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.

Seeing church and theology in stereo

Cardboard stereoscope with inbuilt stereoscopic photograph, from Jumièges Abbey, Normandy.

I’m continuing a blog series which is exploring more experiential ways of engaging with art and theology, with particular reference to photographic technologies. Today, I completed a two-week course from FutureLearn with the University of Edinburgh, ‘Stereoscopy: An Introduction to Victorian Stereo Photography’. Free to access, and wonderfully user-friendly, I checked in over a period of two or three days to whistlestop the 40 or so points on this course. Each was characterised by images, short commentary, links, references, or videos: a byte-sized diet of amuse-bouches on the fascinating technology and contexts of early Victorian stereographs. The online learning platform itself has theological implications for the experience of art and images, though these are not my subject here. Rather, the stereoscope itself is.

They are remarkable images, involving ‘the simultaneous perception of two monocular projections, one on each retina’, as described by Charles Wheatstone in 1838. His invention of the stereoscope created a handheld viewing instrument with mirrors (for drawings in the first instance), but it was the later lenticular stereoscope designed by Sir David Brewster whose lens-based design is remembered. A pair of photographs, each fractionally different as taken from different points, are usually presented together on single cards, which are then inserted like slides a couple of inches in front of the lenses. In my foldable, cardboard ‘readymade’ above, the images are part of the box – a tourist souvenir I picked up at Jumièges Abbey while on holiday in Normandy a few years ago. Optically, the lenses aid the eyes to focus beyond the picture plane, at which point the wall-eyed convergence (as opposed to cross-eyed convergence in front of the picture plane) perceives the images as one, with the illusion of 3D projections across its surface.

Many a stereoscopic photograph of an abbey ruin was produced during its boom period in the mid-nineteenth century. Roger Fenton (1819-1869) was a master of such views of church architecture. His photographs range from atmospheric ruins in romantic settings (for example those at Furness Abbey, 1860 and Glastonbury Abbey, 1858) to sculptural studies of light and stone detail (for example at Rosslyn Chapel in 1856 and Westminster Abbey in 1858). The ruin carried a pictorial emphasis which imbued typical tourist scenes with an expansive melancholic vision, deliberately evoking the spiritual undertones of the picturesque ideal. Views by Fenton and others such as Francis Frith were readily commercialised by companies specialising in stereographic production, who capitalised on the Victorian appetite for armchair travel. It’s easy today to align the romantic effect with our own somewhat nostalgic attribution to a sentimental style, but the theological weight of a church’s representation should be remembered for carrying some substance at the time. Oliver Wendall Holmes famously evoked what was almost a supernatural experience in looking at stereographs, ‘a dreamlike exaltation of the faculties, a kind of clairvoyance’ (in the 1861 essay, ‘Sun-Painting and Sun-Sculpture’), and he gave specific significance to the Dome of St Paul’s and Canterbury Cathedral, with the presence(s) of divine authentication as amplified by the power of the 3-dimensional lens. The images still hold a certain magic today, and my research will continue to explore the spiritual resonance of looking at, among other things, the Palestinian landscape and Victorian diableries in stereo. It is, specifically, a corporeal and immersive way of seeing, which occasionally received enthusiastic religious attention and explanation.

Launching in Lacock

Thresholds at Lacock Abbey

The season turns, and it’s time to re-emerge again in a more public frame for practice and research. It has been two years to the week since the last blog post, in which I declared a ‘going-to-ground’ period on arrival in Lacock, Wiltshire. The characteristics of such a long withdrawal are far from being blank, though they are a deliberate stance against working modes characterised by visible productivity. What you can do with invisible time and space is enter whole new worlds, as I experienced this week at Mat Collishaw’s Thresholds exhibition at Lacock Abbey.

More on the virtual experience in a moment, but by way of what I’ve been up to in the last two years, 2015/16 initially saw an enforced break on work patterns, firstly in the aftermath of moving and secondly in a family member’s ill health. I spent a lot of time digging, literally turning over soil and dragging out stubborn roses – it felt like a spiritual exercise in identifying and living with ground zero for a while. I came circling back to what it was I wanted to grow in my PhD, while finding footing at the local campus for Bath Spa University in Corsham Court. 2016/2017 then was a solid twelve months’ writing my doctoral thesis, part-time. I worked out the number of words per week that I needed to average, as well as the number of pages I could read in a day. I ploughed. Finally on the 4th August this year, I submitted over 80,000 words to the University of Gloucestershire, and look forward to a viva there next month.

