A flurry of Frith photographs

Francis Frith Bible
Francis Frith Bible
The Holy Bible, illustrated with photographs by Francis Frith, 1861

This month I’ll be speaking at the University of Oxford’s seminar series ‘The Bible in Art, Music, and Literature’, with a talk entitled ‘Pick & Mix: the non-linear Bible as modern artists visualise it’. I’ll be exploring a few artists discussed in my recent journal articles, but also introducing some thoughts on Francis Frith. Frith’s albumen prints were the first to illustrate a Bible in 1861, as seen above. In many ways, what he did with photographs of Palestine anticipated the range and breadth of new, modern ways to visualise the Bible. I’ve called this a pick & mix approach, not to be derogatory, but to argue that for him and for others something positive is going on with respect to the interpretation of the Bible in visual culture – the recasting of its language and stories as essentially non-linear. Here, I expand on what this meant in Frith’s case.

Frith travelled to Egypt and Palestine three times between 1856 and 1860; during and immediately after the trips, he published at least eight titled works, including this and a following two-volume ‘Queen’s Bible’ – the first photographically illustrated Bibles. These were undoubtedly at the more formal, exclusive end of his commercial printing enterprises, which also included serial travel books, sets of stereoviews, illuminated visual presentations, and card- and glass-mounted views sold separately. Frith delighted in the immersive effects of photography – his were not the typical wall-mounted print set for exhibition in societies. In his hands photography had different work to do, conjuring up the travel experience and imaginatively engaging the viewer to transport them to another world.

More than this, Frith was a Quaker (later a minister), and the idea of transport had a lot to do with seeing and experiencing something true – in this case, with a lens on the landscape of Egypt and Palestine, it was exposure to its meta-truth as read in the Bible. Frith’s Bibles are inserted with topographical views of particular places (such as Bethlehem, Mount Sinai, and Jerusalem) on separate pages. They interrupt the seamless verbal script, offering a conceptual junction with the real world. It isn’t simply a case of illustrating the text, it’s the alignment of another space with, alongside, through, the text. It’s a new epistemological venture. Truthfulness as it might be read has now a spatial dimension as something that might be inhabited. Frith found that the photographic image made immediate, spiritual claims on the viewer:

We can scarcely avoid moralizing in connection with this subject; since truth is a divine quality, at the very foundation of everything that is lovely in earth and heaven; and it is, we argue, quite impossible that this quality can so obviously and largely pervade a popular art, without exercising the happiest and most important influence, both upon the tastes and the morals of the people. … We protest there is, in this new spiritual quality of Art, a charm of wonderful freshness and power, which is quite independent of general or artistic effect, and which appeals instinctively to our readiest sympathies. 

Francis Frith writing in ‘The Art of Photography’ in 1859 (emphasis original).

Such a charm of wonderful freshness and power becomes, in contemplating biblical sites, a matter closely related to faith. The past is realised in order to enliven a theological imagination. The reader-viewer may well connect with the romanticism of the picturesque view, may indeed connect with the factual visual information pertaining to ancient biblical sites, but the trump card was really that they might connect with the living truth of God’s activity in the world (as much present as past). The facingness of the world exerts its non-linearity on biblical reading here. And in so doing, Frith I think sees in miniature the effect of big screen photographic representation – that catapulting of realistic spectacle and immersion which has rendered the Bible extra-textual in so much of our modern visual culture.

More at the seminar… And for those that can’t, some of these ideas are being worked into an essay for an edited volume, to be published with Routledge later this year (Transforming Christian Thought in the Visual Arts: Theology, Aesthetics, and Practice).

How a Victorian vicar used photographs to explain the Bible

From the 37th edition of Revd Alexander Keith’s publication in 1859

Earlier this year, my first journal article from my doctoral thesis on the Bible in photography was published in History of Photography. The journal itself has been a prompt many a time for my research – its articles shine so many lights into the past, with deeply attentive and close looking into histories that haven’t yet been told. It is the authoritative journal for close, peer-reviewed, study in the subject. So I’m naturally delighted that this article was accepted for publication.

‘Photographic and Prophetic Truth: Daguerreotypes, the Holy Land, and the Bible According to Reverend Alexander Keith’ (Vol 42, Number 4, 2018, also published here on my website) explores Keith’s bestseller publication and his use of engravings made from daguerreotypes to ‘prove’ that biblical prophecies about the landscape of Palestine had come true. Early ideas about photography’s ‘truth’ are commonly filtered through our modern understandings of science, objectivity, and experiment, which tend to present a blind spot when it comes to religion. Particularly in regard to Christianity and the Bible, religious reference is reduced to thematic illustration and (a nostalgic) art iconography. My essay presents an important challenge to reductionist simplifications of Christian thinking prevalent in early photography, revealing the intellectual sophistication of what is Keith’s photo-biblical apologetic. His highly articulate faith-based defence of photography’s superior documentary capacity reveals a more complex relation between science, visual culture, and religion than has typically been assumed.

