December 4: Literal

4December 4: What does the ‘mind’s-eye’ of the writer see? How do the mundane and worldly intersect or overlap there with the patterns of representation, characterisation and narrative?

Literal photography, and literary photography are two concerns of Samuel Butler, born on this date 4 December 1835, at the dawn of photography, who is best known for his satire Erewhon; Or, Over the Range (1872), his influential novel The Way of All Flesh (1903), and his public debates with Charles Darwin over the theory of evolution.  He was also a prolific photographer of everyday life.

He slipped into obscurity, most likely because his ideas were provocative, particularly those on gender; his The Authoress of the Odyssey (1897) which proposed that the author of the Odyssey was an Italian girl and that the epic voyage was actually the circumnavigation of Sicily (this was heretical in Victorian Britain where Homer was regarded as a paradigmatically masculine author, with  almost scriptural significance); and those in Erewhon about evolution that predict the supremacy of machines over human beings: “There is no security…against the ultimate development of mechanical consciousness…”.

His amateur photography has come to light thorugh Butler scholar Elinor Shaffer‘s Erewhons of the Eye: Samuel Butler as Painter, Photographer, and Art Critic (1988) (and since then with an exhibition at the Tate November 2002 to May 2003) in which she proposed that Butler’s photography renders “the eye of the viewer . . . ignorant and open” That’s a statement that might make photographers’ hackles rise; it does mine. But Shaffer’s main argument is that his interest in photography logically follows from his questioning of Victorian Hellenism and of grand Academy painting; the ‘naturalness’ of photography is contrary to the grand style in both art and literature, as is the domestic and gently descriptive Authoress against the Victorian heroic tradition.

Bitter animosity between the two men did not prevent Butler’s wealthy father bequeathing a legacy with which the son purchased his own cameras in 1887, leaving behind a substantial photographic archive, comprising more than 1500 glass plate negatives, five albums of snapshots and 550 loose photographs. He proclaimed in a letter he wrote to his sister May in December 1887 that his motive for taking up photography was to provide essential illustrations for Ex Voto; An Account of the Sacro Monte or New Jerusalem at Verallo-Sesia; ‘I shall start for Varallo [in Italy], on Xmas eve – with cameras and dry plates – it is absolutely impossible for me to finish the book without going there.’

In his studies for the book of life-sized terra-cotta dioramas, religious curios of the sixteenth-century in the Sacro Monte or New Jerusalem of Varallo in Northern Italy, the photographs are more profane than ‘sacred’ in their realism. As Shaffer argues, Butler’s pictures take us into “a world of naturalism exploiting the photograph’s innate tendency towards the grotesque and its historical tendency towards deflation and comedy”.  One of the sources for ill-feeling with his father, a minister, was Butler’s disillusion with religion.


For his The Authoress of the Odyssey the photographic illustrations he includes become evidence for his thesis about the authorship of the Odyssey, in which he visits locations he proposes are those in the mythic tale.

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Sig. Segameli and the author in the Cave of Polyphemus

The camera he took with him was a Collins ‘detective’ model which in spite of the ominous label merely signifies a camera that is easily carried and could be used hand-held, usually at waist level, though it required plates so was still more cumbersome than the later Kodak (1888) which, loaded with a roll of film, provided multiple shots without loading plate holders. The ‘detective’ camera is used without a ground glass and dark cloth, by aiming it generally toward the subject aided by a magnified sight of the kind familiar from early C20th box cameras, though these are tiny and inadequate, so the best strategy was to view the subject directly, which no doubt in an age when people were less used to ‘instantaneous photography’ would have distracted from the camera itself.

‘Hawkeye’ detective camera c.1880

Butler’s use of this camera enables images of people at work, observations of animals and views of the streets and paths on which he walked in his tours. In fact you can track his journeys at the Samuel Butler Project at St John’s College, Cambridge, which provides the precise locations for his following ‘snap-shots’.

