"Mr. Mansfield." Double-exposure photograph of stage actor Richard Mansfield as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
"Mr. Mansfield." Double-exposure photograph of stage actor Richard Mansfield as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

A couple of weeks ago, I returned from Lancaster, where the International Gothic Association held its Ninth Biannual Conference: Monstrous Media / Spectral Subjects. I couldn’t have found a major conference so perfectly attuned to my interests, and the papers did not disappoint. The shortest route to explaining to friends just what “Gothic Media” might be tends to cut through the flesh-eating-television and killer-cellphone movies we’ve been bombarded with over the past few years, but nineteenth-century technologies were well represented at the conference as well. One of my favorites was a paper delivered by Elizabeth McCarthy, co-editor of the Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies. McCarthy traced out some of the filiations between composite photography (see Constance’s wonderful post on the subject) and spirit photography (which unbelievers tend to chalk up to a similar multiple-exposure technique). The whole panel prompted some exciting thoughts concerning the ways in which gothic imagery permeates criminological discourse, but the talks also got me thinking about the photographic nature of character in the Victorian novel. Daniel Novak’s new book, Realism, Photography and Nineteenth-Century Fiction, has a brilliant chapter that considers Daniel Deronda in light of composite photography. Rather than diving into Novak’s argument here, I’ll limit myself to cropping Constance’s quotation from Galton, to consider the paradoxical representation of “no man in particular.” When properly misread, there’s a strange, hyperreal resonance to this phrase, which yokes together absence and singularity.* It’s something that strikes me when I look at Galton’s photos: the eyes of this palimpsest-subject holds within itself the illusion of a distinct personality, but is in reality an accumulation of anonymous bodies. This uncanny gaze remains untamed in the “dead eyes” of twenty-first century CGI, but the cultural work of Galton’s composite technique presents us with something more sinister, leaving us to contemplate the residue of bodies (whether Jewish, criminal, insane or otherwise “deviant”) sacrificed to the formulation of “types.” * Daniel, could this be one version of the “non-representational” theory of photography you name in your response to Constance: an image that clothes itself in the skin of a particular referent, but never actually touches upon anything more concrete than a general idea?

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2 thoughts on “Gothic Optics

  1. This is definitely something I’ve been thinking about in terms of the non-representational aspects of photography and media. My interests lie in the movement between dualisms such as self/other, statis/motion, normal/abnormal. I think we all too often assume stability in such concepts, and that there is some kind of representational system at work in culture that would give flesh to them. Sometimes I think the very concept of representation (grounded in the politics of difference) functions as a kind of screen that prevents us from seeing the fluidity at work in media.

    This is all very abstract, primarily because I’m still trying to work out some of these ideas. I do know that the Victorian gothic is an excellent area for exploring some of these aspects of the disturbing dissolutions of the self that are the inevitable consequences of non-representation. Images have no points of reference, no selves through which juridical institutions can do their work in a non-representational theory (Dracula is everything and nothing to his vampire hunters, for example).

    At the same time, though, we might be able to break free from the constraints of representational practices, particularly as the apply to our everyday habits. No deep psychology or cognitive notions of our actions — only practices, tactics, and tendencies. Images circulate, but never once become grounded in a representational points in space, or become fundamentally immobolized. Images, it seems to me, don’t stop circulating — they frustrate our desires for stasis, closure, immediacy. In this regard, I absolutely agree with this idea of composite photography as a kind of non-representational system, despite its desires for an archive of immediate retrieval of representation or typology.

  2. Gregory thank you for such an engaging post. Have you had a look at Jennifer Tucker’s book “Nature Exposed”? She contrasts spirit and scientific photography – and concludes that the difference between the two is not one of technique, but of the gendered profession of the photographer. Her invocation ‘masculine’ scientist and ‘feminine’ psychical researcher makes for a tidy heterosexual pairing.

    I’d love to hear more about Elizabeth McCarthy’s use of a filial metaphor to describe the relationship between spirit and composite photography (even though I know that I should sit tight and wait for her next book or article).

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