Posted by: flannerylangton | December 8, 2020

Aubrey Beardsley and the end of Victorian imagery

Everything about Oscar Wilde’s play Salomé was deeply interesting and unsettling, but what topped it all off for me was the images drawn by Audrey Beardsley. 

Beardsley is an English illustrator from the late Victorian period whose drawings, like Oscar Wilde’s writing, characterize the end of the period. Beardsley died young, at age 25, just three years before Queen Victoria. His entire life he was ill with returning Tuberculosis making him weak and unable to take care of himself much of his life. His youth throughout the entirety of his career implies that he was at the forefront of the new and burgeoning movements.  

According to Britannica, Beardsley was an “outstanding figure in the Aestheticism movement,” or, art for art’s sake. This could explain some of the extremities in his artwork and the bold risks he takes in his drawing. In Salomé and beyond, his drawings push into the supernatural, bend gender and bodies, and tip into the erotica realm (which can be strange and off putting in a play featuring Biblical characters). These drawings though were the ones that gained him fame and name recognition, along with his connection to Wilde. 

A strong example of his work in Salomé is the image “John the Baptist and Salomé.” The image showcases the way Beardsley plays with gender, posing each figure in ways that are both stereotypically feminine– the exposed breast and the twisted over-the-shoulder look–however one of the figures must be male, as it depicts a Biblical scene. The exposed breasts on the figure to the left might be viewed by some as a clear gender identifier but that is blurred in some of the other images in the text, such as “The Toilette of Salomé II,” where the servant to the far right has both “male” and “female” genitalia. Some of this might come from Beardsley’s exposure to queer circles through his connection to Wilde. Though there is no evidence Beardsley was queer himself, the majority of the people he associated with through his work and through the Aestheticism movement were. 

To return to the image of John the Baptist and Salomé, the fashion is another piece of interest. Based on the elaborate headdress on the figure to the right, that figure is assumed to be the princess. But gender roles were fully settled at this time and that was beginning to show through fashion. John the Baptist’s delicate off-the-shoulder dress and curved stance would be read as inherently feminine and therefore controversial. To present a Saint at this way would be sacrilegious, at the very least. 

Additionally, the depiction of the princess’ body is very interesting when compared to Wilde’s play. In Salomé, a repeated point of contention was those who looked directly upon the princess. Regularly, it was those who looked upon her and those to whom she returned the gaze. This image captures that direct gaze between the characters that will bring about the end of John the Baptist. The gaze is multiplied when the viewer is considered. We, looking onto this scandalous image of Salomé, might be doomed too. It is unknown where Beardsley’s interest in depicting nudity comes from but in these illustrations, it is fitting to a story so consumed with the politics of looking and observing images. 

Looking towards the end of the Victorian Era, Beardsley’s images speak to the future of British art and visual culture. 

Perhaps they are an early indication of the need to “show skin” to sell a product. Another professor this semester pointed out in our course that this was a key moment of divergence between western culture and the global south. 

There is also in these drawings a pull from the ancient world to consider, specifically the Biblical themes in Wilde’s text but also Beardsley’s obsession with depicting monsters and demons in his work–similar to what might be seen in Renaissance-era images of Hell. In times of change, it is human nature to return to the past. For example, this year the Beatles and Fleetwood Mac both had massive resurgences on Spotify. As the boom of art and social conflict in the Victorian Era came to a close, perhaps artists were looking back in time to Biblical times in search of familiarity and comfort. 

As a pioneering member of Aestheticism, Beardsley’s art must also be considered in that lens. “Art for art’s sake.” Maybe moderately erotic supernatural art was just something he found appealing, that Wilde also enjoyed. Edgy art resonates with people on the fringes of society; Beardsley and Wilde were those people. 


“Aubrey Beardsley: English Artist.” Britannica,

Wilde, Oscar. Salome. Project Gutenberg, 2013. (original 1891). 

Posted by: esqui22k | November 30, 2020

Victorian Cyborgs and Modern Surveillance

Like the internet, the inception of the photographic camera in the Victorian era offered new potential for technologically enhanced methods of criminal surveillance. Such potential finds its way into the literary world through the detective fiction genre (which also coincides with the development of the camera during the late 1800s).

The detectives in works like Inspector Bucket in Bleak House and Sherlock Holmes in “A Scandal in Bohemia” are often described as machine-like with superhuman abilities of deduction. In trying to understand how cameras fit into the world of policework, Charles Dickens and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle create cyborg-like characters, with both characters inadvertently depicting the faults of modern internet surveillance systems.


Sherlock Holmes from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1945) superimposed over a picture of PredPol’s map tracking system. Credit: AP and Smithosian Magazine

In “A Scandal in Bohemia” Sherlock Holmes takes on camera-like qualities. Based on an initial description by Watson, Holmes is like a machine, calculating and emotionally lacking. But this lack of humanity is perceived to be beneficial because it gives him the ability to be “the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen” (3). Apparently, emotions could cloud his judgement and cast doubt on his results, so it’s better to be more camera than person in the business of mystery solving. Were he to have emotions, it would be like “Grit in a sensitive instrument, or a crack in one of his own high-power lenses” (3). Indeed, Holmes is continually compared to a tool or “instrument”. Distancing himself from his humanity ensures that his lens (his camera-like observational skills) remains unbiased.

Unfortunately for Holmes, his lens is already clouded. Despite all his “perfect reasoning” and excellent observational skills, Irene Adler manages to dupe him. Before Holmes met Adler, he “used to make merry over the cleverness of women, but I have not heard him do it of late” (15). Holmes often made assumptions about women and used those assumptions in his analyses. Considering the time frame, this is unsurprising. However, it is these gendered predictions about women’s intelligence that damages his results.

Moreover, his failure to get the photograph from Adler does not mean that he fails at maintaining his camera-like persona, rather he lives up to its flaws. Cameras do not always portray the truth. The images they produce can not only be staged and altered, but they can also be used to demonstrate patterns where they do not exist. For example, in the image below, mugshots of inmates are compiled to determine whether hereditary physical traits can indicate a tendency to commit crime (Sekula, 50).

Cropped image by Francis Galton featured in “The Body and the Archive” by Allan Sekula on page 49.

This line of tracking never stopped; it has only gotten worse with improved image AI tracking technology. “At every stage of the process – from policing, sentencing, and imprisonment to parole – automated risk assessments are employed to determine people’s likelihood of committing a crime” (Benjamin, 85-86). Just as prediction AI cannot accurately predict whether someone will commit a crime based solely on their looks, their class, or the place they live, Holmes acting as a camera cannot predict Adler’s movements based on assumptions about her gender.