It was absorption, with great intensity. Absorption in a world much like that recreated by Collishaw: the world of original photographic encounter. In his case, he has built a ‘room’ to mirror the setting of one of Talbot’s early photographic exhibitions (in Birmingham, 1839). You are given a headset and backpack, are guided blind into the blank white space, and then experience its sights, sounds and textures through the room’s virtual recreation, complete with wooden display cabinets, mice on the floor, street sounds from outside. I loved this world, and I loved the tangibility of its interpretation – it felt like, in microcosm, a material confirmation of so many academics’ verbal interest in photography. But its absorption was also lacking in intensity, limited by clunkiness, six minutes’ viewing time, and regulated space. It was interesting to experience the incompatibility of presences: my own was not ‘visible’ in the virtual space (others were ghosts, and staff were occasional disembodied voices at your side), yet I did enter a ‘thereness’, physically. Ultimately I found it a gift to visual imagination, and at my own threshold of new forays into word and image, it marks the moment with new, dynamic, possibilities.

Emerson and the beauty of ‘Marsh Leaves’

Peter Henry Emerson, ‘Rime Crystals’, photogravure, 1895

The beauty of the place was infinite and heartbreaking. Emerson, in love with the landscape, overlooked nothing, from winter’s mists to summer’s fullness. Yet such opulence was beyond the scope of photography and, eventually realizing this, Emerson had to content himself with exquisite miniature pictures of frozen earth, mists and far horizons – winter landscape, which suited photography’s monochromatic limitations. His last illustrated book, ‘Marsh Leaves’ (1895), contains sixteen of photography’s most reticent pictures, tiny photo-etchings of a remote grey world punctuated by thorn trees and wasted reeds. These resemble nothing so much as souvenirs, fragile mementos impressed on paper.

To do full justice to such opulence and variety as he found in the Norfolk Broads Emerson had to rely on words, which eventually made up for everything the camera had promised and failed to deliver. Emerson was no ordinary writer, although he could be longwinded and apocalyptic when goaded by modern enormities. Guided by naturalistic precepts he wrote, when in control of himself, as a recorder, describing landscape and transcribing local speech. … At other times his reporting is anything but objective. He felt acutely for landcape as a living thing, stirred by the springtime, purified by fire, flayed by the wind, smothered and killed by winter. Some of his descriptions of this animated world read like word pictures of agile expressionist landscapes. Naturalist objectivity was at odds with a powerful subjective sense likely to dramatize anything which came its way. Why, in this case, did Emerson trouble to photograph at all? Because the camera, with its sparing depictions, placed some control on an imagination which threatened to run wild.

Ian Jeffrey in ‘Photography: A Concise History’, T & H, 1989, p.69, 70.
In memory of being overwhelmed by Emerson’s pictures at the Musée d’Orsay, August 2010.

Back to the beginning with Fox Talbot

W. H. Fox Talbot’s 1835 negative and positive photographs ‘Latticed Window, Lacock Abbey’

 
A photographic image is true and false in equal measure.

(Quote from Gerry Badger in The Genius of Photography, p.8). The earliest days of photography don’t bring any ideological foundation to its trajectory through history. The one thing you can’t do with a consideration of photography’s story is to call it The Story of Photography. Even in the 1830s, it was postmodern. There are, as Gerry Badger has pointed out, many stories of photography, and it proves impossible to ask them to form a neat line. As Fox Talbot so aptly showed in The Pencil of Nature (1844-46), even when you ask photographic images to show us what they can do, the multiplicity of the ‘picture-ness’ itself defies a confining logic.

Talbot’s book is a series of commentary on 24 photographs (all originally unique calotypes), produced in instalments over two years. Architectural scenes, still life, copies of drawing and print, the textures of manmade and natural objects: an eclectic choice of subjects are all accompanied by short texts of description or reflection on the image-capture process. Ian Jeffrey has noted the uncertainty in this presentation of ‘the new Art’ (Talbot’s term used in his introductory outline of the process at the beginning of The Pencil of Nature), suggestive of the surprise at being made ‘acutely alert to seeing itself’ (p.26, Photography: A Concise History, 1989).

Fox Talbot remarks on the camera’s ability to see everything ‘all at once’ (after Plate III, Articles of China), to ‘introduce into our pictures a multitude of minute details which add to the truth and reality of the representation’, being found to ‘give an air of variety beyond expectation to the scene represented’ (after Plate X, The Haystack), to ‘awaken a train of thoughts and feelings, and picturesque imaginings’ (after Plate VI, The Open Door), to produce copies of any number of artefacts which ‘may be preserved from loss, and multiplied to any extent’ (after Plate XXIII, Hagar in the Desert), ‘as much larger or smaller than the originals as we may desire’ (after Plate XI, Copy of a Lithographic Print). He even muses on the possibility of the photographic image making visible the invisible, by virtue of fixing ultraviolet rays (after Plate VIII, A Scene in A Library).

Each of these, and others besides, act not only to endorse the polyvalence of a photograph’s possible meaning, but also to present the paradox of photography: we both see the subject as immediate, as a short-circuit to visual reality AND we inhabit the interpretative process which is always invested in a picture, undermining such objectivity. Like Talbot’s first negative of 1835, above, this reveals that perceptive flip of comprehension, where the impossibility of operating in two modes at the same time is brought tantalisingly close. Close enough to explode the dominance of all previous means of representation.