Knife grinder. Bellinzona. Via San Bernardino 2, 6500 Bellinzona, Switzerland 17 September 1895
Man with Monkey, Varallo Via Nazario Sauro, 25, 13019 Varallo Sesia, Province of Vercelli, Italy 7 September 1891
The funny boy. Varallo. Via Frigiolini, 1, 13019 Varallo Sesia, Province of Vercelli, Italy 3 September 1891
On the Quay. Boulogne. Quai Thurot, 62200 Boulogne-sur-Mer, France 26 December 1892

Shoreham [woman making a washing line] 79-81 Brighton Rd, Shoreham-by-Sea, West Sussex BN43 6RE, UK 31 March 1891
Most of these images are not ‘candid’, but indicate at the least a passing, even though perhaps wordless, conversation with the subjects, even some collusion with them to get the most indicative angle on their actions. The knife grinder is photographed from a very low angle, at his knee height, while the other shots make good use of the waist-level position of the camera.

Further evidence that his pictures do have literary or textual references can be found in his titles, for example ‘The Wife of Bath’ on Board the ‘Lord of the Isles’ Going to Clacton (Clacton -on-Sea, Essex, 1891) that references a character from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales but shows a comfortable woman seated on a bench all to herself arrayed around with hampers and bowls from which she is luxuriating in an extensive picnic.

Samuel Butler, “‘The Wife of Bath’ on Board the ‘Lord of the Isles’ Going to Clacton,” 1891.

Butler is not alone in using the camera in connection to his literary production.

Emile Zola (1840-1902) learned the rudiments of photography in 1888 from Victor Billaud, a newspaper editor in Royan during a vacation period at the sea, so was photographing contemporaneously with Butler. In the eight years before his death, Zola became obsessed with photography, taking thousands of pictures with his 10 cameras and developing them in the basements of his three homes. He carried a camera everywhere, and for such keen observer of human nature in his writing, photographs may have been a useful resource both as a mnemonic and as a prompt;

In my opinion you cannot say you have thoroughly seen anything until you have got a photograph of it, revealing a lot of points which otherwise would be unnoticed, and which in most cases could not be distinguished. – Emile Zola – in Photo-Miniature no. 21 (December 1900) Cited in “The History of Photography” by Beaumont Newhall, The Museum of Modern Art, New York 1964, p. 94.

Zola considered himself a realist or ‘naturalist’ in his writing and his treatment of photography is similar, with spontaneous imagery of such events as the Paris World’s Fair of 1900 corresponding to his serialised writing in which he documented the modernisation and urbanisation of France.

Emile Zola (1900) Moving Pavement at the Paris World Fair
August Strindberg (1886) self-portrait, dressed as a Russian nihilist, Gersau, Switzerland,1886.

Swedish playwright, novelist, poet, essayist and artist August Strindberg (1849—1912) also was photographing during this period and his creative writing draws largely on personal experience, drawing quite close to Zola’s naturalism before moving to a Symbolist perspective. Experiments with the self-portrait show him performing or testing various personalities and political stances, portraying the writer as the hard-working bread-winner, as an anarchist or as a tortured genius. He endured a number of personal crises which brought about extremes of conviction and impulsive attachments to quite opposite political positions.

Strindberg’s most important writings in the field of natural sciences are his speculative research reports, entitled Antibarbarus (1892), which questioned the accepted classification system of the elements and his essays Sylva Sylvarum (1896), which challenged the “big disorganization” and the “infinite interrelation” in the world.

August Strindberg (c.1892-1896) Photogram of Crystallisation, 12 x 9 cm

At the same time, in seeking solace from tortuous self-examination, Strindberg embarked on a series of camera-less images, using an experimental quasi-scientific approach. He produced a type of photogram that encouraged the development and growth of crystals on the photographic emulsion, sometimes exposed for lengthy periods to heat or cold in the open air or at night facing the stars. The suggestiveness of these, which he called Celestographs, provided an object for contemplation, and he noted;

August Strindberg (1894) Celestograph.

Today, in these days of x-rays, the miracle was that neither a camera nor a lens was used. For me this means a great opportunity to demonstrate the real circumstances by means of my photographs made without a camera and lens, recording the firmament in early spring 1894.

His interest in the occult in the 90s finds sympathy with the chance quality of these images, but for him they are also scientific.

Photography, regarded during the late nineteenth century as the most ‘literal’, the most evidential; and photography in the creation of literature, meet here, in the mind’s eye.

August Strindberg (1886) Self-portrait, Gersau, Switzerland

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