Inspector Bucket from the 2005 adaptation of Bleak House but I superimposed the Google logo over his eyes because they’re both spooky. Credit: BBC

Like Holmes, Mr. Bucket is provided with a camera-like description; but he is more like an all-knowing spy camera than a photographic one. He is “attentive” and “sharpeyed” and seems to possess “an unlimited number of eyes” (459, 470). Most importantly, he looks at Mr. Snagsby “as if he were going to take his portrait” (459) Mr. Bucket’s gaze is akin to that of a focused camera. These characteristics are similar to Holmes, except Mr. Bucket has a haunting air about him. When Mr. Bucket steps out of the shadow in Mr. Tulkinghorn’s office, he startles Mr. Snagsby because he has a “ghostly manner of appearing” (459). Mr. Snagsby notes that the door did not creak open, nor were there any audible footsteps on the floor in the time that he entered. This is all to say that Mr. Bucket resembles a surveillance camera, purposefully hidden to catch moments of indiscretions.

But Mr. Bucket is not always in the shadows; he represents a more sinister type of surveillance technology, the kind that pretends to be your friend. In the case of Mr. Snagsby, Mr. Bucket appeals to his ego to find Jo, telling him that he is “a man of the world, you know, and a man of business, and a man of sense. That’s what YOU are” (460). These friendships only serve as a manipulation tactic to achieve a particular end for his employers’ benefit, not for justice. The investigation only became about seeking justice after his employer, Mr. Tulkinghorn, was murdered. Before then, Mr. Bucket’s function in the story was to contain Lady Dedlock’s secret so that Mr. Tulkinghorn could use it as Blackmail.

Mr. Buckets’ mysterious behavior and surveillance camera-like attributes reflect the same characteristics as current internet companies that sell their user data to third parties. Indeed, if Google were a person, it would probably seem a lot like Mr. Bucket. Until 2018, Google’s company motto was, “Don’t be Evil” (Montti). Like Mr. Bucket, the search engine portrays itself as genuine and authentic. However, the shadowy reality behind Google is that everything a user does on the search engine (including email) is surveilled and sold to advertisers, the police, and the government (Benjamin, 178). Like Mr. Bucket, Google renders itself an observational tool to whoever helps it gain a profit while also maintaining a charismatic façade to continue user data flow.


Both Dickens and Conan Doyle were able to create characters that allowed them to hypothetically speculate on the way photographic cameras would affect policing in the future. Conclusion? While the expectations are that integrating camera and person as one should create the perfect crime-solving cyborg, the creations fall short in both instances. This is because technology is never entirely removed from humanity. Technology is fundamentally a human creation, so it will continue to make mistakes and enforce systems of inequality already present in society. Nothing will change until the shortcomings of tech (personified by Holmes and Mr. Bucket over a hundred years ago!) are addressed.

Works Cited

Benjamin, Ruha. Race after Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code. Polity Press, 2019.

Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. Planet e-Book, 2020.

Doyle, Arthur Conan. “A Scandal in Bohemia.” Strand Magazine, July, 1891. E-version by Stanford Continuing Studies, 2016.

Montti, Roger. Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” No Longer Prefaces Code of Conduct. 27 Oct. 2018,

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

Posted by: graceoddity | November 29, 2020

Motherhood & Photography

Julia Margaret Cameron’s portraits of Mary Hillier constitute a conflicted picture of motherhood. In these Madonnas, Hillier looks out of frame in three-quarters profile, or confrontationally at the camera, but rarely at the child she holds. In some ways, this Renaissance-styled neutral expression, coupled with averted gaze but intimate soft focus, aligns with the virgin Mary as representing both the epitome and antithesis of motherhood; sexually pure, but “androgynous” (Mavor 52). We can read in her expression a glowing love or a cold disinterest – is this the angel in the house, or do we read motherhood not inherently, but through photographic juxtaposition with the children she holds? At the same time, another tension exists between the referent and the metaphor. Mary Hillier was Cameron’s maid, and although many of these photos possess a painterly quality in pose, expression, and costume, there is no escaping the immediacy of the photograph. Unlike a painting of the virgin Mary, there is a failure of that imaginative extra step which lays claim to translation and transformation of the subject. In other words, the distance between model and Mary in a photograph is much narrower than that which exists between model and Mary in a painting. Like Mavor says, Cameron’s portraits “verge on sacrilege” (Mavor 47). Mary Hillier impersonates and interposes the virgin Mary, in an imitation that feels at once both cheap and profound. Motherhood in these photos is “altared” (Mavor 50), raised up to unmeetable and virginal expectations, but also grounded in the reality of a maid posing in costume with children who may not even be her own. Cameron’s Madonna portraits are to the virgin Mary as Victorian mothers were to that angel of the house; the halo is scratched onto the plate. 

At the other end of the spectrum of photographed motherhood exists “Hidden Mother” photography. It is notorious mostly in retrospective; although it was a common practice at the time, it is the eerie tone which the images take on from a modern perspective which have ensured their longevity. Hidden mother portraits arose simply as an adaptation to the demands of Victorian photography in order to facilitate portraits of babies. Due to the length of the exposure time, often in addition to the unfamiliarity of the portrait studio, it was difficult to keep babies still long enough for portraits, but high infant mortality rates caused a demand for baby portraits. In order to do so, the baby would be sat on the mother’s lap, and a sheet would be placed over the mother – here, the mother is also draped in cloth, but unlike Cameron’s Madonnas, the face is not visible. A card was placed over the portrait such that the mother’s silhouette would be covered, and the sheet becomes at first glance simply a backdrop. However, upon removal of the card, the shrouded figure is revealed, creating a haunting picture. With some, it is nearly possible to read the figure as an oddly shaped chair; in others, the head is clearly visible under the sheet. In others still, the mother simply holds the child’s hand from behind a sheet, almost completely unnoticeable. It is difficult to say which of these are the creepiest in modern eyes (Bathurst).

In looking at these hidden mother photographs, I was struck by a similarity of the pose to a photo I love of my mother and younger brother. It is dynamic in a way that Victorian portraits could not be, featuring my brother smiling and clearly being held back from running away. Above him, my mother looks resignedly irritated, in a strikingly similar pose to the Victorian hidden mother, sans sheet, looking directly at the camera like Cameron’s “Holy Family” Madonna. In its fulfilment of the antithesis of the hidden mother portrait (emotive and visible mother, active and smiling baby), this photo does what the hidden mother portrait cannot by telling a story – without editing out one of the characters.