For his book, Evidence of the Truth of the Christian Religion Derived from the Literal Fulfilment of Prophecy, Keith employed the services of his son George Keith to daguerreotype biblical sites on a tour of Palestine in 1844. The 18 engravings from daguerreotypes might look a bit dull, but they had the punch of truth-telling propaganda in their day: seeing was literally believing. This was more than armchair travel, more than seeing equating to the real experience of being there, because Keith linked the images to specific texts from the Prophets. In the above images, Ashdod (west of Jerusalem on the Mediterranean coast) shows that ‘the sea coast shall be dwellings and cottages for shepherds, and folds for flocks. Zeph II-6’, and the Temple at Jerash (east of the Jordon, a city not readily identified from Old Testament references) reveals that ‘in all your dwelling places the cities shall be laid waste, and the high places shall be desolate, &c. Ezek VI-6’. Keith made the record of the photograph synonymous with the record of the prophets. No other Palestine-religious guide (and many would follow in the nineteenth century) would hold photography and the Bible so determinatively together.

Ordinarily, it’s not a complicated connection, though it’s often missed because of common understandings of the Bible-as-myth today. The Bible is a record first-and-foremost. Its declared intent is overwhelmingly documentary, it purports to be historical about the Israelites in the Old Testament, and about Jesus and his disciples in the New Testament. Though it certainly has more lyrical and poetic books or sections, it is not as a whole a mythical account of a religion’s origins, nor a theological treatise. This is its ‘scandal of particularity’, as it has been called by theologian Alan Richardson. Keith, however, takes this one step further, because it is the predictions of the prophets that he takes as literal record, their foresight about the landscape’s destruction. And for his purposes, it is helpfully specific in the text about what the desolation will look like. Writing at time when British interest in Palestine was expanding on the tide of the Empire’s wealth, it was a land increasingly present to readers of the Bible too, and of concern particularly to Zionists. Keith had such concern in mind with other publications, notably Narrative of a Mission of Inquiry to the Jews from the Church of Scotland (1842), which had first employed him in Palestine in 1839. What one was engaging with when one looked at photographs of the Holy Land was urgently related to religious convictions pressing through the literalness, and bound up with present feeling about who was entitled to the land (especially when it was so conveniently photographed as empty). It was nothing short of a symbolic reality: the Jewish Promised Land inviting ‘return’, as much image as word.

For writing about photography, I think it’s urgent work to recover such a religious conviction as Keith’s, or at least to give those who held it (he had thousands of readers at a time when over half the population went to church, his book running into over fifty editions) the benefit of the doubt when it comes to their intellectual capacity. We can attribute greater specificity to their intentionality, if not always circumspect to our eyes, in the name of a fairer, clearer, interpretation. If nothing else the biblical literacy of our ancestors in the West ought to be more fully reckoned with, and given its fine grain. In my article I expand on this through the idea of Keith’s telescoping across present feeling and original prophecy, and through photography’s quasi-supernatural promise as being made ‘without human hand’. If anyone reading this would like a hard copy of the article, let me know and I’d be happy to send you one.

Steiner’s light

Floating III, Sheona Beaumont, 2010

I’m in endurance mode with George Steiner’s Real Presences (1989). What pitted, articulate, ranging, poetic depth he brings to present-day understandings of the arts. At my sense of it, he says we need a reckoning with the undisputed ‘life of meaning in the text, in music, in art’ (p.50) because our world is doing away with having to face mystery, immediacy (even ‘the wholly personal hospitality we owe our own death’, p.50) in what is a society in thrall to positivist accounting for the humanities or cheap journalistic thrill. We’d rather write about the arts, and screen their effects, than face their ‘implosive powers within the echo chambers of the self’ (p.10).

Everything about the journalistic-academic burgeoning of commentary and reflection and endless publications about the arts, the tsunami of talking, the preoccupation with inflated argument is ‘bustling pretence’ (p.48), ‘caring mediocrity’ (p.23), a ‘narcotic’ against interpretation as lived and felt (p.49), articulating ‘an epistemology and ethics of spurious temporality’ and ‘novelty’ (p.26,27). When some interpretative mode-du-jour fails, ‘when the zero-point of trust and of felt meaning is reached’ it’s more a sign of general decay and overinflation in ‘the mushrooming of semantic-critical jargon’, not of reckoning with ‘real presence’ and the humane (p.49). Rather than shooting down such malaise (as Baudrillard would), Steiner asks ‘how can personal sensibility go upstream, to the living springs of ‘first being’?’ (p.40), and proceeds to elaborate what is a declaration for hermeneutics as imaginative, transforming, event; hermeneutics as ‘defining the enactment of answerable understanding, of active apprehension’ (p.7); hermeneutics as ‘a shaping reciprocity between ourselves and that which the heart knows’ (p.9). Actual encounter with the arts precipitate this – for Steiner, especially music.

