Posted by: chloejonas | December 14, 2020

Corsets, corsets, corsets as far as the eye can see!

We’ve all seen it before: a scene from a movie, tv show or book which depicts corsets as unbearably painful torture devices; most often, we see a woman braced against a bedframe with a handmaid pulling the lady’s corset as tightly as she can, while this poor, out-of-breath woman gasps from the sheer pain of wearing an everyday structural garment. Pirates of the Caribbean did it; The Handmaiden did it; even the new trailer for Shonda Rimes’ colorful and vivid Bridgerton on Netflix gets a jab at corsetry. So what’s the problem? Do corsets really, as Emma Stone said: shift your organs around? The historical fashion corner of Youtube seems to disagree. 

Bernadette Banner, a former Broadway costume designer and now-youtuber/ Victorian and Edwardian era fashion historian, made a video comparing her old back brace that she wore for several years throughout her teen-hood to combat her severe scoliosis to a 1890s Victorian corset she made herself. She filmed herself going about her daily activities in both her back brace and her corset for a day each, and compared the results. Banner said that what was most striking about her Victorian corset wearing experience was that in many ways it was more comfortable and easier to move in than the hard, plastic brace that she grew up in. While Banner noted that she did have to breathe differently– she described the way she breathed as “conical” as opposed to how she would normally– she also was able to do multiple (period accurate!) exercises in her corset perfectly well. 

Banner, popular as she is in the historical costuming/ fashion side of Youtube, is not the only person who’s chosen to take on the topic of corsetry. Karolina Zebrowska, a Polish Youtuber who also specializes in fashion history, made a truly incredible video essay (which I highly recommend) about where the argument against corsets comes from. Unsurprisingly, it turns out many of the most vocal opponents against corsets, who campaigned that corsets were unanimously, uniformly damaging to women’s health, were men. Men like, for example, Benjamin Flower in his pamphlet “Fashion’s Slaves,” in which he compares women wearing corsets to slavery and says: “Her health has been sacrificed, and in countless instances her life has paid the penalty; while posterity has been dwarfed, maimed, and enervated, and in body, mind, and soul deformed at its behests. … [T]he tight lacing required by the wasp waists has produced generations of invalids and bequeathed to posterity suffering that will not vanish for many decades.” One has to wonder if Flower was aware that many of his male colleagues were probably also wearing corsets without his knowledge. 

It seems largely, that within the messy, complicated discussion of corsets, there needs to be a distinction made between tight-lacing, which is what many of the scenes from the aforementioned films depict, and regular corsetry use, which a large percentage if not the majority of women in the Western world did for centuries (if one includes stays and earlier garments in the discussion of corsetry.) Zebrowska in her essay brilliantly brings up the point that most red carpet dresses actually have some structural garment or corset sewn into it, as well as that the majority of female skeletons would have been found to be weakened or otherwise gravely injured if corset use was really as bad as Flower and his colleagues argued it to be.

While there are some documented medical effects of regular corset use– yes, your organs can shift with years of use and tightlacing– it seems largely that corsets are not the great evil they have been made out to be. It seems that, and while I never want to discount the personal experiences of actors who have been put under physical strain on set, the problem of actors struggling to breathe, move or eat in corsets has less to do with the garment itself, and more with the absurdly fast pace of the film industry. Corsets were meant to be long-lasting, durable structural garments, and thus necessitated multiple fittings, as well as time to break in or “season” the corset (Zebrowska). Therefore, while Emma Stone, Keira Knightley and many of the other actors who have publicly complained about corsets framed their experiences as a problem of the garment, it seems that the real issue is that their shooting schedule simply didn’t allow them to really have the garment tailored to them and get used to it. Or it’s possible that they were being forced to monologue for hours while tight-laced, which would put strain on one’s lungs. Regardless, what has been made clear is that corsets, like anything else, are more complicated than simply a relic of a past time and a universal symbol of oppression for women, and perhaps, it actually serves the campaign of endless modernization to act better than historical people, who at the end of the day, thought about, worried about and did many of the same things we do. 

Works Cited:

Banner, Bernadette. “I Wore a (Medical) Corset for 5 Years. How Do Victorian Corsets Compare?” YouTube, YouTube, 7 Nov. 2020, 

Davis, Lauren. “No, Corsets Did Not Destroy the Health of Victorian Women.” Gizmodo , Gizmodo , 17 Mar. 2014, 

Goldberg, Johanna. “Did Corsets Harm Women’s Health?” Books, Health and History: The New York Academy of Medicine, The Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health, The Academy Library, 29 May 2015, 

The Graham Norton Show, BBC. “Why Emma Stone’s Corset Shifted Her Organs… – BBC.” YouTube, YouTube, 26 Oct. 2018, 

Zebrowska, Karolina. “How Victorian Men Taught Us to Hate Corsets: The Biggest Lie in Fashion History.” YouTube, YouTube, 28 Mar. 2020, 

Something we often considered in class was how photographs could be interpreted relative to the present in opposition to when they were taken. Photocollages such as our beloved “Mixed Pickles” seemed to mean something to someone once upon a time, but it is hard for those of us today to figure out exactly what.

However, meaning is more often gained than lost. I would like to consider the predicament of the photography of Mount Holyoke’s original seminary building.

Bult in 1837, it served as the primary home and learning facility for Mount Holyoke students until a fire burned it to the ground in 1896 (while the first notable campus fire in our history, it ended up being far from the last!).

The above photograph was taken in the 1870s. Blissfully unaware that it only had a good few decades left in life, the scene depicted is that of a peaceful fall day, if the leaves on the ground are any indication. For the photographer and those who saw the photo when it was taken, this photograph serves to show-off an impressive piece of architectures, but not much else. It was only after the fire that it became a piece of historic preservation. Now things that may have been previously overlooked, such as the trees obscuring the view, become more frustrating. If it bothered the viewer in the 1870s, they ideally would be able to take a trip to South Hadley themselves to get a better view. Anyone who viewed this photograph today and sauntered on over to our campus today would be in for quite the surprise.