But before truly skipping forward in time to look at modern photography of motherhood, I want to take a moment to discuss pre-motherhood photography. In Camera Lucida, Barthes describes the process of looking through old pictures of his mother after her death. Amidst the strange sensations that come from being confronted so directly with the “tension of history” (Barthes 65) that precedes the existence of oneself, Barthes expresses his frustration at being unable to recognize his mother: 

“Sometimes I recognized a region of her face, a certain relation of nose and forehead, the movement of her arms, her hands. I never recognized her except in fragments, which is to say that I missed her being, and that therefore I missed her altogether. It was not she, and yet it was no one else. I would have recognized her among thousands of other women, yet I did not “find” her. I recognized her differentially, not essentially… To say, confronted with a certain photograph, “That’s almost the way she was!” was more distressing than to say, confronted with another, “That’s not the way she was at all.”” (Barthes 65-66)

In a similar fashion, but with a slight reversal, Allison Bechdel writes in Are You My Mother?, a companion piece to her well-known memoir Fun Home, about her relationship with her mother, often utilizing the work of psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott as a lens to understand it. In Chapter 3, Bechdel draws in cartoon a picture of herself on her first communion at eight years old, and a picture of her mother’s first communion. A text box over this panel reads, “She’s dark, pale, shy. All of the things I disliked about my own appearance” (Bechdel 89). Later, in Chapter 6, Bechdel recounts a childhood memory of sitting in front of a mirror while her mother applies makeup. As her mother insults her own appearance, Allison reassures her. When her mother continues on to comment on Allison’s appearance (“I don’t know why you’re always so pale. You look peaked.”), Allison begins stealing her blush and tinting her school pictures with crayon (Bechdel 213-214). I am reminded strongly of the opening lyrics to Lucy Dacus’s “My Mother & I”: “My mother hates her body / we share the same outline / she swears that she loves mine” (Dacus). In Allison’s photographic search for her mother, she does not experience Barthes’ fragmented recognition of her figure, but rather a fragmented recognition of her own; furthermore, a flawed recognition of self, which inherits the anxieties and insecurities that predated one’s own existence. Bechdel interrupts her own narration in this chapter to make reference to Donald Winnicott’s paper “Mirror-Role of Mother and Family in Child Development”: “In individual emotional development, the precursor of the mirror is the mother’s face” (Bechdel 213). 

Relatedly, I recently stumbled across an instagram account called mothersbefore, the bio of which reads, “Collecting photos of daughters’ mothers before they became moms.” It’s a lovely account with an eclectic mix of childhood family photos, school portraits, and candid shots. Each photo comes with a caption written by the submitter, and in scrolling briefly through some of the recent posts (I will admit my sample size is small), I noticed a recurring theme. These captions extolling mothers before cannot escape the phantom of the mother after. Like a compass, most captions turn back to describing the subject of the photo “in terms of her value as a caregiver” (Fahr). None of these submitters are being purposefully reductive in the roles they place their mothers in; they are simply victims of Barthes’ “History”. They did not, and cannot, know their mothers before, because their existence is the very prerequisite for the conclusion of that before.

Finally, moving fully to the present, I would like to discuss two sectors of modern photography of motherhood. The first of these involves the advent of parenthood displayed on social media. In Lindsey Harding’s dissertation Motherhood Collection: A Critical-Creative Study of Domestic Photography in the Digital Age, Harding argues that when mothers post pictures of their children publically online, they are trying to “distance themselves from the punctum’s punch” twofold, both in the act of the making the photo public, and in the reception of feedback which “overwhelms” the punctum (Harding 42). She believes that these attempts to both anaesthetize and spread the photo stem from a reversed version of Freud’s fort-da game (directly translates to gone-there, similar to peekaboo), in which the mother “accumulat[es] pictures and releas[es] them online so the child will always be da, even when fort,” gaining the illusion of control over the inevitable absence of her children just as the infant does. In other words, “the rehearsal of departure becomes an act of prevention” (Harding 43).

The other form of motherhood in photography I would like to discuss is very different, though it is also publicized: portraits of refugee mothers with their children. The Associated Press profiled several pregnant refugees, and months after these profiles, photographer Muhammed Muheisen returned to take portraits of them with their now born babies. The mothers stand in their tents with their children in their arms, centered in the frame and often making direct eye contact with the camera. The focus is on their faces rather than those of their children. Each photograph is lonely, fitting most of the body in frame such that the background of their tents dominates the frame. Two of these photos in particular stand out; that of Huda Alhumaidi and her daughter Islam, and that of Wazeera Elaiwi and her son Mohammed. In these photos, Huda and Wazeera stand under a single lightbulb which casts light on them from above. The visual parallels to the virgin Mary seem readily apparent. (It is worth mentioning that although the virgin Mary’s narrative is detailed in the Quran, the Madonna reading of these pictures reflects the Catholic iconography of the figure. Because these women are most likely Muslim, I am not entirely comfortable claiming these images are intended to be a metaphor for this Catholic vision of the virgin Mary.) Like the Victorian angel of the house behind Cameron’s Madonnas, there are high expectations for motherhood found in these photos; that in its essence, motherhood should be self-sacrificial (“some of the decisions we had to make have been deciding what is more important: To buy bread to feed ourselves or medicine in case my child is in need?”). This goes hand in hand with the damaging idea of the perfect or ideal immigrant – that a need to prove character precedes aid (Diltz).

I can’t help but wonder exactly how much our vision of motherhood has changed from those portrait archetypes described at the beginning of this post. Over a century later, is the perfect Madonna seeking asylum and the hidden mother behind the camera? Or is the comparison reductive to the evolution of new forms and depictions of motherhood?

Works Cited:

Barthes, Roland. Trans. Howard, Richard. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Hill & Wang. 1982.

Bathurst, Bella. “The lady vanishes: Victorian photography’s hidden mothers.” The Guardian, 2 December 2013,

Bechdel, Allison. Are You My Mother? New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2012. 

Dacus, Lucy. “My Mother & I.” 2019, produced by Jacob Blizard, Lucy Dacus, and Colin Pastore, 2019.

Diltz, Colin. “Portraits of Syrian refugee mothers with their children.” The Seattle Times, 25 August 2015,

Fahd, Cherine and Oscar, Sara. “From hidden women to influencers and individuals – putting mothers in the frame.” The Conversation, 8 May 2020,

Harding, Lindsey. Motherhood Collection: A Critical-Creative Study of Domestic Photography in the Digital Age. 2004. University of Georgia, PhD dissertation.

