Posted by: Isabelle Kirwin | September 18, 2018

Visual Identity in “A Scandal in Bohemia”

In the 21st century, the mediated nature of a photograph or film is often considered enough reason to doubt an image’s truthfulness, and we must see something ‘with our own eyes’ in order to gauge its authenticity for ourselves – seeing is believing. This is not so in “A Scandal in Bohemia.” Sherlock Holmes seems to be the only character in the text who is able to trust his eyes, as he is trained to perceive that which others do not. He stresses the difference between his perception and others’, telling Watson “you see, but you do not observe. The distinction is quite clear” (2). This of course makes Holmes invaluable as an investigator, but he is also able to manipulate others’ perceptions of himself through his “amazing powers in the use of disguises” (7), temporarily suppressing his true identity. This tension between a person’s outside appearance and the truth of their identity is prevalent throughout the text. Holmes is not the only character to employ disguises as a method of manipulation: the King of Bohemia and Irene Adler also adjust their appearances in order to purposefully conceal their identities. But the success of these disguises – success as being the total suppression of the true self – is dependent not on the creator or wearer of the disguise, but of the perception of another party.

Watson, though less perceptive than his friend, is able to identify Holmes disguised as “a drunken-looking groom” because he was “accustomed” to Holmes’s penchant for costumes (7). It is this unique perception that allows him to see the true identity beneath a disguise that would fool others. Holmes’s unique perspective, formed through training in perceptive skills, allows him to identify the King’s true identity almost instantaneously without ever having seen him before. On the other hand, Holmes’s biases, another part of his perception, prevent him from recognizing the disguised Irene Adler. He remarks “I’ve heard that voice before” (13) when Adler greets him on the street, signaling that Holmes recognizes an anomaly in the appearance of the stranger, a tension between the appearance and the identity. Yet he cannot discover the truth for himself because of his prejudices toward the intelligence of women. His unique perception allows for this type of manipulation.

These false appearances are contrasted by the text’s belief in the utmost truth of photography. It is only when the King admits that he had been photographed with Irene Adler that Holmes realizes the gravity of the King’s situation – any other blackmail Holmes considers easy to forge. Thus, it seems that visual identities are mutable only in real-time, physical encounters. The visual identities of those in a photograph are considered more permanent, unable to be falsified or adjusted. This is the most unmediated form of seeing, and yet in this text it is considered to be less reliable than the mediated photograph as evidence. What does it mean when what you see with your eyes cannot be trusted?



  1. The nature of disguises, and how these affect an observer (and are, as you stated, either successful or unsuccessful), causes me to consider how a photograph ties to the notion of disguise. As we have discussed in class, early photographs were by and large staged, since the exposure time did not allow for quick snapshots. The King of Bohemia was well aware of what was contained in the photograph of himself and Irene Adler, but we as the reader are not given any details. Rather, the King speaks in a kind of euphemistic roundabout way, saying first that Irene Adler has “my photograph”, and only elaborating when Holmes suggests that she “bought” his image: “We were both in the photograph” (6). These lines underscore both the sensitive nature of the problem, and the discomfort surrounding the control photography has over a person. At first, Holmes suggests an excuse for the King, that his image was purchased somehow–reminding us of the calling cards of monarchs and the aristocracy, copies of their image distributed in such a way that they cannot know what might happen after the initial recipient has taken hold of their image. But the fact that both the King and Irene Adler are pictured makes the issue more serious. We do not know their dress or positioning in the frame, nor even where the photo was taken. Furthermore, Holmes does not ask, deciding at once that “Your Majesty has indeed committed an indiscretion” (6).

    In this way, simply being pictured beside a woman who is not his betrothed is serious, and the context of the photo does not appear to matter (or Holmes has guessed it well enough, and declined to inform Watson). This notion that a photograph of two people together suggests something more about their relationship brings my attention to painted portraiture. In portraiture, a man and a woman pictured together might be relatives or spouses. One did not commission a portrait of themselves alongside a business associate, or a friend. Single persons were most often pictured alone, and even married men stood by themselves, emphasising their independence of character and thought. We can only imagine how the King of Bohemia looks in other photographs of himself, posed with power and prestige. He might even have a painted portrait, the viewing of which is carefully controlled by the monarchy.

    Such consideration of one’s image in painted portraiture–how to pose, who to pose with, and the recipient of the picture–would move into early photography as well. After all, imprinting your image through photography could be seen as a form of intimacy, for it showed you as you were, with no embellishment. That said, there is undoubtedly posturing taking place in photography. The photograph of the King and Irene Adler is, one can imagine, in a studio. Perhaps she is seated, and he standing. They might, to the idle observer, look like husband and wife. Here, then, is where the problem lies. In a short time, the King is due to be married, and sit for a photograph with his new wife–which might end up looking very like the picture of him and Irene Adler. The photograph has to be reclaimed because of its implication of connection between a man and a woman, posed as if they are married.

    The key word here is posed. Though it is accepted that a photograph is indisputable, and while it might show exactly how the subject appeared at that time, what is not conveyed through photography is just what is not seen in a painting: the driving force behind the work, be it painter or photographer or will of the subject. A photograph is a deliberate thing, carrying personal and (in the case of the King), societal weight. Much like disguise, photographs project an image to the world, and the effect of that image depends entirely on the observer.

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