Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Sarah M. Miller reviews Jordan Bear’s Disillusioned

Jordan Bear. Disillusioned: Victorian Photography and the Discerning Subject.  Pennsylvania State University Press, 2015. 216 pp. $74.95, hardcover.

Reviewed by Sarah M. Miller

In Disillusioned: Victorian Photography and the Discerning Subject, Jordan Bear proposes a thesis with broad implications for the study of photography.  Objectivity, he posits, was not immediately accepted as photography’s defining quality in its earliest decades, nor did it immediately come to guarantee photography’s representational authority.  Rather, objectivity is the quality repeatedly made tenuous as photography acquired a signal role in the project of cultivating what Bear calls “visual discernment” in British society of the 1850s-1860s.  The expansion of “an audience empowered to judge the reliability of its own visual experience” (4) was a key phenomenon of those decades, he argues, and visual discernment—the capacity for discrimination and judgment of truths in the visual realm—was an increasingly vital skill negotiated in part through photographs.  In line with much recent scholarship, Bear seeks to shift away from ontological definitions of the medium, and toward a historical situating of photography as it was received and negotiated alongside other practices of visual investigation, depiction, and pedagogy.  His is a picture of photography coming into being as a social tool, rather than arriving fully formed as a coercive instrument of knowledge.  Equally consequential, it is an account of industrializing British society putting the new technology to use in defining and testing the aptitudes of modern subjectivity.

Although it has Foucauldian genealogy in its bones, Disillusioned clearly states its ambition to move beyond the cruder uses of Foucauldian theory that restructured photo-history in the 1980s, specifically John Tagg’s The Burden of Representation.  While acknowledging Tagg’s central tenet (photography exists only within the institutional forces that mobilize it) remains persuasive, Bear wants to counterbalance the earlier emphasis on structural forces and their “brute instrumentalization” of photography to compel belief with a more historically nuanced examination of individual agency and perception in the formation of social knowledge.  To those who welcome such a methodological update, Bear’s argument is tantalizing: institutional power often and deliberately made the photograph’s status questionable, thus encouraging its interrogation, and that space of individual discernment must be seen as a new and important mode of autonomy.  But even as Bear asserts photography was a mechanism through which “the relative agency of individuals ... was negotiated,” he also sees the liberty of discernment as instrumental and ultimately illusory—a freedom to judge that “nevertheless served to supplant more concrete liberties, and transformed visual judgment into a commodity” (15) and that served capitalism by making the “ethic of self-interest and its pursuit ... into a natural state of affairs” (31).  The abstract determinism hovering in the background can be overly constraining: Bear’s creative, multi-layered analyses occasionally reach too-easy conclusions when adduced exclusively to the ideological management of the citizenry.

The thesis is argued with aplomb in the early chapters, which weave political, educational, scientific and aesthetic discourses to offer fresh perspective on the work of Oscar Rejlander and Henry Peach Robinson.  Both men are rescued from modernist ridicule through erudite examinations of how their techniques posed deliberate tests to the viewer of great epistemological significance.  Eschewing the condescension usually heaped on Rejlander’s Two Ways of Life, for instance, Bear demonstrates that the work composed from more than thirty negatives raised concerns analogous to contemporaneous political meanings of “combination” (any undesirable conspiracy in the organization of working class labor) when it was first shown in an exhibition dedicated to the edification of Manchester’s industrial working class.  To allay the implications of secrecy and draw viewers into a didactic exercise against collusion, we learn, Rejlander became an apostle for discerning the unseen bonds within a seemingly seamless composition, inviting audiences to understand how his pictorial illusions were produced and thus binding “a measure of political stability to this supposedly emancipatory method of seeing and knowing” (51).  The chapter constructed around Robinson explores visual discernment as recreation—recreation in which the amusements were infused with emergent logics of capitalist production and the latest principles of vision research.  In the scrutiny Robinson invited of his illusory effects and staged tableaux, Bear finds lessons concerning the distinctions between catching ephemeral nature and mediating it in lasting images (the stuffed wolf of his Red Riding Hood series is suddenly less absurd), the illusion of motion, the divisibility of time into regular units, the defeat of chance, and the differences between work and play.  The development of a discriminating eye through seemingly playful visual exercises, Bear demonstrates, was closely tied to the restructuring of time that underlay industrial production and management. 

It is to Bear’s credit that he maintains a sense of the wonder and novelty in Rejlander and Robinson’s work even as he situates it within an insidious program of shaping subjects amenable to liberal capitalism.  Less successful are the later chapters, where the focus shifts from the edification of viewers to the reconfiguring of authorial agency through specific photographic practices.  A chapter on collaborative practices by upper-class female photographers is intriguing but its argument scatters in too many directions.  Another on the rise of the “corporate” author, told through Francis Frith’s evolution into Frith & Co., traces how the photograph’s guarantee of the real shifted from resting upon signs of the artist’s personal witnessing to resting upon a “styleless” style designed to eliminate signs of individual consciousness.  The development of visual rhetorics of non-intervention and what Bear calls the “the mode of individuality eligible to carry referential guarantees” (115) are crucial issues in nineteenth-century photography, and this oddly abbreviated chapter could have widened to explore the practices associated with corporate image publishing more broadly.  In the book’s second half, the broader ramifications of Bear’s specific case studies are less clear.

Disillusioned will take up a useful place alongside studies like Michael Leja’s Looking Askance: Skepticism and American Art from Eakins to Duchamp—scholarship that shifts the art historical priority from production to the active, creative, and socially generative processes of what used to be called mere “reception.”  Admirably, reception is no passive construct here, though readers may wish Bear’s version were more convincingly anchored in individual accounts rather than asserted in sweeping generalizations.  Ultimately, however, Disillusioned’s greatest services may be historiographic.  Bear successfully dislodges the truism that photography was immediately accepted as a new ideal of objectivity, and restores to view the capacity of its earliest viewers to analyze photographic images as constructions.  The stage is set for future studies that might locate in such activity the more unruly imaginative freedoms Bear considers elusive.  In equally convincing terms, his conclusion dislodges the modernist history of photography that valorized objectivity as its patrimony, and reinserts Rejlander and Robinson as the precursors of postmodernism, when photography’s referentiality was challenged and subverted again.