Mavor, Carol. Pleasures Taken: Performances of Sexuality and Loss in Victorian Photographs. Duke University Press. 1995.

Posted by: amoru22r | November 29, 2020

Cadbury’s Cocoa and Tony the Tiger

This Cadbury’s Cocoa ad from 1888 depicts the Burnsville FC Rugby Club, an all-male sports team engaging in some kind of wrestling and advertises that the cocoa “SUSTAINS AGAINST FATIGUE, INCREASES MUSCULAR STRENGTH, GIVES PHYSICAL ENDURANCE AND STAYING POWER.” As we discussed in class, this ad exemplifies how Victorian advertising became gendered and how ads were geared specifically and separately towards either men or women. This male-oriented ad reminded me of Frosted Flakes and its mascot Tony the Tiger. Frosted Flakes ads have a lengthy past of being directed towards boys and certain ideals of masculinity.

The picture above is a 1959 ad for Frosted Flakes which promotes “PUT A TIGER ON YOUR TEAM.” I was also able to find a commercial from 1959 with this slogan, in which Tony pitches for a boy’s baseball team. One boy strikes out until he is handed a bowl of frosted flakes by Tony, who says, “we’ll put a tiger on your team!” The boy’s next hit knocks Tony out of the park. Tony’s character becomes a male, mentoring figure for boys who play sports. Frosted Flakes becomes the cereal that turns you from a mere boy into an athletic “tiger.” 

Later, in 1978, we see Tony as a Hollywood celebrity after starring in all of these Frosted Flakes advertisements. This commercial depicts Tony surrounded by female fans, who swoon over him and beg him to say his famous slogan, “they’re grrreat!” Additionally, it seems like this commercial could have been more explicitly hinting at Tony’s sexual prowess. One of the women exclaims that she loves Frosted Flakes, and Tony replies “all my fans love the delicious taste of my frosting!” Maybe I’m reading too much into that, but here we are. The ad ends with Tony receiving a call from his wife. He tells the women, “probably my agent or director,” but it’s his wife on the line. Tony snaps back into domesticity, promising he’ll be home soon and starting to take down the grocery list while the women laugh around him. This ad paints Tony as a sexualized, famous actor who keeps up a suave persona around his adoring female fans while he also has a wife at home. In 1978, Tony becomes further masculinized and appeals to male viewers as the ideal man with a breakfast cereal that attracts women. 

In 2020, Tony is still a very masculine character. In this “Mission Tiger” commercial with Shaquille O’Neal, Tony and Shaq banter over who could dunk the other and who has the deeper voice. Tony is still the epitome of society’s view of a “real” man and he conveys this specific kind of masculinity to the boys who watch him. 

However, since the Frosted Flakes advertisement from 1959, Kelloggs’ commercials have become more inclusive. The ads and Tony himself are still very sports oriented, but now they include female athletes and sports teams in their commercials and in their audience. In this 2019 ad “Bring Out The Tigers” Tony coaches and motivates boys and girls. Frosted Flakes’ Mission Tiger seeks to stop schools from cutting sports funding and this ad clarifies that this campaign values protecting all kinds of athletes. 

Works Cited

“Frosted Flakes ‘Bring Out The Tigers.’” Youtube, uploaded by Frosted Flakes, 5 Aug. 2019,

Kellogg’s advertisement. “Put a Tiger on Your Team.” Pinterest, Accessed 29 Nov. 2020,

“Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes | Mission Tiger “Tit-for-Tat” :15.” Youtube, uploaded by Frosted Flakes, 6 July 2020,

“1959 FROSTED FLAKES COMMERCIAL – Tony the Tiger – Baseball.” Youtube, uploaded by Saturday’s World, 11 April 2018,

“1978 Frosted Flakes Commercial.” Youtube, uploaded by American Throwback, 21 Sept. 2012,

“The Power of Gendered Advertising & Marketing in Chocolate Sales.” Chocolate Class, 10 March 2016,

Posted by: sataniques | November 23, 2020

The Feminization of Dr. James Barry

This blog post will explore the life and speculations on gender about Dr. James Barry, as well as The Public[k] Universal Friend.

A portrait of Dr. James Barry, taken from here.

Dr. James Barry was a Victorian-era surgeon, had served in the British military, and was assigned female at birth. He was (most likely) born in county Cork, Ireland circa-1789. While yes, he had been assigned female at birth, he died as a man. Is this information important? Is James Barry one of the earliest examples of a #transicon, or would he have been mortified to be portrayed as such? The general public of today can obviously never know the answer to these questions, but they are still important to  ask. 

James Barry was enrolled in a medical university program in Edinburgh in 1809, changing his identity from his birth name and gender to the one that he would continue to live with throughout the remainder of his career and life. He was assisted by his mother (posing as his aunt, in order to distance herself from his immediate family) and several “liberal minded friends” of the family. They successfully guided James Barry through the application and selection process, and James Barry became Dr. James Barry, graduate of his medical program and quickly working through the next steps toward becoming a successful surgeon. When he was selected to serve in the British Army as a hospital assistant, Dr. Barry quickly moved up the medical ranks and established himself as an internationally known physician. He relocated to South Africa to practice medicine, and continued to move throughout Africa, The West Indies, and other places under British Colonial rule. Dr. Barry was becoming increasingly concerned with sanitation, and worked to bring new sanitation policies to the medical facilities that he served. Interestingly, he also carried out one of the first documented C-sections.

Of his character, Dr. Barry was apparently quite hot headed and quick to anger. There are several theories that this was an act in order to prove his masculinity, while others state that this is just how he was. The man even threw hands with Florence Nightingale! As someone who is a testosterone-taker, I have drifted in and out of the daydream that James Barry may have been one of the first AFAB people to experiment with self-dosing testosterone for masculinization…

But this is the problem. These theories, these articles, these speculations, they are not for us. Why do people feel so entitled to the private lives of people who cross gender boundaries? 

There have been several books and articles describing Dr. Barry as a Woman Ahead of Her Time or as the Male Military Surgeon Who Wasn’thow dehumanizing to disregard the deceased Dr. Barry’s request for privacy by writing these speculative things. Upon his death, Dr. James Barry had requested that he be quickly buried in the clothes and bedsheets that he died in, and that his body not be inspected. Obviously, this wish was historically disregarded as well because we KNOW about him. If he had been buried and quietly mourned according to his desires, he would have been another good doctor in the history of British medicine. A charwoman had apparently inspected and washed his body after death and had discovered that he had “female” natal genitalia and pregnancy stretch marks about his stomach. Word, obviously, got out. 