This photograph, taken in 1893, shows the inside of a student dormitory in the seminary only three years before it was destroyed. There is much to observe here about student life in the 1890s from this photograph alone – the excess of pillows and blankets, the rocking chair with the absolutely charming cat pillow, the guitar hiding in the corner – if it were not for giveaways like the very detailed tea set and the dated wallpaper, you could convince me this was a modern dorm. Except what really gives it away isn’t particularly what is in the room, but the fact that the environment itself no longer exists. If one of the jobs of a photograph could be considered to convince the viewer that they could experience it themselves, what happens when the place it was taken is gone? It is an expected and accepted fact that people remain in photographs long after they die. The same is often not considered for their environments, even though manmade buildings are just as fallible as their creators.

Both of these photographs gained a meaning their photographers likely never anticipated. Rather than being fond callbacks to the past, they remain the last remnants of a place that we can never return to. A haunting aspect is therefore added to otherwise innocent imagery.

Find these photographs, and much more MHC historical goodness on Compass:

Posted by: elskie118 | December 14, 2020

The pleasure of observation

Freshman year, I was in a writing class that focused on descriptions of images, and just  how to write the thousand words that a picture is worth. In this class we went to visit the Skinner museum that is on campus, and I really recommend visiting at least once. When I was there, it struck me that Skinner Museumwas truly a room of wonder designed to make you awed.

The curiosities, baubles, and pieces from different cultures and geographical locations keeps you jumping from one item to the next. Each little piece had unique visual qualities, but your attention was only held briefly before something else caught your eye. It was almost a little overwhelming at first to be absorbing the details of the room and find every intricate piece was so different from the ones beside it made it easy to give up on trying to understand them individually. Even though there were sections that were organized, such as the wall of minerals, fossils and coral

 it was also hard to put most of the pieces into groups as many of them were randomly assorted or loosely connected.  

Additionally since there were few labels that gave contextual information about the pieces, this felt like a museum where the purpose was to just look at the objects and be baffled by it, then move on to the next curiosity. There wasn’t the quality of learning and analyzing that is present in museums like the MHC art museum. One object I saw had confounded me as to what it was, and I had stared at its hinges and crossed pieces for a long time before giving up and settling on the idea that perhaps it was a strange umbrella or eccentric lamp shade. Later in our class discussions and a quick search on the five college collections database, I learned it was called a Swift, and it was a 19th century textile working tool used for winding yarn, made from marine ivory and whale bones. I even went further and watched videos of people using modern swifts so I could guess how it opened and what the person who owned this would be doing as they used it. This swift would have been identifiable by anyone in Skinner’s time that had used or seen a swift before, but its appeal was its elegance and ivory that would only have been found in a wealthy person’s possession. 

 Its purpose wasn’t to educate people on swifts but to show that this fabulous swift existed and it was on display like an art piece just for viewing. Much of the museum feels like it is simply meant to be viewed and shown off. This reminded me of our discussion on the Great Exhibition, and how at the time,  it was one of the first of several world fairs that were meant to exhibit culture and industry in an exorbitant display of wealth and prestige. Both the Skinner Museum and the Great Exhibition share the common appeal of the pleasure of observing. 

The people attending the exhibition or seeing Skinner’s collection are both tempted by the same apple, the desire to be wowed and entertained. And not only are the items that are on display very impressive and amazing to look at, the experience and the fact that they are being displayed at all adds a significant amount of impressiveness to the object. Many objects are in display cases, and specifically in the Skinner museum, you cannot touch anything. The distance that is necessary for these displays to have heightened enjoyment presents an interesting paradox of the human mind, where the anticipation is what makes the object so attractive, rather than the physical attraction or need for the object. This is very similar to the satisfaction you get after window shopping. You haven’t bought anything, but it was so enjoyable to just see everything, and think about how great it would be to have that new sweater. Where if you actually buy the product, you might realize it isn’t as good as you thought it was. Pretending that you had the object, imaging those new boots, and the possibility of achieving that kind of personal display can give a sense of positivity for the future because by experiencing such displays, it occurs to you that it is possible. But you still don’t get to buy anything. This pleasure of observing can also be seen in the architecture of the great exhibition.

from these images you cannot specifically see all of the wonders that were available for viewing, but you can see the grand space that they were in. The space itself is grand and enormous, and  again with the mall comparison, simply being in an area that must be traveled to adds to the longing and the enchantment of visiting. The designing of the crystal palace for the exhibition was done as a competition, with the goal of being large and grande enough for such a spectacle. 

There was also the danger of presenting objects from different cultures in a way that they are considered oddities instead of pieces of cultural value. The way that the Great Exhibition mistreated the exhibits that were not from britain was an intentional way to bring up England’s elite image of themselves. The fact that there was a separation between the English exhibit and the “foreign” exhibits, all categorized together in something specifically “not britain” shows the ability to control an items display will change its value and perception. In the Skinner museum, many of the pieces that Skinner brought back were from other countries and would express the  different values a culture had in its materials and designs. The shinto shrine would hold more value to the Japanese, who were accustomed to shrines and would be aware of its sacred purposes, more than someone who was from a different culture that didn’t share those values. Displaying a piece from another culture like this has the potential to alienate the culture and putting it in a category of being ‘abnormal’ because it is associated with other odd or unusual pieces.  The risk of displaying it improperly could lead to the assumption that it is unnecessary to show respect to the different values, especially when the museum is more about looking at interesting things rather than learning about them. This is a terrible picture and I’m sorry but I can’t seem to find a better one.

