the jacket and dress hanging above. This implicates the viewer in the work, including ‘outsiders’ in the work’s performative nature. The mirrors become confrontational, and I found myself moving in order to avoid my full-body reflection. Though I could never see myself reflected in the mirrored garments, I could see other people’s fragmented reflections in the small mirrors and assumed they could see mine as well. Like the people in the recording, I knew my reflection was being transmitted to others, but I did not know what fragmented part of myself comprised these images.

I turned away from the mirrors, and spotted two quotes printed on the wall across the room. One was from Jonas herself, quoted in 2001: “In addition to creating space, a mirror 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.” Of course this references Alice Through the Looking Glass, and Jonas often receives inspiration from literature, but I feel that Mirror Pieces Installation II relates more to the final part of the quote, seeing one’s self (not oneself, but the self one has) as conflated with the selves of others. The second quote, printed above the first, creates a strange opposition to Jonas’s idea. Quoted from The Library of Babel, Jorge Luis Borges says “In the hallway there is a mirror which faithfully duplicates all appearances.” Despite Jonas’s literary inspiration sources, I find that this decontextualized Borges quote undermines Jonas’s work. Jonas’s mirrors are never faithful; they distort reality in a way that forces the viewer to confront themselves and their perspectives, creating reflection both internally and externally.

The introduction to Jonas’s work in the museum describes her use of mirrors as indicating “that images are not facts, but reflections of our individual imaginations and assumptions,” again incorporating the viewer into the work. This was of course a groundbreaking element of Jonas’s work, and much of her impact in the art field, and Jonas demonstrates the value of reflection by revisiting her own past work. The video of Nudes with Mirrors was filmed by Jonas in 1969, but she created it purely for experimental purposes, with no intention of using the recording as performance based art. She created Mirror Pieces Installation II, incorporating the 1969 film, in 2014. Both dates are listed on the installation’s label as 1969/2014. Dr. Paik describes Jonas’s revisiting of earlier work as part of the “active life of time based performance work,” similar to dance and other performing arts because of its temporality. Though the museum has rented archival recordings, the performances Jonas creates exist only as they are being created, and are not easily reproduced for galleries or collectors. In fact, Jonas resisted the commerciality of visual art, the containment of her work in “the White Cube” of the gallery space.

This resistance forms a conundrum. How is Jonas to be represented in the art world if she rejects the most accessible public exhibition of her work? Obviously she has figured out a way, or else she would not be the most prolific visual art alumna from this college. But the question of how to represent the unrepresentable is a big issue in time based art, and I know as a dancer and choreographer that video never captures the experience of live performance. With Mirror Pieces Installation II, Jonas cleverly created a unique experience that circumvents these challenges. The mirrors create a live performance with the viewers as performers, an experience that is not reproducible even as the installed materials remain the same, and the recorded video continues its cycle.





Works Cited

Jonas, Joan. Mirror Pieces Installation II. 1969/2014. Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, South Hadley, MA.

Paik, Tricia Y. “Joan Jonas Discussion.” 12 Oct. 2018. Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, South Hadley, MA.

Posted by: helenabeliveau | October 11, 2018

Industry and Artisanship in the Great Exhibition of 1851

Upon reading about the use of the ‘phantasmagoria’ to mask the inherent violence of colonialism and the rise of industrialism within Zahid Chaudhury’s piece on ‘Anaesthesis and Violence’, I decided to look more closely at one of these tools of phantasmagoria.  More specifically, the rise of ‘world exhibitions’ inWestern Europe concurrent with the spread of colonialism. The ‘Great Exhibition’, held in London during 1851 was one of the largest and most successful world exhibitions to take place during the mid-nineteenth century.  Following a series of exhibitions ‘Des produit de l’industrie Francaise’ held by France during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, Henry Cole, a council member of Great Britain’s Society of Arts, convinced Prince Albert to receive a Royal Charter to stage a series of similar exhibitions of the products of British industry. Following these successful exhibitions, Henry Cole and Prince Albert eventually staged a similar event, albeit on a much larger scale.  

The ‘Crystal Palace’, as designed by Joseph Paxton, was built specifically to house over 100,000 pieces. These pieces were grouped thematically into machinery, manufactures, fine arts and raw materials. Foreign exhibits also played a major role in this event, and displayed, in stark contrast to the exploitation of the countries at hand, the glittering representations of Great Britain’s expanding empire. However, this phantasmagoria lay not only in these ‘foreign exhibits’ but in various machinery pertinent to industrialization in Great Britain.  

The goals of this effort were especially aspirational, ranging from an intent to “bring together specimens of industry and ingenuity of all nations; to encourage the communication of knowledge and the free interchange of ideas and to promote friendly intercourse amongst the different nations of the earth;’ and to promote social and international harmony ‘which cannot fail to advance the improvement of the human race” (Auerbach 91). Over six million people took advantage of the accessible ‘1 shilling days’ to visit various exhibits demonstrating the prestige of the British Empire.

