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On the Images of Others

2013 February 22

By Susan Cook (Southern New Hampshire University, Manchester, NH)

As a Victorianist and a collector with an interest in photography, I decided, about a year ago, to begin amassing my own Victorian photography collection.  I soon acquired three daguerreotypes, two tintypes, and eleven cartes-de-visite—all portraits, save two.  I know very little about the images—no names, no dates, no locations beyond the photography studio imprinted on the cartes-de-visite.  I have become transfixed by how little I know about these images.

Fading Daguerreotype of Man

Fading Daguerreotype of Man

Two of the people are fading away.  One daguerreotype has become so transparent that it is possible to see the black cloth backing the image.  What at first glance appear to be crumbs in the man’s beard and on his jacket turn out, upon closer inspection, to be specks of dust on the cloth behind the image.  The small carte-de-visite on which another man’s image is somewhat crookedly affixed has lightened to a pale tan, the man’s fabulous sideburns starting to fade into the background.

Fading Carte of Man

Fading Carte of Man

This second man gazes pensively pensively to his left.  What is he thinking about?  Perhaps it is something serious, but just as likely something banal: his bow tie that is tied to tight, his neighbor’s obnoxious habit of singing in the shower at five each morning, the photographer’s tedious demands?  His serious expression is not an anomaly, of course: of my remaining thirteen portraits, seven subjects come across as very serious and the remaining six offer their photographers hints of smiles at best—it’s nearly the same expression, over and over again.  Such poses are, as Geoffrey Batchen puts it, part of a developing “ritual of class declaration and belonging”: “the subjects of these photographs adopt looks that are already familiar to them, probably from viewing paintings, prints or other photographs.  Familiar, but also new and not yet quite natural.” [1]  These are individuals, then, but individuals attempting to conform to a type.

There they sit, this collection of individuals, arrayed on my desktop at home, becoming part of my environment.  Looking at a photograph of himself, Roland Barthes asks “to whom does the photograph belong?” [2]  Looking at images not of myself, I ask the same question.  These daguerreotypes, tintypes, and cartes-de-viste are mine, but their subjects are utterly strange.  How odd it is, to “own” an image of another—particularly an anonymous other.

Carte of Girl

Carte of Girl

I am disoriented when I spend too long with these images, a feeling not unlike the uncanny.  Of course, these images were never familiar to me—they began as unfamiliar.  Yet Freud writes that the uncanny persists “when there is intellectual uncertainty whether an object is alive or not.” [3]  This is how the portraits appear to me: alive and dead.  In every photograph, claims Barthes, there is “that rather terrible thing…the return of the dead.” [4]  Barthes is referring to the return of a moment past, but in my images death quite literally refers to the photographic subjects.  I know all the people in my photographs are dead by now—everyone, including the young girl who haunts me with her serious, adult-like expression, is long since gone.  Yet quite uncannily, they appear to me to be alive, frozen in their images more than one hundred years after they sat before the camera—caught “somewhere between life and death,” as Batchen puts it. [5]

Beyond their paradoxical position between life and death, these photographs are intriguing because I don’t know the people whose images I have collected—and these images are themselves records of past lives.  They present the illusion of a window into the past: a hint, a flavor, a suggestion, but ultimately no solid answers, no precise information.  Coyly, these anonymous images dramatize the allure and the limits of historical knowledge itself.

These anonymous people have an uncanny afterlife in their portraits, which I inherit as their collector.  As portraits, these faces are bought and sold, they are circulated, they are displayed, they are gazed upon.  They are possessed.

As I find myself to be, when I look upon them.

Susan Cook is Assistant Professor of English at Southern New Hampshire University, where she teaches nineteenth- and twentieth-century British literature.  When she is not collecting Victorian photography, she is writing about Victorian literature and visual culture.  Follow Susan @Susan_E_Cook.

[1] Geoffrey Batchen, “Life and Death” in Suspending Time: Life—Photography—Death (Shizuoka: Izu Photo Museum, 2010), pp. 108-29 (pp. 115, 114).

[2] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), p. 13.

[3] Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny” in The Standard Edition, trans. and ed. James Strachey (London: Hogarth P, 1955), pp. 219-56. (p. 233).

[4] Barthes, p. 9.

[5] Batchen, p. 108.

Related JVC Articles:

Elizabeth Edwards’ “Commemorating a National Past: the National Photographic Record Association, 1897-1910.” Journal of Victorian Culture 10.1 (2005).

Simon Morgan’s “Material Culture and the Politics of Personality in Early Victorian England.” Journal of Victorian Culture 17.2 (2012).

John Plunkett’s “Celebrity and Community: The poetics of the Carte-de-Visite.” Journal of Victorian Culture 8.1 (2003).

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