Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Johanna Drucker reviews Picture World

Rachel Teukolsky. Picture World: Image, Aesthetics, and Victorian New Media. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. 418 pp.

Review by Johanna Drucker

11 August 2021

Rachel Teukolsky’s detailed study of visual print media in Victorian Britain argues that the unprecedented availability of mass-circulation images brought about changes in ideas of self and identity in many areas of nineteenth-century life. Teukolsky’s title echoes the much-cited concept of the world picture described by Martin Heidegger, in which modernity aligns with an understanding of the world as that which can be pictured. Her six chapters focus on transformations wrought by imaging technologies, each identified with a thematic category: character, realism, illustration, sensation, picturesque, and decadence. Each chapter looks at particular media innovations (such as stereoscopes, affordable photographic portraiture, illustrated book and journal publications, and poster art) as well as specific content (caricature, scenic views, war reporting).

Teukolsky is working with familiar materials in a crowded field, and the book’s text moves between a discussion of primary materials and a dialogue with the existing scholarship. The conscientiously exhaustive research is apparent, and the well-illustrated volume uses vivid examples to support the arguments about the impact of visual culture in Victorian Britain. Teukolsky’s study provides a comprehensive reference to selected areas of popular media and their relation to the production of social experience.

A few assumptions about causality and teleology weave throughout. Each chapter contains a final section linking nineteenth-century British innovations to current conditions, as if that Victorian environment were the source from which current networked global communications have come into being. This overlooks the historical complexities that led to our contemporary media infrastructure. In addition, the insularity with which Victorian Britain is described misses an opportunity to examine the colonialism of the infrastructure of image technologies (such as the source of rubber for the rollers on high-speed presses). British Victorian culture is discussed outside of the larger European and American context of innovations in photography, optics, and print technologies. These all depended on global extraction industries, along with labor and its abuses, in building the empires that were never autonomous or insular. In Teukolsky’s discussion, colonialism appears mainly as a thematic motif.

Finally, though well aware of the binarisms of high/debased and fine art/popular in critical theory and art history, Teukolsky reinscribes this divide through her sometimes-apologetic tone towards the very pictures that constitute the world she describes. In addition, her categories of visual culture are all within entertainment and consumer sectors. This ignores the powerful role of visual knowledge production for advancements in natural science, engineering, cartography, medicine, and other domains. Equating visual mass media solely with popular culture overlooks the larger field of graphical epistemology in the production of authoritative knowledge. (The image of Charles Darwin’s finches’ beaks may be one of the most significant visuals to circulate in the Victorian era.) Teukolsky’s work is insightful in its understanding of the role of popular imagery in the construction of modern life but remains constrained by the entrenched provincialism of art historical paradigms.