In an effort to pictorialize this monumental event Prince Albert commissioned a series of fifty watercolours from artists Joseph Nash and Louis Haghe.  To remain on theme with the cutting edge of British industry, these paintings were reproduced in chromolithography, a new mechanical color printing process.  This account of the Great Exhibition, in turn parallels a tension present within many of the exhibits; the struggle of the old versus new, and the growing anxiety by artisans that the rise of mechanization would mark the realm of fine arts obsolete. In a more explicit, and arguably less effective effort to quell these critiques, Prince Albert authorized the creation of a ‘Medieval court’.  Situated amidst dizzying amounts of steel machinery, and the raw materials that were soon to be transformed by the machinery, the Medieval court contained several gothic style handmade home furnishings.

Mid-century design critics and reformers claimed that “machines were having a deleterious effect on production by diminishing the role of craftsmen, by separating design and production, and by creating the possibility of cheap imitations.” (Auerbach 117).  Therefore, this court was an attempt to demonstrate that the British empire still had an appreciation for this form of craftsmanship despite the sharp rise in industrialization. However, this image feels forced and crowded amid the other images illustrating the crisp, clean lines of machinery.  In an effort to praise tradition, and ensure its place within contemporary British society, this opulent display evokes an image thoroughly rooted in the past. This attempted marriage of accessibility in industry, and the beauty of craftsmanship, instead creates two wildly contrasting images of British society.   However, the rich colors, compounded by the clusters of opulent furnishings of the medieval court, evoke a sense of enchantment, and when seen in conjunction with the various elements of progress, leave the viewer feeling bewildered and disoriented. Perhaps then, this disorientation allows viewers to evade the tension that the two oppositional exhibits attempt to reconcile.  

medieval court ‘Medieval Court’- Louis Haghe

moving machinery

‘Moving Machinery’- Louis Haghe

AUERBACH, JEFFREY A. “Commerce and Culture.” The Great Exhibition of 1851: A Nation on Display, Yale University Press, NEW HAVEN; LONDON, 1999, pp. 91–127. JSTOR,

Haghe, Louis, Jason Nash, and David Roberts.  Dickinson’s Comprehensive Pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851. 1854.  British Library ,

Johnson, Ben. “The Great Exhibition of 1851.” Historic UK,


          In my recent visit to Mount Holyoke’s Skinner Museum, I discovered Binh Danh’s daguerreotype, Ghost of Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum #3, from the series In the Eclipse of Angkor: Choeung Ek, and Khmer Temples (2008) mounted in the Conflict and Commemoration exhibit. Dinh’s photo is a translation of a print photograph onto a daguerreotype medium.  

          Daguerreotypes were commonly used in early photographic portraiture during the mid-1850s in the Victorian period. Unlike  paper photographs, daguerreotype photos are processed onto copper-silver plates using an iodine and bromine light sensitive process. The actual material is heavy and glass-like, and because of its fragility, these photos were often enclosed in a frame case. Because of the time consuming process of preparing the copper-silver plate as well as the danger in dealing with mercury chemical elements, daguerreotypes are not commonly used anymore. I became intrigued as to why Danh decided to use this early photographic method for the piece.


Example of two daguerreotypes in case housing, courtesy of U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services

          Acknowledging Dinh’s photograph as a commemoration work, we can arrive at various possibilities for justifying the use of this medium and understand why this early photographic practice earns its relevance for his contemporary project. It seems Dinh is able to represent memorialization, reflection and the ghostly tainted aura of the subject, which is managed only through the particular qualities that the daguerreotype medium intrinsically employs. 


   Ghost of Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum #3  

         Ghost of Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum #3  represents a child of the Tuol Sleng genocide (1975-1979). The actual piece in the museum is reflective and comparable to a mirror, much more so than this digital representation here shows. What stands out the most is the boy’s black hair and shadow around his lower left jawline. The rest of the body is barely noticeable. In person, the pattern details on the shirt as well as the arms blend into the glassy surface of the copper-silver plate. His neck outline is also barely recognizable, making the face appear disembodied from torso, which gives subject a haunting presence. In order to capture the boy’s outline, one must constantly shift their body from left to right, and so the viewing experience becomes a mobile, rather than static one. It is difficult to capture his entire outline as the body disappears by the slightest change in viewing angle. Here Dinh captures a fleeting quality of the eradicated Tuol Sleng population and its vanquished history by utilizing the daguerreotype’s inherent ability to allow subject to vanish in the frame.

         One can achieve a clearer of  the boy’s full outline by standing directly below the frame while looking up at his face from above. Such an angle further engenders the haunting quality as the subject becomes a ghostly figure floating in space above the viewer. At the same time, this ethereal quality projects a fragile and delicate aura. Dinh simultaneously captures the fragility and preciousness of the child subject. The medium is able to contain such special rarity because the photograph itself is a non-replicable object. Daguerreotypes are “one-offs,” meaning there exists no negatives to reproduce the photograph from.

Daguerreotypes were cherished similarly during the Victorian period for their quality to render the singular individual through portrait photography. Family members often referred back to loved ones and revisited the deceased in these sacred momentos. Here Dinh utilizes the daguerreotype’s characteristic of singularity for his project of humanizing the subject as non-reproducible. This articulation of individuality further disturbs any acceptence of genocide and instead elicits reflection on tragedy. 

         Though we may think Dinh sustains the Victorian daguerreotype’s act of humanization, Dinh actually amends this photographic occasion to swerve away from early conventions of staged portraiture. 

