By Elizabeth Edwards
What was ‘touch’ in the 19th century and how did it operate in and construct the cultural and social field? In July I was lucky enough to be invited to participate in the conference The Victorian Tactile Imagination: Reappraising touch in nineteenth century culture at Birkbeck College, University of London. It brought together scholars from many disciplines including literature studies, history, anthropology and material culture studies. Unfortunately I could only attend the last day because of other commitments, and so missed Professor Gillian Beer’s keynote which, as ever, would have been highly stimulating. But there was nonetheless much to engage me. What was striking was the way the photography resonated through so many of the papers I heard, for instance Sarah Parson’s on Notman’s studio practice or in Kathleen Davidson’s paper, on steroescopic views of natural history collections in the British Museum which linked visual and tactile in the viewing of stereos with the haptics of attentive viewing as the viewer is enfolded by the image.
All the papers challenged the primacy of visual analysis even in its more embodied forms, typified and exemplified perhaps in Jonathan Crary’s Techniques of the Observer (1990). In their different ways papers addressed the way in which strategies of touch were used to draw the viewer into the image, what Lynda Nead described as “small gentle acts of gaze” drawn into the surface of the image. A number of the papers considered the ways in which touch and embodied practice drew people into the processes of photography itself, through the experience of the studio and its posing of subjects, while they were called upon to marvel on the effects of the medium. The tactile lure of photography was made even more explicit in Hilary Frazer’s plenary paper which argued the centrality of tactile metaphor in nineteenth century writing on photography, citing Talbot’ s anthropomorphising of the camera and the sense of touch of light on chemical and paper, and, read against the grain Julia Margaret Cameron’s and Lady Eastlake’s profoundly tactile sense of photography. My own contribution was to the final round table. We – Sonia Solicari, Nicola Brown and myself – were asked to take one object and discuss its tactility as a way of drawing the conference themes together. My object was a card mount carrying a label and a photography from the Photographic Survey of Surrey collection at Croydon Public Library (which everyone seemed to think was rather amusing – and I suppose after Cameron– it does inhabit a very different concept of history of photography). It was an object specifically designed to give access to photographs through ‘legitimate handling’ in the context of a pubic library. I have found this object extraordinarily rich to think with, so watch this space.
The history of touch and touch in history are becoming increasingly dynamic fields of study. But the significance for history of photography of this conference was that it massively expanded the field and moved the theoretical base from photographic theory itself to explore, almost implicitly, how photography itself emerges as much a practice and metaphor for touch as for vision. Above all this conference, for me, expanded the sense of visual tactility at multiple levels. We have heard much recently about photography, emotion and the senses, for instance recent books by Margaret Olin and Patrizia Di Bello. However the ideas around at this conference, even if not specifically about photography, pointed to an expansive potential in how we might think about the tactile in history of photography.