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Killed by Kindness: Virginia Woolf, the Art of Letters, the Birth and Death of Photography, and the Fate of Every Technology

Killed by Kindness: Virginia Woolf, the Art of Letters, the Birth and Death of Photography, and the Fate of Every Technology

At its dawn, every technology — like every new love — is aglow with the exhilaration of endless possibility. Its dark sides and eventual demise are unfathomable to the wildly optimistic psyche of the besotted, and besotted we invariably are with each new medium that sweeps across the landscape of culture with the forceful promise of a revolution.

The polymath John Herschel, nephew of the trailblazing astronomer Caroline Herschel and discoverer of Uranus, coined the word photography in 1839 in his correspondence with Henry Fox Talbot — a onetime aspiring artist turned amateur inventor. (The invention of photography and how the new technology revolutionized both art and science occupies Chapter 14 of Figuring, titled “Shadowing the Light of Immortality,” from which this essay is adapted.) For several years, Talbot had been experimenting with techniques for transmuting the impermanence of light and shadow into permanent prints on paper coated with receptive chemicals. But his images failed to last — exposed to natural light, the prints faded over time. Just as he finally perfected the process with help from Herschel, who had proposed using a sodium thiosulfate coating to make the images more permanent, Talbot got word that a French rival by the name of Louis Daguerre had devised an image-making process, which he had named after himself and was planning on presenting at a joint meeting of the Academy of Sciences and the Académie des Beaux Arts in Paris on January 7.

Talbot realized that the revolution he had spent years planning was already afoot and might have another leader. He wrote to Herschel frantically in the last week of January that he must present his own findings before the Royal Society, for “no time ought to be lost, the Parisian invention having got the start of 3 weeks.” He scrambled to rally excitement for his “art of photogenic drawing.”

John Herschel. Photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1867.

In a letter of February 28, 1839, Herschel objected to the term “photogeny” to describe Talbot’s new image-making process, noting that it “recalls Van Mons’s exploded theories of thermogen & photogen.” This associative defect, Herschel argued, is amplified by the word’s poetic deficiencies: “It also lends itself to no inflexions & is not analogous with Litho & Chalcography.” Instead, Herschel proposed “photography.” On March 12, he read before the Royal Society a paper titled “Note on the Art of Photography or the Application of the Chemical Rays of Light to the Purposes of Pictorial Representation” — the first public utterance of the word photography.

A quarter century later, an Indian-born Englishwoman by the name of Julia Margaret Cameron pioneered soft-focus photographic portraiture after receiving a camera as a fiftieth-birthday gift from her son. Cameron photographed some of the most prominent figures of her day, including Charles Darwin, Robert Browning, Alfred Tennyson, Alice Liddell (the real-life girl who inspired Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland), and Herschel himself. In 1926, Virginia Woolf — whose mother was Cameron’s cousin and favorite photographic subject — published a posthumous volume of Cameron’s photographs under her own independent Hogarth Press imprint. She prefaced the monograph with a biographical sketch of her great-aunt, who had died before Woolf’s birth and whom she had gotten to know primarily through family anecdotes and letters.

Julia Jackson (later Julia Stephen, mother of Virginia Woolf). Photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1867.

Woolf, who cherished letters “the humane art,” writes:

The Victorian age killed the art of letter writing by kindness: it was only too easy to catch the post. A lady sitting down at her desk a hundred years before had not only certain ideals of logic and restraint before her, but the knowledge that a letter which cost so much money to send and excited so much interest to receive was worth time and trouble. With Ruskin and Carlyle in power, a penny post to stimulate, a gardener, a gardener’s boy, and a galloping donkey to catch up the overflow of inspiration, restraint was unnecessary and emotion more to a lady’s credit, perhaps, than common sense. Thus to dip into the private letters of the Victorian age is to be immersed in the joys and sorrows of enormous families, to share their whooping coughs and colds and misadventures, day by day, indeed hour by hour.

Woolf’s point applies not only to letter writing but to the very medium celebrated by the book in which her essay appears, and in fact to every technology that ever was and ever will be. She couldn’t have — or could she have? — envisioned what would become of photography as the technology became commonplace over the coming decades, much less what digital photography would bring. But her insight holds true — the easier it becomes to convey a message in a certain medium, the less selective we grow about what that message contains, and soon we are conveying the trifles and banalities of our day-to-day life, simply because it is effortless to fill the page (or feed, or screen, or whatever medium comes next). Letters about lunch items have been supplanted by Instagram photographs of lunch items, to which we apply the ready-made filters that have purported to supplant the artistry of light, shadow, and composition. The art of photography, too, is being killed by kindness.

Photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron to illustrate Tennyson’s poems.

Couple with Susan Sontag, writing decades before social media, on the “aesthetic consumerism” of visual culture and Sally Mann, writing nearly a century after Woolf, on the dark side of photography.

For more excerpts from Figuring, drink in Emily Dickinson’s stunning letters to her great love and lifelong muse, her editor’s advice on writing, Nobel-winning physicist Wolfgang Pauli on science, spirit, and our search for meaning, the story of how the forgotten sculptor Harriet Hosmer paved the way for women in art, and Moby-Dick author Herman Melville’s passionate and heartbreaking love letters to his literary idol and neighbor Nathaniel Hawthorne.

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