         In essence, portraiture is meant to illuminate the individual. Sitters in the Victorian era would often choose their dress, props, and scenic backgrounds to represent an image of who they wanted others to believe they were (part of the bourgeoisie status, a skilled tradesperson, an artist, etc.).



Example of staged Victorian daguerreotype portraiture

          Logically,  we can acknowledge the boy in Ghost of Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum #3 did not go to a portrait photographer as such leisure and privilege would not have been unrealistic during his state of captivity. We hardly get a representation of his individually here. Unknown-2

         The clothing is barely able to provide the sense of personality as the shirt’s polka dot pattern gets obscured like fog into the glass. He stands in front of a blank background, which also eradicates any idea of landscape or cultural setting. Notice how the numbers 373 stand out just as the black hair does. What does seem important is this tag on his chest, positioned in the lower center part of the frame, which is the only hint of identification we can gather. The title of this photograph does not include a name, but identifies the boy as a “ghost,” labeling him as an anonymous, unliving, unhuman subject. We are not permitted a full view of the body. Instead the body seems to be in a more restricted, rather than open display, as if regulated to contain expression. By conforming the body to fit within a tight photographic frame and reducing his identity to a number,  this photographic “portrait” employs a repressive, rather than celebratory function.

         And yet, Dinh’s daguerreotype does try to “celebrate” the uncelebrated original photographic portrayal through his focused act of memorialization. The motif of reflection is embodied in various ways: First, we understand reflection through its mirror-like silver-copper plate surface. Second, one encounters the self-reflexive act of confronting their own reflection in the voyeuristic act of looking. The photograph is hung about five feet off the ground, about face level, as if it acting as a mirror for any viewer. Additionally every time you look into the photograph  you acknowledge reflections as of the other artworks on opposing walls within the Conflict and Commemoration exhibit room. It is as though this installation is curated to be part of a larger conversation of reflection. Third, Dinh’s daguerreotype was made in 2008, about thirty years after the print it was based off of was taken. The act of revisiting a piece of historical documentation importantly initiates the move to reflect upon history.

         I want to acknowledge the original photograph must have been a reproducible print because Dinh was evidently able to generate a daguerreotype from it. In turning a reproducible print into this non-reproducible daguerreotype, I see Dinh actually halting the act of reproductivity.

         I reference cultural critic Walter Benjamin because of his discussions on visual reproductivity in his essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Benjamin describes the lost value of an artwork’s “aura,” which is its authentic uniqueness when it is mechanically reproduced. If the original photograph of the boy was taken through a mechanically reproduced medium (a photographic print – which consequently loses its aura/unique/individual/sacred value because more positives can be copied from a negative), Dinh’s act to translate the original print into a daguerreotype forges the sacred value of this individual by remaking the image onto a medium that can not be reproduced anymore. With this understanding, Dinh is able to re-humanize the subject that has been originally dehumanized in many forms.

         What I find fascinating about this piece is its ability to negotiate this humanization while still maintaining a part of the dehumanized/anonymous/numeric identity that the boy was originally staked with. Sustaining these dehumanizing qualities perhaps is needed for the piece to incite pathos in the act of commemorating the Tuol Sleng tragedy.

         I further note that out in the open room of this exhibit, this daguerreotype is clearly not enclosed in a case as was the practice in the Victorian period. If this piece was left out indefinitely, its image would eventually tarnish due to light exposure. This means even its viewing existence must be temporary, which speaks to the inevitable temporary life of any individual.

          Does this humanize and make us value this individual subject, this boy and victim of genocide, even more? Or does the choice to use a medium expected to tarnish actually reiterate a vanished and faded remembrance of him? Perhaps it does both. But surely the photograph must assert and reify the subject’s importance as a physical piece hanging in the museum, does it not? There seems to be an negotiation between this photograph acting as a sustainable, yet also fleeting and slippery object for commemoration.

          All of these possibilities illuminate why the daguerreotype is the most fitting medium to problematize and illuminate a child of genocide in a contemporary repurposed photograph, as Dinh models here with the Ghost of Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum #3.

-Madeleine Olson


Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of mechanical Reproduction.” Literary Theory: An Anthology,  edited by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan, Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2001, pp.1235-1240.

Martin, Amy. Victorian Literature and Visual Culture, Course Meeting, September 2018, Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, MA. Course Meeting.







Posted by: deannakk | October 8, 2018

Parallels between Victorian Irish and Jim Crow Caricature

US Serena Showing Emotion

On Monday, September 10 Mark Knight, a cartoonist for Herald Sun, unveiled his cartoon reacting to the US Open Women’s Final on Saturday. This image, harkening back to “the dehumanizing Jim Crow caricatures common in the 19th and 20th centuries” prompted immediate, global outrage (Cavna 2018). While it is true that Knight borrowed the exaggerated expression; large, gaping mouth; and broad nose with which he rendered Serena from Jim Crow caricatures, political cartoonists also used these simian characteristics in their cartoons about the Irish in the Victorian era.