In a different way, the act of displaying can change the perception of familiar objects. The swift was made during a time when people would be wrapping yarn frequently so it had a use, but it was also made out of ivory, making it artistic in the sense that ivory was a luxury at the time. So taking a useful tool and making it out of something only the wealthy could access gives insight into why it was in this museum. The everyday person didn’t have an ivory swift, so the fact that it is in the museum illustrates the societal value of ivory and how amazed someone would be if they saw one. But it also causes the viewers to be distanced from the item, it was too extravagant to be functional, especially now that its purpose is to be looked at and displayed instead of used. 

The attraction to looking at objects seems a little fantastical when it comes to the exhibitions and places of wealth display.  It is easy to manipulate and lure people with what is basically the promise of a good time. Like a siren call, the attraction and the enchantment of being separated from the magic in front of you make you want it more. Both the Skinner museum and the great exhibition allow you to get close, but not to touch the commodities and oddities that are only separated from you by a glass case.

Posted by: elskie118 | December 14, 2020

Photos of the dead

A family of three gazing at the deceased father
A silver gelatin print showing Mrs. Della Powell from Arkansas, circa 1894
A post-mortem image of a man posed with his arm holding his head, circa 1900. His eyes have been propped open in a bid to give the impression he is still alive
Iola Haley Newell in her coffin, Kentucky, USA, November 1901
A set of twins, the one who has died is surrounded by flowers on the right.
A family surrounding their dead daughter, posed to be sleeping

Cultures and traditions around the death of someone are present all throughout the world, and is often a marker for when societies begin to form. After looking at some of the Victorian era photographs of the ghost mothers online, I stumbled across the practice of post mortem photography, the popular Victorian practice of taking a photo of a loved one after they have died. It’s a tradition that is so different to how we treat our dead today, that it almost seems odd that this was one of the norms for Victorian England.

This posthumous portrait depicts Sir William Pepperrell (1746-1816) and His Family. This was painted however after Lady Pepperrell had died.

The very small number of articles devoted to the subject in the photographic press confirms that photographers consciously attempted to portray the dead as if sleeping. While memorializing the dead and portraying their image is a practice that has been around for a long time, and taken many forms like statues, memorials, body preservation, tombs, and the more macabre death masks, the posthumous portraiture is considered the precursor to the photographs. As far back as the 15th century portraits of the dead were created as a customary procedure after someone’s death. As these paintings turned into photos, it was easier to see that the subject of was indeed deceased due to the accuracy of the photograph. The paintings had always shown the subject when they were alive, and it was impossible to tell just from the photo that this was painted after someone had died, because of the way a painter could create an image outside reality, and present an image showing the subject to be alive. But what is interesting is that the photograph and the paintings had different goals. In his book “Secure Shadow”, Jay Ruby writes that the “…post mortem photographs constitute a failed attempt at trompe l’oeil (visual illusion used in art) which fooled no one. Their Function was not to keep the dead alive, but to enable mourners to acknowledge their loss.” (p.43)

The frequency of death during the 19th century allows death to be familiar and treated as a normal prat of life. Unlike the modern-day post-mortem pictures that are used to document the deceased in a very impersonal way, these posthumous photographs were taken for emotional connection. The photos often mimic a portrait photo, where the deceased person could be posed in several ways. This is not to suggest that there was any lack of dignity when taking these kinds of photos, like holding them up with string, but rather the arrangement of what is around them, and the emotions that are evident from that type of presentation.

As seen in the photos above there are many ways to present the family and deceased person in the same image, and there are ways that they are portrayed alone. If with a group of people or pared with a sibling or parent, they can be held upright, and the living the photo act as if the deceased is still alive, as with the 3 siblings on the left in the images below. Other images can show the deceased as sleeping, either in a chair, on a bed, or held in someone’s arms, and can have parents with looking at the camera, or staring at their faces. These pictures are almost always taken in the home of the family.

A child might be posed in their mother’s arms, as shown below or in cradles like the image above. Often, they are given the illusion of merely being asleep, almost as if trying to fool the viewer into thinking this child is still alive. This theme of suppressing the unpleasant part of death, and presenting them in a way that is familiar to life would bring comfort to the family, and allow them the ability to acknowledge that the child they cared for is now gone in the least amount of pain, as a way to ease the process of grieving. Photos even go beyond the familiar and toward beautifying the dead with flowers, their best clothes, and lighting that gives the subject almost a glow.

A mother with her deceased child, Sept 12, 1854

Seeing mothers in these types of photos with their children is more intensely sad, as though the viewer of the image can see through her eyes and understand the depth of her grief.  The mother in the image above has such a somber and far off look in her eyes. Her baby looks as though it were just sleeping in her arms, but the child is gone, and seeing the relationship between the two makes this image even sadder. But for the mother, she most likely values this photo as a memento to keep for the memory of her child, as the only permanent image she would have.

Other times the child would be shown in a coffin or laid peacefully somewhere in the house. In the left most image below, the child has their eyes open. This is an intriguing conflict of presentation, as usually a baby laid out tenderly and lovingly was for the family to process their acceptance of their child’s death. This image has a baby laid out in a similar manner, but with open eyes, simultaneously alive and dead.

Grieving parents sit beside their daughter for a photo

This image in particular captures my attention, because of the differences between the living parents on the sides of the photo and the dead woman in the middle. Her image is so much clearer than the images of the two people beside her, and this is because of the way photographs were taken in the past. It required a long exposure, which meant that you had to stay as still as possible to get the cleanest image. And the reason the woman in the middle is so clear is that she cannot move, she’s dead, so her image would come out the most defined. Compared to the blurrier images of her parents, there is an implied motion or energy that comes from moving around, almost like the photos we see today that are too blurry because the subject was running when the snapshot was taken. The dead daughter is, in a way, more beautiful than her living parents in the photo because of the clarity that her death allows when being photographed. The contrast between the living and the dead makes the image little macabre. To see a visual separation while simultaneously being an image that where the daughter’s eyes are open and she is sitting upright as if she is still among the living like her parents.