To ascribe any gender other than the one that he presented to the world throughout his entire life and the one that he died as to Dr. James Barry is wrong. While it is a seductive idea to pretend that Dr. Barry had to hide his identity as a woman, but really still identified as such, it has no basis in reality as far as we know. The true story of why Dr. Barry chose to present and identify as male is unknown, and trying to use his story as a feminist critique of Victorian (or historical) gender roles falls flat. There are plenty of other avenues to explore this concept while leaving Dr. Barry out of it. His wishes were not respected upon his death and the replication of this sensationalist story continued from the Victorian era to the 2020s, when articles are still being written about him today. In fact, a student at Mount Holyoke College is bending their own ethics in order to write about the topic for a publicly accessible blog, continuing the replication of Barry’s life. At least this student does not misgender him for the sake of continued scandal. Ahem.

Desperately attempting to misgender AFAB people throughout history who presented as male or nonbinary is a common theme.

An image of The Friend, taken from here.

Just shy of the Victorian era, in the United States, saw the existence of The Public Universal Friend, a preacher and non-binary individual. The Friend (which is what they preferred to be called) was likewise assigned female at birth and later came to identify as what we would today describe as nonbinary. They were a very religious Quaker and, after contracting typhus in their teens, woke after several days stating that they had died, been invited to Heaven and were now filled with the spirit of G-d: A gender neutral universal friend to preach and spread awareness of salvation. They eschewed their birth name, choosing only to be referred to as The Publick Universal Friend or The Friend, and asked to not be referred to with gendered pronouns. They wore only traditionally masculine or androgynous clothing and male Quaker headdresses. The Friend spent the remainder of their life as a genderless individual performing traveling sermons, collecting a group of followers. They died and wished to continue being referred to as a genderless person after their death.

Arguments against The Friend’s non-binary identity return to the idea that they could not have been as successful as a preacher if they continued living as a woman, so they chose to disguise themselves as a man. Likewise, they explore the idea that The Friend was brain damaged from their fever, or otherwise mentally ill because of the illness, and that is why they identified the way that they did. There are several books written about The Friend feminizing them, such as Pioneer Prophetess and Female Preaching in America. Again, these continued articles and books are disrespectful to the very real wishes of the very real person who lived hundreds of years ago.

I stated in my blog post The Masculinization of Dorian Gray that visuality played a big part in why depictions of the character tended toward the manly because “[i]t is easier to disguise the homosexuality of a protagonist if they are stripped of their femininity, as is the case with Enjolras and Dorian” and I believe the same is applied here, inverted. Feminizing Dr. Barry and The Friend provide an easy escape rope from having difficult conversations about historical trans/gender identity. The words for these identities were not always readily available in the public consciousness, so of course, there is something to be said about tracing transgender roots to places that perhaps the rhetoric was not present.

However, at the end of the day, Dr. James Barry lived and died as a man and The Publick Universal Friend lived and died as a genderless individual. That is the only truth that we know, and the only truth that we can ever know.

Respect someone when they tell you their identity.

Posted by: regisreed | November 13, 2020

Haunting History: Doré’s London, A Pil-GRIM-age

In looking at the London illustrations by Gustave Doré, I was struck by the ways in which many of the works held an eerie quality to them, almost as though they were part of a Victorian Gothic novel. Dark scenery and a heavy play with shadows spoke to Dracula‘s chilling tale, obscure figures to Turn of the Screw ghost stories; the etchings of each image bleeding into the covers of Goosebumps children’s novels. Close analysis of some of these illustrations, that I’ve chosen because of their haunted nature, might give us some interesting ways to think about how drawings open the mind to new interpretations of moments captured in history, different from those captured, for example, by camera. What can an illustration do that a camera might not? Are there some emotions, senses of things, that can only be accessed through an inherently artistic sphere such as an etching or drawing? I don’t have a clear answer for these questions, but I think they might lend some really interesting layers in our discussion of the visual and its role in stories, history, and Victorian life.

“Image 3” – Gustave Doré, London: A Pilgrimage

Image 3, pictured above, was the first to catch my eye, mainly because of the way everything in it molds together. The figures walking down the middle isle melt together as they recede into the background. A male figure to the right, leaning over a pile of fish, blends in with them, and is nearly lost at first glance. These add a muddied quality to the image, and give it a sense of uncanniness, like something is just a bit off. The tightness of the space also lends the image a claustrophobic feeling, highlighted further by the dim lighting and heavy shadows. Almost like a river of bodies, the people move through the isle; the fish sitting on the bank watching them pass by. To the middle left stands a figure with a basket of fish on his head. Commonplace, but from a farther out view his figure morphs and becomes giant, obscure, and borderline monstrous. Paired with the fish all around, it feels almost like a reference to Creature From the Black Lagoon, or something similarly scary.

“Image 10” – Doré, London: A Pilgrimage

Image 10 was another I looked at, drawn as I was to its fogginess and lack of clarity. Whatever was used to make the print left lines running across it, which appear almost to be smoke and give the image a sense of unease, the view becoming wavered by shadow. The moon, working as the only light source, also adds an eerie quality to the image, as it lies just out of reach and unable to break the darkness. Due to this poor lighting, it is difficult to make out which forms are human and which are fog, which lends the photo a ghost like feeling. The second man in on the left has solid black eyes, making his face appear nearly skeletal. Two other figures lean against what appears to be a bar, having the same effect on their faces. All three look ghostly, like specters crowding, and add to this haunted reading. A figure in from the right is similarly ghost-like, disappearing right into the fog as though he were not made of flesh and blood.

“Image 15” – Doré, London: A Pilgrimage

I’m fascinated by the ways that these images rely so heavily on shadow, and have limited light sources, particularly so because of what it does for the image and its tone. Image 15 captured my attention for multiple reasons, the first of which being its etching of buildings. The lining of them have the energy of a Tim Burton film, Gothic and sketch-like; the darkness giving the feeling of horror novel suspense. The lines, stretching vertically, work to convey the idea that the buildings they make up are melting into the street floor, aided further by the streets’ own texture. The reflection of light on the cobblestone highlights the unevenness of it, and gives it a wormy, rotted, wet and damp appearance. The people placed in the image are also of interest, clumped together as they are in small groups. None move through the street, and their attention seems to be one one another or looking into the road, as though waiting for something to happen. They are also all out at night, which seems odd. What are they waiting for? Why are they out of doors? These all add to the tone of the image, which reads as dream-like, dark and opaque.