Amongst the hermeneutic approaches he discusses is the Jewish midrashic circling, retelling, and reimagining tradition towards Scripture. It deliberately brings the text into ‘palpable presentness’ (p.42), being ‘indeterminately synchronic with all individual and communal life’ (p.44). Not so the Christian (‘Catholic’) tradition, which works to extract fixity over and through the specific testimonies of Jesus and the disciples (so ‘dogma can be defined as hermeneutic punctuation, as the promulgation of semantic arrest’, p.44). It is these more legislative and systematic programmes of Christian theological interpretation which the humanities largely inherit today, combined with positivism and carried in the US by a wider non-canonical (‘democratic’), ahistorical ‘egalitarian ideal’ (p.32). But over and against each of these which might notionally stand for or accommodate theological-metaphysical interpretation, Steiner spends the bulk of the book (the 2nd of 3 chapters) elaborating on why modernism radically counters and annihilates such theological possibility.

Since the 1870s, Western consciousness has ‘moved house’ (p.94), effecting a fundamental break between word and world such that the ‘covenant of reference’ (p.96), or the ‘mystery of consonance’ (p.105) which supposes meaningfulness in representation/discourse is gone. Meaningfulness in language (or the linguistic, understood to describe all art) is, according to deconstructionism, a delusion, a ‘lazy dream’ (p.124) exhibiting ‘sclerotic remnants of religion, of metaphysics, of gross positivism’ (p.125). So the death of God, of the author, of intentionality, of logocentrism, etc. ‘Deconstruction dances in front of the ancient Ark. This dance is at once playful, …and instinct with sadness. For the dancers know that the Ark is empty’ (p.122). It feels like a devastating indictment, like Steiner himself accepts nihilism, from which there is no recovery. And yet, because the project is about the living, ever-returning, responsibility-inducing experience in front of art (where we feel ‘the talismanic quickening of our being’ p.63,64), in the final instance Steiner says the reckoning with deconstruction is limited by its theory, its dependence on logic to refute logic.

The full, indisputable freight of deconstructionism is not to be denied or denounced as untrue (within its own postulates, it is true), but it stands apart from the fact of the creative effort, and the fact of interpretative encounter with art. Steiner says he has never met an artist who is a deconstructionist. So with the serious encounter with art, to which everyone can testify at a kind of universally experienced level, even if not articulated through the privileged educational setting of high art. Both describe the human ‘wager on transcendence’ (p.214), the looking to meaning expressed and received beyond or above the immanent, manifest plane of our world. Whether the meaning is there or not, whatever the ‘style of designation’ for the otherness of encounter (p.211, which Steiner himself posits as the reception of an unknown guest knocking at the door), whether it exhibits confirmation or challenge or disruption to our sense of knowing, we enter into it. And it needs theological language, however foolish or embarrassing that is felt to be, to describe it. Steiner stands by this, though ends finally, melancholically, with uncertainty in the face of cultural rejection of the transcendent (which he says is understandable politically, morally, and linguistically) – will art, he wonders, become an archaeology when ‘the verticalities of reference to ‘higher things’… drain from speech’? Will general sentiment follow, or will it ‘aspire to religious fundamentalism and kitsch ideologies’? (p.230) It’s a supremely timely question.

Why I get hooked on Roland Barthes

Barthes and his mother Henriette
Barthes and his mother Henriette

By way of markers to locate some of my emerging research around the image and text relations of particular biblical photographs, here I note the terms from Barthes which I cannot avoid. Benjamin, Barthes and Baudrillard – the three B’s who hang around photography’s dark room like prophets in the wilderness. They script stories of the image which seem like revelation, meditation, oracle – they don’t write like ‘normal’ academics on the subject, they don’t do technological teleology, they don’t inventory a catalogue of styles or meaning. They write the metaphysics of the photograph:

  • Early Barthes was more systematic about understanding photographs: The Photographic Message (1961) and Rhetoric of the Image (1964) are like so much structuralist French thought. Here is the ‘denoted’ and ‘connoted’ image, the separated ‘message without a code’ (what the image is of) and its ‘code of connotation’ (what the image means). The ‘photographic paradox’ consists in the apparent dependence-for-success of the latter on the former, especially bizarre when considering that the very objectivity of photographic seeing is a by-word for impartial understanding, a by-word for the opposite of connotative culture.
     
  • To this duality is added (in Rhetoric of the Image) a third non-iconic message, the ‘linguistic message’. The text is an ever-present anchor and/or relay to fix the meaning of the image. Identification and interpretation tie down the denoted and connoted messages (respectively), which are like a dysfunctional surplus of meaning.
     