The stillness of the dead also meant that these post mortem photographs could have been the only photos some families had of their young children. The long exposure time does not make a clear image when you have an energetic and bouncy child trying to sit down. Of course, this is not the case for every family, as some mothers resorted to the methods of the Ghost mother images that we analyzed in class, and held the child in their laps with a drape over them, or held their arm off screen. But it is possible that the only time a child got photographed was when they were already dead.

The many different poses and presentation of the dead family member complicates our interpretation of what it is that the family was feeling. Did parent feel denial when they painted the eyes on their children, or posed them as if they were only sleeping? Did families feel acceptance if they took a photo around the casket of family member? What was the mother feeling when she held her dead baby in her arms and posed for the camera? The mourning of any loved one is a complicated process, and it would be foolish to try and make a claim on what individuals were feeling when face with such circumstances. But the variety of composition of these photos and the adherence to taking them as a cultural tradition does at least suggest that both themes of photographing, denial and romantic acceptance, are socially acceptable ways of mourning someone loss. The concept of death was more familiar, and it was something that could be more continually present for these families.

The Curator. (2011, September). Post Mortem Portraits of Children Lecture. Retrieved December 14, 2020, from

Dobbins, W., Dobbins, B., & About Author Bill Dobbins Bill Dobbins THE BODY PHOTOGAPHER became well known for his male and female physique photos – images of the aesthetic. (2019, January 14). MOMENTO MORI – Victorian Death Photos. Retrieved December 14, 2020, from

The Guardian. (2016, December 09). The poignant art of the posthumous portrait – in pictures. Retrieved December 14, 2020, from

Linkman, A. (2015). Taken from life: Post-mortem portraiture in Britain 1860–1910. Retrieved December 14, 2020, from

NCMA. (2017). Sir William Pepperrell (1746-1816) and His Family (work of art). Retrieved December 14, 2020, from

Ruby, J. (1955). Secure the shadow : Death and photography in America. Retrieved December 14, 2020, from

Posted by: regisreed | December 13, 2020

Physicality and the Visual: The Tempest

In our investigation into visual culture we have looked at a menagerie of images and various texts concerning Victorian life and its intersection with visuality. Something we have not really touched on however is how the visual lends itself to our understanding of humanity, standing in (many, but not all ways) opposition to monstrosity, specifically so concerning physicality and bodily visuals. How are our ideas of humanity centered around seeing certain forms as human and others as non or sub-human? In thinking about this, I was reminded of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which features two specific characters, both distinguished either by what their bodies look like or are able to do, even as the actual visual description of these remains fogged and illusive.

Odilon Redon, “The Sleep of Caliban” 1895-1900
William Bell Scott, “Ariel and Caliban” 1865
William Hogarth, “Shakespeare’s The Tempest” 1730

Featured above are various artistic representations of the character Caliban, famous in Shakespearean study for his inability to have a pinned form of what he looks like. His bodily characterization always references monstrosity, as it comes up multiple times through the play, but actual description of him is vague. In 1.2. he is referred to as a tortoise, “a freckled whelp, hag-born not honoured with a human shape”. In 2.2, “A man or fish?” “Legged like a man, and his fins like arms”. On a darker note, he’s called “thing of darkness” (5.1.300), “misshapen knave” (5.1.127), “demi-devil”, and is noted as “monster” 46 different times. I argue that this lack of clear human shape forces Caliban in a place of servitude, his form denying him the means to escape enslavement and move about the world as a free person, and can speak more broadly to the ways in which incorrect performances of social norms or beauty standards leave people open to ridicule, abuse, and exploitation.

I come to this conclusion not just through Caliban’s experience and treatment in The Tempest, but also through that of his fellow servant, Ariel, a spirit, fairy creature. Whereas Caliban is scathingly described by those who meet him as demon-like and malformed, Ariel receives high praise for his beauty. In 1.2, it’s noted that he “carries a brave form” (490), “might [be called] a thing divine” (499), and that he can be thought of as “a goodly person” (494) based off of his form. Multiple times his and Caliban’s master, Prospero, refers to him as “Delicate Ariel”, emphasizing the gentleness of his form in contrast with Caliban’s strangeness. Ariel, however, is no less strange than Caliban, and he notes himself that he is not human when speaking to Prospero in a later scene in the play. This indicates that Caliban is not put down for his lack of humanity, but for his lack of being beautiful in that, making him sub-human, whereas Ariel exists within an acceptable form of non-humanity. As Caliban ends the play still indentured to Prospero, Ariel is able to move beyond both his inhumanity and bondage, gaining his freedom and leaving with a happy ending.

The visual in the play is incredibly central to these characters and their plot lines, with ideas of beauty being linked directly to humanity and those of ugliness with monstrosity. A disfigured or obscure form in this context is a punishable offence, just as a socially constructed beautiful one, both in the play and in the real world, continues to be a profitable one. It is also interesting to note the impact visual culture has on readers. Even as the narrative gives little concrete description of Caliban, there is an image in mind of what he looks like- we are able to easily conjure a pictured form of monstrosity and otherness. Where does that image come from? Socially accepted standards of beauty (a visual construct, nothing else) show what a human form is and isn’t- without these, I wonder if we would ever be able to picture Caliban. Or, if we could, would he look that different from us?

On a different note, I feel it is important to also look at the ways in which profit plays a role in non/sub-human acceptability. Ariel works hard for his freedom, performing multiple “charms” through out the play, from impersonating a spirit, to playing a harpy, to conjuring the images of various gods and goddesses. He is useful in a way that, pair with his beautiful form, allows for the overlooking of his inhumanity. He is worth something. Caliban, conversely, holds less profitability for Prospero as he has already shown Prospero how to live on the island he inhabits. Physical labor and small curses are shown to be the main aspects of Caliban’s powers, which, paired with his form, don’t make for much in terms of bartering for his freedom. The visual in this way allows or restricts mobility, either giving freedom or continuing bondage.

