Yesterday NPR ran a piece about a research project out of Northeastern University. English professor Ryan Cordell and colleagues are using data-mining technologies to track the circulation of texts in 19th century print culture in order to determine what made certain texts "go viral."
Perfect timing, because this next installment of Making Photography Matter outtakes is about a photography joke that went viral in U.S. newspapers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This outtake opened an earlier iteration of the book's preface, but after revision I never found a good home for it. I share it here (lightly edited for length) because it's a great example of the kind of 19th century "virality" Cordell and his colleagues are interested in. And because this viral joke about photography tells us a lot about the public's anxieties about photography during this period.
Let us begin with a short story about viewers and photographs. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the following narrative circulated in several American magazines:
A bright ten-year-old girl, whose father is addicted to amateur photography, attended a trial at court the other day for the first time. This was her account of the judge’s charge: “The judge made a long speech to the jury of twelve men, and then sent them off into a little dark room to develop." [i]
This humorous gem must have resonated with the public (or at least with magazine editors or syndicators), because nearly exact versions of it circulated in American magazines over a span of more than fifteen years; at least nine iterations were published between 1891 and 1907. [ii] While in some cases the details are different (in some versions the girl is a boy and the father is an older sister), certain features remain remarkably consistent across versions. The child lives in a house where there is a photography enthusiast; the child visits a courtroom for the first time; the judge makes a speech to the jury; and the child later recounts the experience via the punch line, which in every version I found is exactly the same: “The judge made a long speech to the jury of twelve men, and then sent them off into a little dark room to develop.”
As with most jokes, the humor is found in the mistake of the protagonist. Presumably because photography is such a dominant presence in her life, the little girl draws skewed analogies. According to the child, the judge exposes the jury to a “long speech,” perhaps analogous to the timed exposure of film in a camera. Then, jury members sequester themselves in a “little dark room” to “develop” their verdict, ostensibly just as her father does the exposed film. Presumably, the “addicted” father is addicted enough to have a home darkroom, but perhaps the girl’s recounting of how the judge “sent [the jury] off” refers to the practice in early snapshot photography of mailing exposed film to Kodak for developing. [iii] In any case, the point (and the humor) of the narrative is that the little girl is doomed by being so embedded in her visual culture: she can speak only with a photographic rhetoric.
Situating the story historically, it is easy see why it would have resonated with audiences. Though naïve, the little girl was not unusual in her conflation of photography with other practices of public life. Indeed, most readers of the story would scarcely remember a time when photography did not exist. The photograph, which appeared in 1839 as a unique, non-reproducible object, was by the end of its first fifty years endlessly reproducible as an artifact of mass culture. The photographer, who in the early 1840s was as much a chemist as a businessperson, had by the 1890s become also an artist, a journalist, and, evident in the story above, an amateur hobbyist.
Public circulation of photographs also changed dramatically during this period. Until the late 1880s, photographs had to be transformed into engravings in order to be circulated in mass media. But the invention of the halftone process enabled magazine and newspaper publishers to bring photographs more directly to readers. The 1890s brought the “dime magazine revolution,” in which publishers began to offer cheap, well-illustrated magazines at a fraction of the cost of their more expensive siblings. [iv] By the end of the nineteenth century, photographs were ubiquitous not only at home in the albums of photographs families carefully tended but also in the magazines and newspapers they read. Given this context, it should not be surprising that Americans such as the little girl in the story creatively employed photographic rhetorics, for theirs was a world in which photography very much took center stage.
If the little girl’s story suggests the ubiquity of photography in the United States at the end of the nineteenth century, it also offers clues as to how Americans understood photography’s role in the culture. Jokes comment upon our everyday experiences via exaggeration, offer us recognizable characters to laugh at, and acknowledge our anxieties and fears by tapping into them in safe ways. Humor hints at broader cultural truths. That American media were still circulating the story of the little girl more than fifteen years after its first telling suggests that the story must have tapped into public anxieties about photography in palpable ways. Consider again what the little girl says in her account of the courtroom proceedings: “The judge made a long speech to the jury of twelve men, and then sent them off into a little dark room to develop.” Her association of the act of deliberation with the act of photographic developing is humorous, presumably, because it is a failed analogy. Deliberation is a rhetorical process which entails weighing evidence and considering multiple sides of the question, often with the aim of coming to a judgment or verdict. Photographic developing, on the other hand, is a chemical process; perhaps to the little girl watching her father step into the mysterious dark room it even seemed a magical one. And the products of the two processes could not be more different – in one, a verdict arrived at through careful discussion; in another, a photograph, produced through mechanical and chemical means. Recalling that after photography appeared in 1839 it was regularly referred to as “nature’s most subtle pencil,” the “mirror with a memory,” and described as “the sworn witness to everything in her view,” there would seem to be nothing especially deliberative about it. [v] Thus the story mocks the mistake of the little girl, who falsely equates the act of producing evidence (a photograph) with the act of judgment.