  • The early photographs discussed by Barthes are press or advertising photographs, which perhaps lend themselves more readily to a linguistic dissection on account of their obvious visual context surrounded by specific practices of showing and reading. What is performed in Barthes’ own writing, he acknowledges as an impossible division of the image, which retains its own ‘flat anthropological fact’ – its ‘real unreality’. Describing the process of representation may rent the image with words, codes, categories, but it does not, cannot, displace ‘the story of the denoted scene … a lustral bath of innocence’.
     
  • Later Barthes found more to write along post-structuralist lines. Camera Lucida, 1980, is more a reflective, searching, and discursive exploration of the photograph’s spellbinding power (noticeably through photographs of people). Though the hints of structuralism remain in a duality now defined by the ‘studium’ and the ‘punctum’ of the image, these are firmly located in the photograph-viewer relation; more specifically, in his own relation to particular photographs. That which is his polite interest, his liking of certain images is the studium; that which ruptures this gaze with a ‘wound’, a jarring detail, is the punctum.
     
  • Such is small-p photography for Barthes – not necessarily different from other forms of 2-dimensional representation. Capital-P Photography (the second half of Camera Lucida), is a diving again for its ontology, a wrestling of its unique identity, via the seminal example of a photograph of his mother (not the image above). The truth of the ‘that-has-been’ has a scandalous effect, ‘something to do with resurrection’, of the tangible ‘proof-according-to-St-Thomas’, ‘the simple mystery of concomitance’. All by way of his own realisation of death and life. Though we may have lost institutional rites for the place of death in society, perhaps the photograph replaces these asymbolically.
     
  • ‘The power of authentication exceeds the power of representation’. The photograph ‘is a magic, not an art’. Art and culture may try to tame the photograph into banality, such that we become indifferent to our relations with reality. Barthes says keep the faith, keep the madness alive, keep the ecstasy: that face-to-face, nose-to-nose encounter with ‘the wakening of intractable reality’.

Eadweard Muybridge reflections

Eadweard Muybridge, ‘Tutokanula. Valley of the Yosemite No. 11’, 1872

Muybridge: a 19th century, postmodern photographer. Comparing his work to that of his contemporary Carleton E. Watkins, Rebecca Solnit (with acknowledgement to Mark Klett’s remarks about the ‘composed’ modernism of Watkins’ photographs) writes:

Muybridge, even when photographing almost exactly the same subjects, could not be more different. In his sensibility, the world is all but discomposed, constantly in flux. Even something as solid as a government building reveals itself to be a creature of change; the water we think we know becomes eerily unfamiliar whether seen too slowly, as ghostly films, or too quickly, as leaping beasts; his late portraits are not portraits of human beings but of their actions, of movement itself; some of his landscapes, via their clouds, are really two different moments spliced together; and his panoramas often promise a single sweeping glance while actually being made up of several nonconsecutive moments. Even his taste in surfaces and textures runs to the intricate, elaborate, dense, and tangled: they are not smooth, stable, or easily deciphered. Finally, his tricksterish moments of subversion of the supposed truth or continuity of a given work of art render more uncertain and less stable the subject at hand.

(from Eadweard Muybridge, Philip Brookman, Tate Publishing, p.187). This is the prevailing reflection on Muybridge from all 5 contributing essays in the book – that he destabilises the picture plane, the norms of picture-making, the solidity of people and place, the assumptions of perception. His work is ‘an exercise in impossible seeing, transcending the bounds of ordinary human vision’ (Rebecca Solnit, p.185). Corey Keller notes the continuous interest in ‘effect’ (p.217), that specific attention to the format and display of images so prevalent in Victorian times which links the spectacular image with the bodily involvement of the viewer – through stereoscopy, his zoopraxiscope, and pull-out book panoramas (and may also include the presence and authentication of the creator himself). A similar theatricality is detected by Marta Braun in the composition and manipulation of the supposedly sequential images in Animal Locomotion, Muybridge’s seminal publication of 1887.

Perhaps this ‘mixing it up’ of image practice and publication, crossing art and science, is uncomfortable for today’s high art world because it seems like a muddying of the waters of a distilled, pure ideology of the photograph. Such an ideology does not exist. It’s like the clear, sharp, focussed presentation of a window on the world which turns out to be an upside-down reflection, a magical mirage. (Incidentally, the image above, on display in the 2010 exhibition in its original published album, is deliberately printed the ‘wrong’ way up among the sequence of mammoth plates. In the exhibition catalogue, it is ‘corrected’ by the Tate publishers and turned around.) There is, rather, a constant rupturing of any synthesized whole, and the suggestion instead of a subliminal turbulence and uncertainty about the world and the way we picture it: both in terms of individual images and in terms of Muybridge’s career as a whole.