Posted by: yujingx99 | December 13, 2020

British export timepieces

I am sharing two exhibits housed in The Gallery of Clocks in the Palace Museum (inside the Forbidden City in Beijing). The gallery has timepieces both made in China and in England, France, Switzerland, etc. In 1601, the Italian missionary Matter Ricci presented the Ming Emperor WanLi (1573-1620) with two automatic clocks total different from Chinese timing apparatuses like the sundial or water clock, which were initially disregarded by the emperor. By the Qing Dynasty, China saw more cultural and material exchanges with Europe. European clocks became especially well received by Emperor QiangLong (1711-1799), who inspired clock production in and export to China. The imperial court continuously pursued clocks during the Qing Dynasty, and soon clocks changed from tributes from missionaries to commodities that could be directly imported from abroad through major ports like Guangzhou (Canton) and QuenZhou. Under QianLong, many clock factories were set up. The Emperor sometimes made very particular orders on how a clock should be fashioned. Once he ordered the clockmaker to embellish a golden lotus on top of a gourd-shaped clock, and the lotus bud should slowly open its petals once the clock was activated. Foreign craftsmen also tried to please their costumers in the Qing imperial court by incorporating Chinese characters and motifs on the exported clocks.

Here are the two timepieces that I find relative to our class:

This portable watch, which uses the fanciful Chinese imagery of the dragon, reflects the chinoiserie style that was popular in Europe from the eighteenth-century. The dragon painted in bright green colour is is unlikely to be designed by Chinese. The reverse shows an idyllic imagery with European landscape and sitters. The watch is overall very ornate.

This is an extremely intriguing watch in the way it combines time and space. The watch is embedded in the middle of the objective lens and surrounded by colourful stones. To use the watch as a telescope, one just simply have to take off the cap of the objective lens. Mrs Jellyby would LOVE this design.


Cui, Wei-Yuan Eden. From Tribute to Trinkets: The Western Mechanical Clocks in China. Accessed 13 Dec 2020.

Pictures and brief introductions of the two exhibits:

Posted by: vincentfinch | December 12, 2020

Food and Visual Culture

            In 2001, Frédéric Brochet, Gil Morrot, and Denis Dubordieu published their now-famous study indicating that visual perceptions of color played a much larger role in odor and taste perception than previously thought. Brochet and Dubourdieu found that when sommeliers were given a glass of white wine with a red odorless dye added, they tended to incorrectly identify it as red wine, using significantly more terminology typically used to describe red wine than white wine (Brochet et al., 4). A similar study conducted six years later by JoAndrea Hoegg and Joseph W. Alba found that people perceived a great difference in taste between orange juices dyed varying shades of orange than they did between juices with added or reduced sweetness (Hoegg et al., 496). These studies demonstrate the great influence that visual perception has on taste. Since the rise of industrialized and mass-produced foods in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, food and advertising industries have taken advantage of this psychological phenomenon to maximize profit, permanently changing widespread ideas about the categories of “natural” and “constructed” in the process.

            As food packaging became more and more common, consumers were forced to rely less on previous methods for determining readiness, such as touch and smell, and instead find visual cues to indicate which food they should purchase. By 1870, companies such as Louis Prang & Company and Currier & Ives were printing brightly colored images to be packaged with food products and distributed in stores (Hisano, 19). These images, three of which are shown here, have a clear message: the best fruits are perfectly round and plump with a bright and even color. Some, such as the currents, are shown outdoors, surrounded by their growing counterparts, situating these perfect berries as perfectly natural, pulled from the bush and directly placed on the store shelves. With innovations in packaging and shipping technology, many of the fruits and vegetables now being sold were new to British and American consumers, so they had to trust what these advertisements told them their food was supposed to look like (Hisano, 19).  

            The problem, however, with relying on visuals like this so much is that everyone perceives color differently. Later, searching for a way to standardize color, businesses and members of the food industry adopted existing categorizations of color for their purposes. One system that was widely used in the food industry (and remains in use today) is the Munsell color system, originated in 1905 by Albert H. Munsell with the intent of teaching color to children (Hisano, 23). In 1930, scientists Aloys Joh Maerz and Morris Rea Paul published A Dictionary of Color, the largest collection of categorized colors at the time with 7,056 different shades (Hisano, 25). The U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA) used A Dictionary of Color to set standards for canned fruits and vegetables. For example, frozen peas lighter than “L-9” on Plate 19 (shown with the red arrow below) could not be graded above US Grade B (Hisano, 25).

            Color standardization became a marker for the value of food — the more uniform a farmers’ crop was, the more they could sell that crop for. To ensure their profits, farmers and growers turned to new technologies. Oranges, for example, were not always orange. Ripe oranges grown in tropical areas, such as Florida, are much less orange than those grown in subtropical climates, such as California. Because of widespread marketing efforts by California growers, the ripe orange was the perfectly round, bright orange color on packaging and advertisements. Florida oranges, with their splotchy green patches, simply weren’t as desirable to consumers. In an attempt to rehabilitate the image of the Florida orange, growers put out marketing material advocating for choosing citrus fruits by feel rather than looks (Graber and Twilley). Florida oranges, they stated, had the most juice, making them better and heavier than California oranges. This, however, was a failed effort. The visual culture of food uniformity was too established to change, so Florida growers changed their oranges to fit in, dying the peels bright orange to match the more profitable California ones (Graber and Twilley). Because they are not altering the food itself — just the skin — this practice is legal as long as the fruits are labeled as dyed. The FDA states, “historically it has been the policy of the Food and Drug Administration to allow the artificial coloring of the skins of mature oranges” (FDA).