In Apes and Angels: the Irishman in Victorian Caricature, L. Perry Curtis Jr. explores the scientific, political, and cultural circumstances which led to the portrayal of the Irish as ape-like. Curtis writes,

The increasing reliance of European and British anthropologists on…distinguishing as well as ranking the races of the world on the basis of cephalic, facial, and chromatic indexes had the predictable effect of relegating Negroes, Chinese, Indians, and other non-Caucasians to the lower limbs of the proverbial tree of human civilizations. Given the amount of prejudice in England and Scotland against the Irish…it is hardly surprising that Celtic Irishmen should have found themselves occupying a branch which was closer in some respects to the Negro limb than the the Anglo-Saxon crown of that tree. (Curtis 21)

Thus, the Irish were considered biologically closer to African ethnic groups because the inhabitants of Great Britain saw them as intrinsically lower, just like they saw other “non-Caucasians”, and not because the Irish actually possessed similar physical characteristics to African populations. After all, Celtic nations such as Ireland, Scotland, and Wales produce the vast majority of the world’s redheads; Ireland leads the way with 10% of its population being redheads, while Scotland’s population is only 5-6% ginger (Smith 2017). This fact alone demonstrates that the Irish have as strong a proclivity for fair hair and skin as the British, Scottish, and Welsh.

Although the Irish demonstrate a variety of physical attributes, as most ethnic groups do, it is not scientifically sound or even believable to compare the appearance of the Irish to Africans, as Dr. John Beddoe did in his “Index of Nigrescence.” Beddoe’s index “was a carefully contrived formula for measuring the ratio of black, brown and red, as well as fair-haired persons in any given region,” which found that “the Celtic portions of the population in Wales, Cornwall, Scotland, and Ireland were considerably darker…than those descended from Saxon and Scandinavian forebears” ( Curtis 20). These results ascribed fairer skin and hair to the upper classes of the British Isles, which necessarily descended from the same stock which produced the English. However, H. Winlow of Bath Spa University remarks that “[t]he division of the population on the basis of hair and eye color was an artificial construct. Other formulas could be, and were, used to produce widely varying results, depending on the values given to each characteristic” (Winlow 8). British cartoonists thus needed to alter the appearance of Irishmen to fit into their preconceived notions, and the medium of cartoon/caricature provided the perfect means to accomplish this.

Sir John Tenniel, senior cartoonist for Punch from 1864-1901, Judy‘s principal cartoonists John Proctor (1867-1880), and later William Boucher, were just some of the cartoonists responsible for propagating the caricatured simian stereotype of Irishmen in the new weekly penny comics (Curtis 26). Tenniel’s “The Fenian Pest” is a perfect example of Victorian Irish caricature:


In this image, Great Britain as embodied by the Roman-esque figure of Brittania stands stalwart against a mob Irish Fenians, while Hibernia, the classical personification of Ireland, clutches her arm for protection. Fenians were a 19th century revolutionary organization among the Irish and Irish diaspora, devoted to establishing an independent Irish Republic. Tenniel renders the central Fenian in the manner typical of his Irish caricatures: he has a broad, short nose; huge, slack jaw; and a frenzied expression. His anger and ferocity are palpable. Brittania and Hibernia stand in stark opposition to this sinister, hulking character. Tenniel depicts the two women in classical fashion, adopting the Ancient Greek and Roman style. Brittania even wears a military helmet, asserting her role as the protectress of Ireland. Through connecting Brittania and Hibernia to classical antiquity, Tenniel gives Great Britain and Ireland legitimacy as situated in the ancient and “cultured” classical past, a past in which the Roman Empire battled and attempted to subjugate the Celts with varying levels of success.

Although it initially seems peculiar to portray Ireland as the “chaste” figure of Hibernia (Curtis 25), since Tenniel is trying to characterize the Irish as diametrically opposed to British values, the maneuver makes sense upon closer inspection. In order to establish the validity of Irish colonial rule, Tenniel represents Ireland as a beautiful, innocent maiden subjugated by brutal inhabitants, from whom Ireland must be rescued. Great Britain postures itself as Ireland’s savior, preserving the land and “civilizing” its people. The Irish caricature compounds this narrative, as it offers a visual representation of who exactly is putting Ireland at risk. The simian features of the Fenian also serve as a justification for British imperialism. Who could sensibly trust a people who look and act like beasts to govern?

The Jim Crow era began in 1877, and thus Jim Crow and Victorian Irish caricature occurred at the same time, although derogatory depictions of African Americans in media had existed for decades previously. This 1866 political campaign advertisement illustrates typical Jim Crow era caricature, although it predates the Jim Crow era by a decade:


Hiester Clymer, the Democratic candidate for governor in Pennsylvania, used this poster to attack the policies of James White Geary, his Republican opponent. Geary supported African American suffrage. The figure on the right, representing the “White Man,” embodies features similar to those of Michelangelo’s David or the Venus de Milo: he possesses a strong chin, chiseled jaw, straight nose, and emotionless countenance. The figure on the left, representing the “Negro,” could not be more different: he has a receding chin; bulbous nose; large, drooping mouth; and a silly expression. These simian features are similar to those ascribed to depictions of the Irish in British cartoons, and they serve a similar purpose. Clymer’s “White Man,” like Tenniel’s Britannia and Hibernia, gestures to the classical past and thus imputes the qualities of civilization and law to the “White Man” and white Americans who happen to examine the poster. By portraying African Americans as unintelligent and animalistic, Clymer and others justify their racism and their belief that white men should dominate government and society in general.