“Image 27” Doré, London: A Pilgrimage

Image 27 is one of the most odd illustrations in the set, having an uncanniness to it possibly rooted in the way that one can look at it and continue to discover little details. The figure posed on the bed looks directly at the audience, drawing them into the image and creating a sense of uneasiness, as though they were intruding on something secret. His eyes are dark and his facial expression is hard to read, smiling a bit as if amused, but at the same time unreadable. In his hand he holds what appears to be an extended pipe, though at first glace it might read as a cane or wand, it’s end holding a small orb. The candle is placed down, creating harsh shadows upon the faces of everyone in the image, and harkening back to the classic telling of campfire scary stories. The left most figure leans on a crutch, which gives the scene a bit of context; perhaps this is a medical man. Other pieces in the image, such as the herbs hanging on the wall, build on this reading. The black cat, notorious for its supposed connection to witches, is placed on the stairs lining the right side of the illustration, which takes the previous idea of this being a medical man’s home and move it into a place of theoretical witchcraft or the occult. The background figures add to this, their forms shrouded in darkness, fading into it in some cases, and their eyes the same black as the man on the bed. The eeriness of that man, the obscurity of the other figures, and way that they all are looking at the audience, lends the piece a real sense of haunting.

Carmilla - Wikipedia
D.H. Friston, The Dark Blue
File:Frontispiece to Frankenstein 1831.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Frankenstein, Theodor von Holst

For reference, I have placed a few classic Gothic novel images above. Their use of shadow and lighting is incredibly similar to the images I noted from London: A Pilgrimage. The image from Frankenstein even further shows different style choices Doré might have made, like the eyes. In this image, Victor, the man standing, has notable eyes, where as those in the Doré images most often have eyes of full pitch, making them unreadable and scary. The image pulled from Carmilla has Carmilla, the demon vampire, casted in shadow as Lucy, the innocent woman on the bed, is covered in light. This is a pretty standard representation of evil versus good. In London: A Pilgrimage, Doré most often has middle class/poor people in scenes where the lighting is dimmed and shadows dominate, which sets up an interpretation of these classes similarly as evil, or wanting to drain the life, i.e. resources, out of the good and upper class.

What are all these images doing, though? Why are these readings important? I think a possible answer to this lies in the audience the images are intended for. These images are supposed to convey everyday life in Victorian London, and to some extent they are a “real” representation of the middle and poor/working classes to individuals outside of those. If such illustrations are so easily interpreted as uncanny, uneasy, or haunting, then that acts as a representation of the these classes to others. I am wondering if these images might be dangerous, conveying such ideas, and about the ways in which they might lead to harm for these communities. I am also curious about the intentions of Doré, who must have seen the ways that these images resemble so many others done for horror novels and ghost stories of the time. His use of shadow, darkness, and obscurity of figures, all things he had control over, even if limited by the tools he had to work with, manipulates the daily life of the lower classes into a work of fiction.

Posted by: charlottedawn | November 11, 2020

Class, Color, and Costume in Crimson Peak

The second half of this post contains major plot spoilers for the film Crimson Peak. I will try to keep it mostly-spoiler free up until I need to incorporate plot points but will mark where the major spoilers begin.

Guillermo del Toro’s 2015 film Crimson Peak takes place at an unspecified point in the year 1901, in an immediate post-Victorian world. In order to streamline the analysis, I will be primarily focusing on the characters Edith Cushing and Lucille Sharpe, although the costuming of Edith’s father Carter and Lucille’s brother Thomas play heavily into the visual signaling of class as well. While much of the movie’s visual symbolism is less than subtle, the particularities of Crimson Peak’s relationship with class and appearance are remarkably unique and nuanced, particularly for a horror film.

Edith and Lucille are foils both in personality and appearance. This contrast is played up with everything from the soft features, gentle brown eyes, and golden hair of Mia Wasikowska (Edith) to the intense blue eyes and striking dark hair Jessica Chastain (Lucille) dons for the role. Edith is a young woman, 24, from New York, and she is in every way the quintessential metropolitan woman. Her father is a wealthy self-made stonemason, and her clothes are tasteful but unquestionably expensive and modern. Edith is dressed exclusively in cream, gold, and bronze for the first act of the film, an indicator of both her wealth and her comfort in the industry she lives in and around. Lucille, however, is a bit older at 32, and next to Edith and the other young women from New York, both her English mannerisms and outdated style of dress mark her as different. The colors she wears, however, mark her as threatening. While Edith and the other New York women wear the popular Edwardian leg-of-mutton sleeves and looser skirts in lighter fabrics, Lucille remains in her heavy, dark velvet and constricting dresses that seem far more suited to an era twenty years previous.

[Edith and Lucille in the park in Buffalo. The two women have already become acquainted with one another – note the black brooch at Edith’s throat and the ribbon on her hat as well as the white lace on Lucille’s collar and cuffs. While their colors have begun to bleed into one another, Edith maintains a floral motif while Lucille keeps more aggressive shapes.]

Lucille’s brother Thomas appeals to Carter for financial aid in building a clay extractor for his property, which Carter refuses, accusing Thomas of not being a hard worker. Edith witnesses this interaction, and later remarks to her father “Did you notice his suit? It was beautifully tailored, but at least a decade old…. And his shoes were handmade, but worn”. Carter replies that she had observed more than he had, and the two leave it at that. While the Sharpe siblings’ clothes are out of style, they are still dignified and carefully made from expensive materials. The two families’ contrasting styles are contrasted further at the ball Lucille plays piano for, which Edith dances with Thomas to. The women’s dresses are complementary in style but strikingly different. Lucille wears her hair tightly braided against her head with a band of large glass jewels across it, and she is dressed in possibly the most spectacular gown of the film – an intricate, silk, extremely tight blood-red dress with a multi-layered train that pools on the floor around her. Edith also arrives in a silk gown with a train – but hers is cream-colored, looser, and exposes her shoulders, arms and back (unfortunately, I was unable to find a quality image of Edith’s ballgown without the cape). Notably, she also wears strings of pearls across her chest and arms – and unlike Lucille’s flashy glass gems, Edith’s appear to be real.

[Lucille and Edith at the ball. Lucille is visibly constricted up to and above her neck in her suffocating gown, while under the cape, Edith’s is practically strapless, with only two small strings of pearls covering her shoulders, leaving most of her upper body and back exposed.]