Vintage California citrus crate label, Los Angeles Public Library
Ripe oranges that were grown in a tropical climate. The green is due to excess chlorophyll production to protect the fruit from sun damage in the hot weather of late spring and early summer. In cooler climates, this re-greening does not happen.
Vintage California citrus crate label, Los Angeles Public Library

Works Cited

Brochet, Frederic, et al. “The Color of Odors.” Brain and Language, vol. 79, no. 2, 2001, pp.309–320., doi:10.1006/brln.2001.2493.

Graber, Cynthia, and Nicola Twilley. “Eating The Rainbow: Or, The Mystery Of The Orange Oranges, The Red M&Ms, And The Blue Raspberry”. Gastropod, 2020,

Hisano, Ai. Visualizing Taste: How Business Changed the Look of What You Eat. N.p., Harvard University Press, 2019.

Hoegg, JoAndrea, et al. “Taste Perception: More than Meets the Tongue.” Journal of Consumer Research, vol. 33, no. 4, 2007, pp. 490–498. JSTOR,

FDA, Office of Regulatory Affairs. “CPG Sec 550.625 Oranges – Artificial Coloring.” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, FDA,

According to Jacques Lacan, as when we first confront our reflection in the mirror, we fragment ourselves as “the Self” and “the Other.” The Self being the subject and the Other being an object. Mirrors in the work of Lady Clementina Hawarden, can be interpreted as expressing this drama through the female body in the Victorian era.

By Lady Clementina Hawarden

If a clear image in a mirror depicts an understanding of one’s subjectivity, then could a dark reflection symbolize the opposite? In both the images above, the reflections of Hawarden’s daughters are darkened, suggesting an identity at odds with itself. On the left, the daughter is attempting to confront her silhouette-like reflection, while on the right, the daughter is turned away sweeping the floor with a broom. Their subjectivity shrouded in darkness, the objects in the image like their dresses become the focus, highlighted by natural light.

With fashion as the focus of the images, Hawarden’s daughters by association become dolls—objects. “Hawarden’s daughters, as part objects of the mother / photographer, mirror not only each other but also their mother” (Mavor 44). This is to also say that the daughters represent products of a historic and cultural performance of femininity. Moreover, Hawarden was had a “close proximity to her own mother, who was also fond of fancy dress” and her photographic work intends to dramatize that relationship (Mavor 46). Objectification and othering of the female form in these images comes to encompass a whole generational phenomenon; therefore, the opulence of their dress (or costume) masks inner conflict about subjectivity, reflected symbolically in the mirror.

While looking for contemporary parallels of Lady Clementina’s images, I stumbled upon the work of Tokyo Rumando, a self-taught Japanese artist. She started out as a model, and much of her work’s inspiration stems from those early experiences. I’m most interested in her photographic series titled orphee, likely a reference to Orpheus. In Greek mythology, Orpheus took a journey to the underworld to resurrect his wife, Eurydice. In Rumando’s series, a journey to the underworld is akin to an introduction with one’s reflection. The circular reflection in her images exposes desires, fear, and memories—all fragments that build the Self.  

orphee no. z2 (2014) By Toyko Rumando

In orphee no. z2, the “real” Rumando gazes into a shattered mirror at a dramatized femme fatale version of herself. The mirror reveals some sinister truth about her (maybe she killed someone?). However, the femme fatale is just a character, a costume that Rumando can put on and take off, representing one of many tropes women are boxed into. Could it be that Rumando enjoys playing a part? Or is she scrutinizing a part imposed onto her that threatens her subjectivity in the way Lady Clementina Hawarden dresses her daughters up and poses them like dolls?

The name of the photo series first exhibition was titled “I’m Only Happy When I’m Naked.” According to Rumando, the nude photographs in the series represent the most honest version of herself, while the costumed images like that of the femme fatale in orphee no. z2 represent her masks or projections.

“Changing yourself in order to fit with other people and the circumstances has become quite the norm today, and it’s not just about clothes and make-up. We keep on putting on more and more masks, but the true liberation stands in stripping them off and getting close to the slightest piece of skin underneath. Even though many of these masks are a burden and I’d like to take them off, I cannot get rid of them that easily as long as I live. I feel like they are necessary to survive in this society. Perhaps some of these masks are even comfortable, but it might just be that we are generally afraid to take them off.”

Tokyo Rumnado in an interview for Zen Foto Gallery by Federica Sala

It feels as though the world forces you to wear a mask, and often those masks threaten our subjectivity. A true confrontation with the Self in the mirror is denied to Hawarden’s daughters, and instead all we can see it the masks that they wear. In contrast, Rumando directly introduces her masks (Marilyn Monroe, the femme fatale, the geisha) to the mirror, allowing her to interrogate them, shatter them, and undress to find the “real” reflection of the Self underneath.


Lacan, Jacques. “The Mirror Stage As Formative Of The Function Of The I As Revealed In Psychoanalytic Experience.” Jacques Lacan Ecrits: The First Complete Edition in English, W.W Norton and Company, New York, 2006.

Mavor, Carol. “Reduplicative Desires.” Becoming: The Photographs Of Clementina, Viscountess Hawarden, Duke University Press, DURHAM; LONDON, 1999, pp. 35–80. JSTOR,

Sala, Frederica. Interview|Tokyo Rumando: The Endless Loop of the Gaze: ZEN FOTO GALLERY – A Photography Gallery and Publisher Based in Tokyo Specialized in Asian Photography. 4 Feb. 2016,

In her work on Julia Margaret Cameron, Carol Mavor writes that “while there are no pictures of Cameron really touching an actual Mary Hillier, there are many pictures of Hiller touching other women” (66). Noting specifically Cameron’s 1869 work The Kiss of Peace, Mavor seems to suggest that Hillier’s touch in the photograph is transitive, reaching forward beyond the photograph to encompass and become entangled with Cameron’s own. Thinking through Cameron’s “touch” begins also to engage with the photography on a metatextual level, as we consider that her physical imprint saturates all of her photography at every level. Metaphors for thinking through art creation can help us here, as we consider Cameron’s work in terms of her “fingerprints,” her “guiding hand.” Her photography is profoundly haptic, considering touch in the ghosting of Hillier’s lips on the forehead of her younger companion, the tangle and blur of Hillier’s hair over her shoulders, the folds of fabric that drape over the subjects’ bodies. One can easily imagine Cameron’s own hands staging the photography, arranging cloth, hair and lighting, brushing across her models’ bodies as she arranges them precisely according to her liking. In the photographs’ blurred, ephemeral quality we can also read Cameron’s literal touch, arranging lens focus and pressing fingers against photo plates. In cracking, smudging, and occasionally literally carving into plate glass, Cameron impressed her touch on an art form which was often associated with objectivity, precision, clarity — emphasizing the evidence of physical touch rather than erasing it, as she was “meant” to do.