Instead of portraying the African American as fierce in this image, as the Fenian appeared in “The Fenian Pest,” Clymer renders the African American as unintelligent. This difference in technique produces the same result; it makes the African American appear unintelligent, lacking the ingenuity of humankind, just as the Fenian’s ferocity ascribes an animalistic lack of control to the Irishman. When passersby look at this poster, they are forced to reckon whether one lacking in human intelligence should morally be allowed to participate in government, prompting the same kinds of questions Tenniel’s caricatures provoked. Jim Crow era caricatures and Victorian Irish caricatures legitimize the dominant party’s misuse of power by other-ing their respective victims and striking fear into the hearts of the masses.

Today, remnants of Victorian Irish and Jim Crow era caricature persist, as Mark Knight’s offensive cartoon illustrates. Although I do compare the depictions of the Irish and African Americans in art during this period, I do not equate their situations. African Americans and the Irish underwent unique persecutions and struggles, at the hands of two very different nations; it would be irresponsible to assert that the two groups shared the same experience, or the same severity of treatment. The study of these caricatures indicate more about those who created them, not the subjects themselves. Both Great Britain and the United States used the medium of cartoon to demonize what they considered “other” and justify their oppression. Although it is detestable that some still participate in this form of caricature today, one can rest assured that now, unlike then,  the public will greet insensitive caricatures with righteous indignation.


Cavna, Michael. “Cartoon of Serena Williams Condemned as Racist.” The Mercury News,    The Mercury News, 12 Sept. 2018,          artists-cartoon-of-serena-williams-cartoon-swiftly-condemned-as-racist/.
Curtis, L. Perry. Apes and Angels: the Irishman in Victorian Caricature. Smithsonian            Institution Press, 1997.
Origin of Jim Crow.
Smith, Oliver. “Mapped: Which Countries Have the Most Redheads?” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 12 Jan. 2017,                        graphics/country-with-the-most-redheads-gingers/.
“The Fenian-Pest.” 1896: Trusts and Anti-Trust,                                                                    
Winlow, H. Mapping Race and Ethnicity. Elsevier Ltd., 2009,                                                                          Ethnicity.pdf.

The Great Madras Famine of 1876-78 resulted in the deaths of over 5.5 million people in Southern India, ruled & neglected by the British Crown (a rough under-estimate of deaths at best). This was the first of three major famines in India throughout the duration of Queen Victoria’s reign. Globally, the Great Madras Famine (or Great Famine) resulted in food shortages all over the world through drought and food scarcity, and the Famine from the start was entangled in constructions of empire, colonialism, and photographic propaganda that played into nationalistic fundraising efforts across England’s colonies.

For example, Australian colonists participated in the Famine Relief efforts after Indian Famine Relief Committees emerged throughout England, Scotland, Australia, and Asia. Traumatic famine photos spread throughout the empire and sparked a sense of empire loyalty in Australian British subjects. Yet, sympathy does not correlate with empathy. In “Australian Responses to the Indian Famine: Sympathy, Photography and the British,” Christina Twomey and Andrew J. May argue that photographic distribution campaigns throughout the famine “emphasized the distance between the viewer and the viewed, in ways that were productive for the fundraising effort” (235). As Australian subjects responded to famine photographs, they established a difference from the “non-white members of the imperial family” (234). Australian contributions to famine relief enabled colonists to practice their Christian charity and also establish themselves as civilized royal subjects, distinct from the vulnerable starving colonial subjects of India.

Many of the famine photographs were taken by Willoughby Wallace Hooper, who had long served as an English military officer for India. These photographs catalogued human suffering and included group portraits. All nine of his photos sent to Melbourne included a child or baby, often including a Madonna-like pose of mother and child. These photographs are horrifying and created a reactive dissonance between the viewer and the starving, suffering object. Donations coincided with the weekly dissemination of the photographs in Australian publications and flyers, and committee members of the Victorian Relief Fund even received a “souvenir” for their contributions, an album of Hooper’s photographs and other reports. Not as much is known about Australian Aboriginal responses to the Indian Famine, but Twomey and May hypothesize that Aborigones may have perceived famine subjects as more like themselves, with less cognitive dissonance (I suppose you could call it) between viewer and subject.

famine photoFigure 1. An image from Hooper’s Victorian Indian Famine Relief Fund Album, Melbourne, 1877. This image plays into the colonial gaze, and features two young mothers and holding their suffering babies in the “Madonna-like” pose of starvation.

In addition, comparing later relief funds that went to the Irish during the Irish famine of 1879-1890, the great success emerged from the perceived similarity between subjects of Australia and Ireland. Yet, the Irish campaign did not utilize photographs in Australia like the Indian Famine Relief did, especially because there was a significant Irish population in Australia at the time. The authors conclude, “That the Irish fund raised so much money without the use of photographs is less the issue than the fact that the Indian fund raised so much with them” (250). The photographs serve as both a imperial power tool to elicit sympathy and loyalty and also evidence of British imperial neglect, a double-edged sword within the colonial response.