A short amount of time later, Edith marries Thomas and returns to his and Lucille’s home in England with him. Their mansion, Allerdale Hall, is cavernous in size but actively decaying. Bright red clay seeps up from the floors and runs down the walls, and a massive hole in the foyer ceiling lets in leaves and, later, snow to collect on the floor. It is in the home that the costuming again progresses to another level, with Lucille greeting the newlyweds in a dress the same color as the walls of the house – a deep Prussian blue. Thomas wears a coat in an identical color and fabric. Edith, however, dons her most striking costume yet – a silk gown in a shade of canary yellow so highly saturated it borders on garish. The brightness of her dress is a far cry from the muted, gentler warm tones she has worn thus far. Not only does this dress follow Lucille’s red one in color intensity, but it features pleated elements at the chest that are reminiscent of Lucille’s gown as well.

[Lucille is back to her thick, heavy velvet and sharp accents (note the thorns adorning the leaves on her top). Edith, however, now wears thicker, heavier silk, this time with large pieces of embroidery on the sleeves and pleated patterns at the front. Although it is difficult to see from this angle, this dress also features a massive black velvet bow that ties at the back of Edith’s neck and is so long that it touches the ground.]


As several months go by, Edith finds herself becoming more and more ill – and the more bitter tea Lucille offers her to soothe her stomach, the sicker she gets. As is revealed through an investigation back in New York, Edith’s father, who died unexpectedly, was murdered, and his fortune has been steadily being drained into the Sharpes’ name in order to fund Thomas’s mining device. This is also not the first time this has happened – Thomas has been married three times before, to women with significant inheritances and no living relatives. The siblings, left penniless by their father with a house that was in too poor condition to sell, were too proud to leave their home, and so have been stealing money from women for the last decade to fund Thomas’s experiments (which have all failed, keeping them poor). This depiction of the lack of wealth turns the conventional “beggar in slums” trope on its head. The Sharpe siblings wear beautiful, well-tailored clothes because they were able to afford them in the past, but all the clothes are visibly worn because they have been unable to afford new ones for over a decade. Despite their appearances, the Sharpes are not wealthy at all, but were at one point in the siblings’ lives, and as such they are stuck in a sort of liminal space where they possess many valuable items, but have no actual money, and are too proud to sell anything they own, and as such have resorted to theft and murder. Edith is their next victim, and while the more empathetic Thomas begins to genuinely fall in love with her, the colder and more pragmatic Lucille increases the doses of poison she administers. While Lucille and Thomas’s costumes continue to mirror each other fairly uneventfully (they mainly rewear the blue and black clothes for the duration of the film), Edith’s clothes begin to change more and more. She does not know it yet, but the Sharpes are actively draining both her finances and her life. Almost all of her inheritance has already been siphoned into Thomas’s inventions, and she has begun coughing up blood nightly from Lucille’s poisoning of her tea. As the Sharpes, the house, and the secrets both of them hide begin to consume her, Edith’s color scheme shifts from her golds and yellows to green, and her light, gauzy fabrics shift into thick embroidered silks and heavy velvets. The darker green her clothes, the more of her life and wealth the Sharpes have bled out of her.

[On the left is Edith early into her stay at Allerdale Hall, wearing a nightgown. While it still has her characteristic yellow, the gown itself is a warm, light green, the shape is extremely structured, and both the high neck and long sleeves look more like Lucille’s clothing than anything Edith has worn yet. On the right, Edith wears a deep green velvet top with a high neck and smaller sleeves than she usually wears. She has been influenced and manipulated by the siblings and, as such, has taken their signature color into her own.]

While more events play out before the film’s dramatic close, the most significant indicators of wealth and class in costuming have already been given to us. Edith, in her golden industrial shades and modern shapes, and the Sharpes, in their dark, heavy fabrics and long-out-of-fashion styles, give the viewer visual cues in their clothing as to their personalities, desires, and secrets.

The costumes for Crimson Peak were designed and executed by Kate Hawley.

Works Cited

Crimson Peak. Directed by Guillermo del Toro, Universal Pictures, 2015.

All images are either promotional photographs or screencaps of the film.

Posted by: scott28k | November 9, 2020

Class and Portraiture in the Victorian Era

Lady Bette Delme is an example of what it was to be a part of the aristocracy in the Victorian era. This portrait of her and her children, painted by Joshua Reynolds in the late 1700s, is not just a painting for painting’s sake; the subject(s) wanted to send a clear message for those who would be viewing it. This genre of painting was called aristocratic portraiture.

Every detail in this portrait is intentional. One of the first details to note, and surely the eye is drawn to it, is Lady Delme’s dress. The vast amount of material, silk and lace, indicates the family’s wealth. Also, her hair is coiffed high on her head. Her son is dressed in rich red velvet. Because he is wearing red, he is the most prominent figure in the portrait. Her daughter looks as if she is dressed in lace, with a touch of silk at her waist.

The way the painter has Lady Delme and her children positioned was deliberate, as well. Her son is posed in the middle, and has the most rouge on his face, as to stand out from the female figures. His presence in the portrait alone is emphasizing him as the male heir, reproduction, health, and from the way he is standing, could have had military influence. Lady Delme has her arm protectively around her children, as if to shield them from harm, especially her male heir. A dog is also in the portrait, looking up at them lovingly. Having a pet in this time period was also a symbol of wealth.

Additionally, the Delmes are sitting for the portrait on their land. One can see that their land is visible as far as the eye can reach. They could have easily sat for the portrait indoors, but making the decision to pose on their land is calculated – they want the viewers to see how much land they own. The trees behind the family are large and tall, indicating that the property may have been passed down to them, and that they are from “old money.” Although each subject is looking in different directions, their gazes, especially Lady Delme’s, have an air, a level of self-assurance, maybe a degree of being smug. There is an ease about them; even though they presumedly were posed for the portrait by the painter. The painter wanted to emphasize the whiteness of the subjects. Which begs the question, how much agency did the family have in this sitting?

Regardless of the choice in this matter, again, a clear message is conveyed through every detail of this portrait, from the clothing, the land, and even the way the subjects are posed. There are various axis of representation here: race, gender, family, ownership. All of those together create a chasm of separation of the aristocracy and the working class. This portrait is a type narrative; a type of performance; a performance of status, wealth, and class. This portrait loudly proclaims their position without saying a word.

Works Cited:

Reynolds, Sir Joshua. Lady Elizabeth Delme and Her Children, 1777-1779. 1779, National Gallery of Art, West Building, Main Floor – Gallery 59.