Of The Kiss of Peace, Mavor writes that Hillier’s “arousing and impressive display of hair” — one of the most visually tactile, textured, tangible elements of the piece — “clouds the picture,” from a literal and interpretive perspective. “‘Mary’ appears to be as much Magdalene as Virgin. This trick of offletting Hillier’s hair out to weave two discourses together, the pure and impure, both of which are contained by the signifier ‘Mary,’ is a stratagem that Cameron played out in many of her pictures. Such play between categories makes for a slippery kiss that smacks of unholy devotion” (Mavor 66). I am fascinated by the way hair, and in particular Hillier’s hair, operates to weave together physical and interpretive strategies of Cameron’s work, as Hillier’s physical body makes meaning in multiple ways. Just as her hair “weaves” together the discourses of purity and impurity, Virgin and Magdalene, it also weaves together several of Cameron’s photos. Though The Kiss of Peace and an earlier photograph of Cameron’s, The Double Star, do not explicitly feature mirrors, I read them as reflections of each other, just as they each depict reflected or doubled female figures. They are woven together, along with much of Cameron’s other photography, by Hillier’s hair, which flows, unruly and unbound through The Kiss of Peace, and — perhaps Hillier’s perhaps another woman’s — is caught again and frozen in the lower corner of The Double Star, cutting viscerally across one subject’s body and linking it forever to another. Mavor reads this unruliness, this weaving, as play between categories and discourses. Can we read the reflection of and within these two photographs as play, too?

In both The Double Star and The Kiss of Peace, the subjects’ gazes are averted from each other, pointed downwards or beyond each other’s bodies and eyes. And yet, these women’s bodies are pressed into and against each other. The younger girl figures in The Double Star are pushed particularly closely together, their lips almost smashed into each other’s, nose fitting into the curve of nose. One child’s hand presses flat against the other’s shoulder. Unlike the older women in The Kiss of Peace, these subjects are mostly unclothed: skin touches skin in an experience that is sticky and visceral, at once tentative and overbearing. The picture is fractured by hairline cracks in its corners, by the thick strand of hair caught into its plate. It weaves itself together with The Kiss of Peace, which, taken several years later, may well be a successor or sequel to the earlier tableau. In The Kiss of Peace, taken out of the context of childhood, touch between women is simultaneously less visible and more intensely felt. Though by the curve of cloth, it is clear Hillier’s hand must reach out to the younger girl’s shoulder in an echo of the models’ position in The Double Star, this act of touch is concealed. Hiller’s lips just barely graze her companion’s forehead, their faces ghosting against each other so gently the sensation demands to be felt. Mavor describes the picture as characterized by “olfaction” (67). The gentleness and urgency of touch as breath and scent make this photograph much quieter, and yet more affectively powerful, than its earlier counterpart.

As an intervention in practices of looking, Tina Campt proposes “listening to images.” Her book, Listening to Images, deals with pictures that are both “quiet” and “quotidian” — mostly state photography, such as state identification and convict photographs — and engages with listening as a practice that allows photographs which were previously understood to be “mute” to speak. She depends on the scientific definition of sound as frequency, arguing that “sound need not be heard to be perceived. Sound can be listened to, and, in equally powerful ways, sound can be felt; it both touches and moves people” (Campt 6). I do not define Cameron’s art photography as quotidian, nor do I place it in the category of photographic work previously understood to be mute. I do, however, believe that it is quiet, operating at a frequency that we must settle ourselves to listen and to feel. “Quiet is not an absence of articulation or utterance,” Campt writes. “Quiet is a modality that surrounds and infuses sound with impact and affect, which creates the possibility for it to register as meaningful” (Campt 5). 

Engaging with work of Cameron’s like The Kiss of Peace or The Angel at the Tomb (another photograph woven together with these others by Hillier’s lovely, unbound mane of hair), a hush seems to settle over the image which is at once erotic and also holy. Here, too, Mavor’s reading of altarity surfaces, which also playfully entangles or weaves together multiple discourses to create something transgressive and new. The quiet of Cameron’s most powerful photographs certainly “infuses [them] with affect [and] impact,” remakes them into something ethereal, powerful beyond their component parts (Campt 5).

Campt writes, “I define the haptic as multiple forms of touch, which, when understood as constitutive of the sonic frequencies of … photos, create alternative modalities for understanding the archival temporalities of images … [Photographs can be] deeply affective objects that implicate and leave impressions upon us through multiple forms of contact: visual contact (seeing), physical contact (touching), psychic contact (feeling), and, most counterintuitively of all, the sonic contact that I have described as a frequency that requires us to listen to as well as view images.” She continues, “haptic temporalities … are composed of moments of contact when photographs touch us and animate reactions and responses” (72). How can we read these “moments of contact” in the context of photographs like Cameron’s, which are so profoundly shaped, from their very formation, with the practice of touch?