Moore, A. G. “The Great Famine of 1876, India.” Rhythm Prism Publishing, 27 Sept. 2016,

Twomey, Christina, and Andrew J. May. “Australian Responses to the Indian Famine, 1876–78: Sympathy, Photography and the British Empire.” Australian Historical Studies, vol. 43, 252. 2, June 2012, pp. 233–252. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/1031461X.2011.640775.


Posted by: macusack | October 4, 2018

Emily Dickinson’s Language of Flowers

This past weekend I visited the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst. During our tour I thought about what specifically struck me as Victorian about Emily Dickinson (a poet I do not immediately think of as being part of the Victorian era). On the tour our tour guide, the incomparable Elaine, dissuaded misconceptions about Dickinson being the “woman in white” relegated to her bedroom. Besides being a prize-winning baker, Dickinson had an avid interest in gardening and plants.

images.jpg (Back of Emily Dickinson’s house from the garden)

Exploring the garden after the tour, I wondered which plants would have inhabited the gardens when Dickinson was its gardener. At fourteen Dickinson created her own herborarium, a leather bound book holding 400 dried plants she had collected from the woods and meadows of Amherst, 65 of which are labeled (Farr). The herborarium signifies Dickinson’s scientific interest in plant life; she went on to study botany at Mount Holyoke. After the tour I wonder why Dickinson chose those 65 plants for labelling. Her favorites perhaps, or ones she thought most potent for her writing? I found a digitized version of Dickinson’s herbarium online. Here are a few example pages:leaves.pngemilydickinson_herbarium8.jpg

After looking through the herbarium images, I think Dickinson’s curation and placement of the plants on the pages demonstrates her artistic interest in plants as well as the scientific. How did Dickinson’s knowledge and passion for plants and flowers intertwine with her poetic interests?

Something I found very interesting was that Dickinson paired flowers with her poems during her life: “Though only a few of Dickinson’s poems were printed during her lifetime, many people remembered receiving one of them, often tucked into an exquisite bouquet that she had grown and arranged herself” (Farr). The herbarium can then serve not just as a scientific text, but as an artistic accompaniment to her poetry. I would love to know which flowers Dickinson chose to go with which poem, particularly if the poem made no direct mention of a flower. Dickinson’s use of flowers in poetry does align with a particularly Victorian interest in flowers.

During the Victorian era, the interest in assigning symbolic meaning to flowers, floriography, became tremendously popular in England and the United States. Under strict codes of Victorian etiquette people could send discreet messages through the selection of a flower. Soon there were dictionaries to decipher flowers’ meanings, floriography dictionaries.


Dickinson’s teacher, Mrs. Almira H. Lincoln, wrote a book Symbolical Language of Flowers. Perhaps Dickinson, an avid reader, was familiar with the definitions used this book as a reference. According to Professor Judith Farr, to Dickinson “the jasmine (which appeared on the first page of her herbarium) meant “passion” while to give someone a jasmine vine meant, “You are the soul of my soul”” (Farr). Dickinson’s poems, which I have found to be very enigmatic and comfortable shirking traditional codes of poetry, do not seem like a natural fit for the definition of floriography.

One poem I found concerning flowers posed an interesting comparison to floriography.


That wearing on your breast,

You, unsuspecting, wear me too –

And angels know the rest.

I hide myself within my flower,

That, fading from your vase,

You, unsuspecting, feel for me

Almost a loneliness.


In this poem Dickinson invests emotional, perhaps romantic significance in offering someone a flower. The speaker in the poem invests herself in the flower. The use of a flower in this poem, however, does not abide by the Victorian floriography fascination with decoding a flower’s meaning. The speaker does not specify what type of flower (a key to floriography). The speaker in the poem knows that the flower means to her. The wearer is “unsuspecting” and may never know it’s symbolic meaning nor receive any message. The flower’s significance is to remain between the speaker and the “angels”, or a secret. In floriography the flower contains a meaning, in Dickinson’s poem the flower contains a person: “I hide myself within my flower.” The life cycle of the flower, from breast to vase, mirrors the progression of feeling the wearer has for the speaker. As the flower “fades,” so too will their connection. While in this poem a flower still holds the covert messaging of a Victorian floriography bouquet, the flower here retains its mystery by going without traceable meaning.


“Emily Dickinson and Gardening” Emily Dickinson Museum.

“The Language of Flowers.” Smithsonian Gardens. Smithsonian.

Farr, Judith. “Victorian Treasure: Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium.” Poets, 19 Feb. 2014. 

“Floriography: The Language of Flowers in the Victorian Era.” ProFlowers, 16 Nov. 2016.



Posted by: acheever19 | October 1, 2018

Sensation Novel & The Sensation Image

Victorian sensation novels thrilled the Victorian reader with plot twists and social scandals. They emerged as the “pulp fiction” of the time, especially popularized by Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon, whose sensation writing strived to “electrify the nerves of the reader.” The sensation novel materialized from the fascinations of tabloid journalism (including notable criminal trials throughout England) and was also supported by an increasing accessibility to printing and readership. While subject to much criticism, Victorian sensation fiction allowed authors to explore various Victorian anxieties through plot tropes of identity-theft, adultery, madness, secrets, sickness, and murder, and usually involved strong female protagonists or criminals. The sensation novel as a genre plays into the broader visuality and sensationalism of Victorian England, especially through these questions of identity, scandal, and photographic exchange.