And yet. A deeper anxiety lurks in the story: if a photograph is taken to be a judgment, that is, if the photograph offers all the “proof” we need, then what is there to deliberate? The photograph would seem to obviate the need for deliberation entirely. Such questions about the seemingly self-evident nature of the photograph abounded in the late nineteenth century, particularly in the context of the legal system. Courts saw that photographs could be at once “privileged” and “potentially misleading” forms of evidence. As a result, they developed an ambivalent relationship to photography. Understood as a commentary on the dangers of a false analogy, the little girl’s story offers readers an object lesson on the proper role of the photograph in public culture: to treat mere photographs as equivalent to the judgments borne out of rational deliberation would be a dangerous thing indeed.
This reading of the story allows us to treat it as a warning against giving photographs too much public power. Certainly such warnings circulated at the turn of the twentieth century and, indeed, still circulate today. But I want to push on the story a bit further still. What if, instead of dismissing the girl’s analogy as false and, well, childish, we take seriously for a moment the idea that she might in fact be correct? What if the deliberations of a jury are akin to developing film in a darkroom? What if photographs really are a lot like judgments? In short, what if the little girl’s mistake is not really a mistake at all? According to the little girl, the judge sends the jury “off into a little dark room to develop.” What happens in a darkroom, exactly? Certainly things mechanical and chemical and seemingly magical. But does not deliberation also play a role? However much the denotative features of photographs, in Barthes’ terms, mask their connotative ones, any photograph is nevertheless a product of countless choices, deliberations, and calculations made in and before entering the darkroom. While photographs are figured as powerful and perhaps even dangerous images that seem to bypass the need for deliberation by the authority of their realism, this second reading suggests that photographs are just like the judgments emerging from the jury room. They too are the human products of deliberation, with only so much authority as that of their producers and only so much influence as their viewers allow. Perhaps the anxiety the joke taps into, then, is not that photographs dangerously bypass deliberation, but that they decidedly don’t. Neither authoritatively chemical, mechanical, or magical, photographs, it turns out, are just as contingent as any other mode of communication. Americans during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century had to negotiate that contingency of the photograph and, in doing so, needed to constitute themselves as public agents of photographic interpretation.
[i] "A Bright Ten-Year-Old Girl,” Christian Union, 11 June 1891, 792.
[ii] “Bits of Fun,” Outlook 2 Nov. 1895, 734; “Young Philosophers: Sayings of the Children,” Current Literature, Jan. 1897, 64; “Odds and Ends,” New York Observer and Chronicle, Dec. 1, 1898, 751; “Wise and Otherwise,” Christian Advocate, Sept. 14, 1899, 1481; “A Bright Ten-Year Old Girl,” Life, Apr. 19, 1906, 500; “In Camera,” Harper’s Weekly, Mar. 17, 1906, 383; “Odds and Ends,” Lippincott’s Magazine, May 24, 1906, 687; “A Bright Ten-Year-Old Girl,” Town and Country, Mar. 16, 1907, 95.
[iii] Michael L. Carlebach, American Photojournalism Comes of Age (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997), 18-19. An earlier invention of Eastman’s, roll film, made the first Kodak cameras possible. The consumer would expose the roll of film, then mail the entire camera back to Kodak. The company would process the film and print its photographs, then send the photographs as well as a camera re-loaded with film back to the consumer.
[iv] Frank Luther Mott, A History of American Magazines, Volume 3: 1865-1885 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967), 6.
[v] See, respectively, D.F. Arago, “Report,” in Classic Essays on Photography, ed. Alan Trachtenberg (Stony Creek, CT: Leete's Island Books, 1980),18; Oliver Wendell Holmes, “The Stereoscope and the Stereograph," in Classic Essays, 74; and Lady Elizabeth Eastlake, “Photography,” in Classic Essays, 65.
Research news, commentary on visual politics, and a few old blog posts given new life.