Posted by: vincentfinch | November 8, 2020

The Power of the Panopticon

The idea of the panopticon, first introduced by philosopher Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century, guides nearly all of contemporary Western culture. Though the panopticon was created with the intent of applying it to schools, hospitals, etc, it became most known as a prison design. The panopticon is both an architectural design and a system of control in which a single guard is stationed at a central inspection station equipped with bright lights in a rotunda, so that the guard can keep watch of all prisoners from the same location. Crucially, the stationing of only one guard means that they cannot watch all prisoners at the same time; however, because the prisoners cannot see the guard, they are motivated to act as though they are being watched constantly, simply because they are never sure if they are being watched or not. This means that a very small group of people (even an individual) can exercise control over a very large number of people. The power of the panopticon rests not in constant active surveillance, but in the potential for it. 

The panopticon sneaks its way into a variety of contemporary technologies that we tend to accept as parts of our daily lives. Security cameras in stores, on streets, and at stop lights are always recording and watching, except when they are just the covers with no camera inside. Police cars are stationed along highways ready to check everyone’s speed, except when the cars are empty. Smart assistants like Siri, Alexa, and Google are always listening in, recording and processing the information told to them, and sometimes recording information merely told in their presences. In each of these cases, technological advances have resulted in these images and recordings — consolidated into individual profiles — becoming more accurate and harder to opt out of. 

The guard in the panopticon is a god-like figure. The lights on the inspection station are intended to be bright enough to prohibit prisoners from seeing the guard clearly. When they look up towards the tower, they see bright white lights (religious imagery, anyone?) and know that a faceless, all-seeing being ultimately has control. Further, god is often depicted in disguise, with the intent to test their followers. This, too, follows the logic of the panopticon — you never know who god is pretending to be, so you must treat everyone as though they could be them. Who are we positioning as god in contemporary applications of the panopticon? If followers and believers give a deity power, then what are we doing to encourage or discourage them?

Posted by: flannerylangton | November 7, 2020

Pictures (sometimes) need a thousand words

In journalistic settings, it is often said that a picture is worth a thousand words and that a good photograph can stand on its own and tell a story, however, that isn’t always true. Captions lead the viewer to a conclusion and can add a level of truth to a photograph that otherwise might be overlooked. 

When the first photo was taken in 1826, the first image deemed as presenting the exact “real” was created. Because cameras technically capture reality, they became synonymous with journalism, truth, and seeing. Pictures are supposed to be worth a thousand words but sometimes without context, they don’t make the sense they should. 

Photo Courtesy of; “interior of the Sikanderbagh after the Slaughter of 2,000 Rebels” by Felice Beato

The photo “interior of the Sikanderbagh after the Slaughter of 2,000 Rebels” by Felice Beato is an example of a photo needing context to be understood more fully. This photo depicts the ruins of an ancient building in British colonial  India as the backdrop to a small group of local people and a white horse who sit, kneel, and stand amongst the bones of presumably their brethren who have been slaughtered by the British 93rd Highlanders and the 4th Punjab regiment. The event took place in late 1857 but the photo was taken in mid 1858. 

The initial view of the photo is horrifying, but in a more subtle way. Without close observation it is easy to pass over the bones as simply debris on the ground. The background too impacts the photo, which when combined with the bones, makes everything in the image feel ancient and unrelated to “current day,” if that was the 1850s. 

In the chapter “Anaesthesis and Violence: A Colonial History of Shock” in his book Afterimage of Empire: Photography in Nineteenth-Century India, scholar Zahid Chaudhary discusses the lack of context and staging of this photo by Beato. About the caption, Chaudhary initially says it “describes what it shows” (73). However, the story of this photo changes as the history of it is recounted by Chaudhary. The photographer arrived in Ludkow too late and “the official ‘history of the mutiny’ had already entered its memorializing stage … Beato ordered full exhumation of the half-buried corpses and posed them in the courtyard of Sikanderbagh” (77). This horrifying story adds the the ruthlessness of British colonization as it even continued in the documenting of it. It also questions if there is any truth at all within this image as it attempts to represent an event that happened months previously. It means this photo is all about aesthetics and not the people involved in the atrocity. Chaudhary begins to question the ethics of that and in response it loses all trace of ethics. Like all colonial acts it is a massive abuse of power as this photograph attempts to write an incorrect history and tell an incorrect story, even if it does attempt to show some aspect of the atrocity. 

Additionally, Chaudhary writes that this photo was originally mis-captioned then printed in London as having been taken on the actual day of the massacre, further complicating the story and the viewer’s interpretation of the image. That seemingly small error forever changed the trajectory of the image as the first viewers would have seen it as fact of the day and a perfect encapsulation of life in India and the actions of the colonial military. In reality, it is dramatized in a way that only removes the importance of the image from the viewer’s immediate thought process. 

In a different vein of misinterpretation (with far less severity), the following photo is frequently shown when discussing the early mechanics of photography. 

Photo courtesy of The Atlantic; A photo of the Boulevard du Temple in Paris’ 3rd arrondissement. Towards the bottom left are two people, thought to be the first ever photographed.  

This photo is actually a daguerreotype. In 1834, French artist and designer Louis Jaques Mande Daguerre completed the development of the daguerreotype, essentially a type of camera. According to The Atlantic article “The Gift of the Daguerreotype” by Alan Taylor, “The daguerreotype process used a polished sheet of silver-plated copper, treated with iodine to make it light-sensitive, which was exposed (for several minutes or more) under a lens, then “fixed” using mercury vapor.”

This photo of Paris is recognizable through its architecture and street construction. It is immediately peaceful, quiet, and serene–strange for a major city. 

Alan explains that these early pictures had incredibly long exposure times and for this one in particular it was nearly 10 minutes. This meant that anything moving left no trace in the camera lens. It is thought that of the two people visible, one is shining a shoe and the other is getting his shoe shined, meaning they would have stayed in the same place for the needed amount of time. 

This image still is a great example of a very regular thing becoming spooky and haunting as it is strange to see such a bustling and recognizable city almost completely empty. But with the story of the daguerreotype all of that falls away and it becomes interesting and more a feat of technology. 

This wonder does happen in “interior of the Sikanderbagh after the Slaughter of 2,000 Rebels” because of the violence it represents and the horror that laid even in the construction of the photo. There are some places where experimental art is allowed and is ethical, Paris streets are an example of that but in colonizers contexts that shouldn’t be allowed as it only further manipulates the stories. 

So possibly seeing is not believing, not if sight is given without context. It is a misnomer that a photograph alone can showcase truth and reality because even in real life truth and reality do not exist without context.  

Works Cited

Chaudhary, Zahid. “Anaesthesis and Violence: A Colonial History of Shock.” Afterimage of Empire: Photography in Nineteenth-Century India, University of Minnesota Press, 2012, 73-104.

Taylor, Alan. “The Gift of the Daguerreotype.” The Atlantic, . Accessed 6 Nov. 2020.

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