Rachel Teukolsky, a literary scholar with research on 19th century British media history and aesthetics, elaborates on how sensationalism was not limited to the literary sphere. The term was used to describe commotion across the cultural spectrum, which included everything from tightrope walkers to criminals to even paintings, photographs, and novels. According to Teukolsky, these mediums emerged “within the echo chamber of Victorian periodical writing, [wherein] ‘sensation’ was a fashionable insult hurled by critics and satirists at any spectacle or object that cultivated novelty.” In particular, cartes-de-visite became one of these “sensations,” overlaying an element of fantasy upon the visual photograph, in an obsession that Teukolsky refers to as “cartomania.” In one poignant example of carte-de-visite sensationalism, Teukolsky cites an 1864 poem titled “SENSATION! A SATIRE” which juxtaposes the social mixing of two cartes-de-visites sold side-by-side, one of a respectable British preacher and the other of Catherine Walters (nicknamed Skittles), a courtesan known for her impropriety and affairs with powerful British men:

“A sweet republic, where ’tis all the same— / Virtue or vice, or good, or doubtful fame. / . . . Coarse ‘Skittles’ hangs beside a Spurgeon ‘carte,’ / With stare, unblushing, makes the decent start. / These are thy freaks, SENSATION!” (lines 195–201).

While Teukolsky zooms in on the lines that reference carte photography, the entire poem layers a double meaning of visual sensation with the sensation novel. Implicating popular sensation writers and their characters, the poet ends, “No modest eye can see–nor mark the end!” In this one line, the moral criticism incriminates both the eye of the photo viewer and pen of the reader who marks its pages. Both literary and visual mediums affect a physiological bodily response in the viewer, which the poet condemns as a form of sensation. Teukolsky draws the conclusion from this poem and other cultural examples that “cartes-de-visite, like sensationalism itself, signified a complicated and mixed political legacy. Just as sensation novels were attacked for being read by both servants and their masters, so too were cartes-de-visite controversial for equalizing the images of politicians and prostitutes.” Ultimately, sensation novels and sensation images offer transgressive spaces in disrupting class, gender, and art divides.

Broadly speaking, sensation also initiates discourse on crime and identity in Victorian society, including photographic reproduction and identification, complicated by tropes of mistaken identity and legal identity, such as in Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. Collins was inspired by the 1858 case of Rosina Lytton who denounced her husband only to be confined in an asylum for several weeks; he also kept a cuttings book of other London newspaper reports that he used within this book’s sensation plot. Similarly, in Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret the mystery surrounds a hidden identity in our murderess. The plot mirrors the events of Constance Kent, a woman who murdered her half brother and later changed her name, and Braddon published her first installment almost exactly a year after the Kent murder charges. Lady Audley’s self-preservation depends on the deflection of scandal through identity change, although a portrait suggests her true identity in the plot. Both novels play on the sensationalism of Victorian visual culture, especially the “carte-de-visite” woman whose scandal becomes a novelty within the culture, in addition to the social anxiety regarding identity, gender roles, and the ability for a criminal “to blend in” to Victorian society.

Works Cited:

Allingham, Phillip V. “The Victorian Sensation Novel, 1860-1880.” Victorian Web,

Braddon, M. E., and Norman Donaldson. Lady Audley’s Secret. Dover Publications, Inc., 2018.

Collins, Wilkie. The Woman in White. N.p.: Pantianos Classics, 1859. Print.

Teukolsky, Rachel. “Cartomania: Sensation, Celebrity, and the Democratized Portrait.” Victorian Studies, vol. 57, no. 3, 2015, pp. 462–475. JSTOR,

Posted by: Lily DeBenedictis | September 30, 2018

Focusing the Lens to the Past to See the Future: Evolution of the Camera

So far, we have discussed the image and its social implications and uses. Documentation, art, identification and surveillance. But, what about how the image is produced? The Camera. A piece of technology with a longer exposure time and even longer history.

While it is important to understand the function of the photograph itself, it is also important to look at the camera itself and how far the technology has come. Image capture began with taking objects and placing them on paper and leaving them in the light. Since then, the camera has come a very long way. The first was the camera obscura, equipped with a silver plate covered with silver iodide. Images were captured through a small aperture in an enclosed box that contained an angled mirror which would reflect an exterior image onto the mirror and then imprint it onto the silver plate. Daguerre took this process one step further and added a development stage where the silver plate was dipped into mercury vapors which would expose the image. This reduced the development time significantly down to about 30 minutes.


In the late 1830s, the invention of the photograph had inspired William Henry Fox Talbot. He created the first negative process. Where an image was captured in reverse and then printed correctly by using light, a chemical developer and finishing process.

From the 1830s through the late 70s, new processes were being invented that would speed up image capture. The calotype became the wet collodion and silver became glass and then photo paper. The greatest change, came in the late 1880s. The invention of the people’s camera.

George Eastman created the Kodak camera in 1888. Earlier in this course we talked about the democratization of photography in terms of the accessibility to this technology for image capture. Now, instead of just taking portraits, the camera was able to disseminate into society in a manner that meant every John, Jim and Sue could buy one and become an amateur photographer. Slimming down the design and selling it with 100 exposure film rolls, Eastman revolutionized the process by making the camera for the ordinary, average citizen.