From the moment of photographic capture to Cameron’s messy impressions on a photograph’s development, her works are imbued with the suggestion and memory of touch, which reaches out and becomes affective in turn. Mavor writes about pressing her finger in the grooves of a crack on Cameron’s Holy Family, of the tiny fracture lines in The Double Star which “pierce [her] with history and pain” (66-7). Cameron’s photography at once touches, was touched, is touching. Just as she plays with opposition and boundaries, weaving disparate art pieces together through the medium of Hillier’s hair, she plays with touching and temporality as her images point to their own dreamlike constructedness, the work of the artist beyond and before the moment of photographic capture. They quiet us with a holy hush and then touch us with their subtle eroticism — they display the touching process of their development and demand to be touched in return. What they reveal about their own temporality — their haptic temporality, to borrow Campt’s phrase — is fascinating. As much as the photograph exhibits a claim to the real, a snapshot of a precise and specific moment in time, the disturbances to the plate glass in which the images are captured expose the often messy process of development, the points of contact that have shaped the photography’s production, creation, and reception. They illuminate clearly and articulately the way haptic points of contact are formative and transformative, and begin to demonstrate the ways Cameron touched women, and continues to touch (and be touched by) women long after she concluded her work with Mary Hillier and set her camera down. As I suggested earlier, Cameron’s touch is transitive. Reaching out through Mary Hillier’s body to stage a kiss — which she later sent to a friend with her own “kiss” attached — in a sense, she reaches out far past Hillier and to all who interact with her altered, altaring archive.

Works Consulted:

Cameron, Julia. The Kiss of Peace. 1869, International Museum of Photography, at George Eastman House, Rochester. Pleasures Taken: Performances of Sexuality and Loss in Victorian Photographs, by Carol Mavor, Duke University Press, 1995.

–. The Double Star. 1864, Collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, California. Pleasures Taken: Performances of Sexuality and Loss in Victorian Photographs, by Carol Mavor, Duke University Press, 1995.

Campt, Tina. “Introduction: Listening to Images: An Exercise in Counterintuition.” Listening to Images, Duke University Press, 2017.

–. “Haptic Temporalities: The Quiet Freqency of Touch.” Listening to Images, Duke University Press, 2017.

Mavor, Carol. “To Make Mary: Julia Margaret Cameron’s Photographs of Altered Madonnas.” Pleasures Taken: Performances of Sexuality and Loss in Victorian Photographs. Duke University Press, 1995.

Posted by: mimihuckins | December 9, 2020

Disturbing postcards

CW: these postcards show photos of lynching and dead bodies

Bringing it way back to the beginning of the module, I remember someone mentioning the fact that some of the disturbing images we were looking at were made into postcards and circulated as postcards at that time. It’s true, famine photographs, lynching photographs, and other horrific events were often postcards, sent to friends with, at times, lighthearted messages.

Some reasons for the sending of these postcards are much clearer than others. Postcards from the Mexican Revolution have ambiguous messages. We cannot be sure if these postcards were sent or acquired as soveineers or as a rememberance of lives lost.

Warning: Photos of dead bodies

Title: [Dead bodies on a Mexican battlefield]
Creator: Horne, Walter H., 1883-1921
Date: 1913
Title: [Mexican man kneeling beside dead body]
Date: ca. 1910-1917

These images are disturbing, yet they are some of the least graphic postcards I saw from the Mexican Revolution. There isn’t any writing on these postcards, so it is difficult to imagine what purpose they had for the people buying and sending them. Temporality is an important force within these photographs. Now, they may be seen as important historical images. Then, people were being killed and some thought it would be nice to have a memory of it. Postcards of horrific events definitely have very racist tones. Seeing people of color suffer seems to be entertainment for the white man of the early 1900s. An example of this are lynching postcards. These postcards are at times so incredibly graphic, yet will have positive messages written on them. People would send a graphic and racist photo to their friends and say, “I was there!”

CW: hanged person and disturbing messages

“This is the barbecue we had last night my picture is to the left with a cross over it your son Joe.”” -

(the photo is too graphic to show.)
Printed inscription on border, “LYNCHING SCENE, DALLAS, MARCH 3, 1910”. Penciled inscription on border, “All OK and would like to get a post from you, ‘Bill.’ This was some Raw Bunch.”
Reverse of card reads “Well John–This is a token of a great day we had in Dallas…a n*gro was hung for an assault on a three year old girl I saw this on my noon hour. I was very much in the bunch.”” —

These postcards disgust me like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Lynching was obviously a “fun” event for white people. They would attend in huge crowds, and be proud of their attendance. This makes sense for why these photos were made into postcards. It shows how proud the people were, and how little they cared for Black lives. The second postcard describes the lynching as “a token of a great day,” which is exactly what would make sense to be written on an ordinary postcard, yet when paired with horribly graphic images of death, it is shocking and upsetting for the modern viewer. The temporality of these images is ever so emphasized when viewed in postcard form. The deaths of people of color were seen as spectacles, souvenirs, happy memories, etc. They are shocking because we would never see something like this happen today; no one would put a graphic photo depicting murder on a postcard. Yet, disturbing videos and photos are still circulated and viewed billions of times, just in different, more acceptable formats. Videos are extremely beneficial for achieving justice. If we did not have a video of George Floyd, his murder would be easier to cover up or for the public to ignore. Yet, there is something disturbing to me about the constant viewing of the murders of Black people today. There are still people with mentalities as racist and disgusting as those who sent these postcards, now viewing horrific videos of people being murdered with extremely different intentions that those who took the video. Seeing these postcards shouldn’t be so shocking, because this mentality when viewing racial violence still definitely exists. Even those whose racism is more “acceptable” today will publicly claim that someone deserved death because of a petty crime, which is a mentality that is horrifically similar to those who attended lynchings.

Works Cited

ByMeghan. “NSFW: American Terrorism… Lynching Postcards.” CVLT Nation, 7 Dec. 2014,

Sorene, Paul. “Postcards of Dead Bodies: Grim Souvenirs From The Mexican Revolution.” Flashbak, 6 Feb. 2017,

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