This began the trend of capturing the everyday events as photograph-worthy subjects. What truly fascinates me is the set of circumstances that it took for photography to turn from being an expensive alternate to portraiture, to a mode of identification and criminal surveillance, to the capturing of everyday life, to art, and finally now how we use it today as a mode of communication.  Although the use of photography for communicating ideas is not new, it is now more informal than ever. Through our camera phones, we are able to turn ordinary moments into something interesting. A single snapchat or Instagram photo now seems to give a similar identifying marker as a portrait once did. It captures the essence of the “truth” that we want to present to the public. Finally, I believe that photography is still finding is place, but it is important to look backwards from where it came and now we can look to where it is going.

Works Cited:
Fineman, Mia. “Kodak and the Rise of Amateur Photography”. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum: Department of Photographs. 2004.

Maison Nicephore Niepce. “History of Photography”. Invention of Photography.

Posted by: madeleinerolson | September 26, 2018

On Visual Identification Technology: What Follows the Photograph?

         The advent of photography in the late 1820’s to early 1830’s influenced a lot of experimentation, or “fussing out” as I like to call it, of what the camera could be used for. In class, we discussed how legal systems in the Victorian society became implicated into this curiosity of technology’s potential. After photography had established its “honorific” (Seklua 6) function through photographic portraiture, it also asserted its  “repressive” (6) function for Victorian society in the mid-nineteenth century, particularly by the way photos could be used to discipline individuals.

          The legal institution of the prison began using photography by circulating photographs of its prisoners amongst jails in efforts to gain intelligence about whether that prisoner had been previously convicted. I see this tactic as a strategy of visual associative linking and recognize the state’s urgency to not only supervise individuals, but also its organizational practices of record keeping. The move to visually link a person to their past criminal records (and therefore produce a cumulative record of them) can be seen as an indexical anticipation towards keeping track of criminals. As storing data effectively became a necessity, I recognize the institutional impulse to not only have the power of discipline, but also the power to organize the systems of disciplining.

          In Fenians in the Frame: Photographing Irish Political Prisoners, 1865-1868, Breandán Mac Suibhne and Amy Martin discuss how discipline could further operate photographically. Government officials could check up on a prisoner by confirming they had ended up at x location after their release (Mac Suibhne, Martin 108). In such an instance, photography becomes an instrument of surveillance over individuals. The photograph received the same validity as a legal document, and I would claim the photograph still holds a similar legal credibility today. We own numerous possessions which include photos to confirm and regulate identity (the passport, driver license, student and work IDs, etc.). Of course, because photography is a visual medium requiring interpretation, the possibility for misinterpreting an identity is quite possible. Think of how many under-aged teens today successfully use fake IDs today to curtail supervision and slip past legal codes to gain access to night clubs and bars. 

          I propose we are still in the process of “fussing out” how such interpretation can be valid. We can trace technological inventions throughout history which attempt to accurately interpret individuals through visual means. To name a few today, fingerprint matching, iris scanning, and the recent iPhone face ID passcode unlocking feature are all representations of an increasing desire to technologically identify individuals in a visual way. In the case of facial recognition, the body is mapped by invisible projected dots to capture a person’s facial terrain. Such codification echos the earlier legal anxieties to recognize a body: Corporeal features are codified into discrete terms, sustaining the motive to regulate the body now through describle discrete terms of digitization. Visual identification through technology today penetrates into daily activity and does not need a legal motive. Have you ever had Facebook automatically recognize your friends’ faces to suggest tags in a post? Often we are unaware of how easily photographic identification permeates private spheres because it ingrains itself into commonplace activity we take for granted. 

Early uses of the photograph, as exemplified in the mid-nineteenth century, paved the way for contemporary impulses of identity detection. If police photography was a medium that established a mode of visual identification, biometric technology seems to be a medium used today for working out how visual interpretation gets facilitated.




      We can continue to examine how discipline and accountability are managed through physical technologies, both past and contemporary, in everyday commonplace. I was very intrigued by Suibhne and Martin’s note about “photography’s mobilization within the emerging apparatus of a new and more penetrating form in nineteenth century Britain” (115) because it suggests discipline is disseminated in material ways. Its performance manifests materially through actions, social rituals, institutional and religious dogmas down to media culture. Suibhne and Martin mention the imperial state’s use of the “Fenian Pest”(116) which was a caricature used to demonize the Irish Republican Fenians in Victorian society. In effect it condemned Fenians political activity and cautioned the public from associating with its efforts. We might call this an act of propaganda that carried out the imperial state’s ideology. Such example demonstrates how the state exerts discipline through the material medium of the media, just as the photograph is a material behavior. The use of photography as a repressive tool reveals how easily discipline and ideology creates its public reality through its material existence.

-Madeleine Olson


Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.”. Literary Theory: An Anthology, edited by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan, Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2017.

Mac Suibhne, Breandán, and Amy Martin. “Fenians in the Frame: Photographing Irish Political Prisoners1865-1868.” Field Day Review, 2005.

Sekula, Allan. “The Body and the Archive.” October, vol. 39, 1986, pp. 3–64. JSTOR, JSTOR,



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