English and drama

Technologies of Capture: Photography and Nineteenth Century Literature

Module code: Q3192
Level 6
30 credits in spring teaching
Teaching method: Workshop, Seminar
Assessment modes: Dissertation

The photographic image is ubiquitous, its presence has morphed into many 21st century cultural manifestations. Most obviously, in digital form, the photograph has become a staple of social networking sites and other visual modes of communication. Yet at its invention in 1839, the status and future of photography was far from clear-cut. Known as 'the black art from France' owing to its miraculous transcription of the visual world photography was frequently aligned with magic. Indeed, owing to its causal connection to its referent, a photograph had the status of an imprint as well as an image. People also delighted in seeing themselves the right way round as the photograph corrected the lateral inversion of the familiar mirror image. At the other end of the spectrum, however, photography's 'birth' was considered by some enough to bring about the 'death' of painting. In the nineteenth century, the presence of the camera radically affected major social, aesthetic and philosophical categories. 

While photographs revolutionised representation, their relationship to existing visual and verbal forms was rich and complex and raised many questions. What did it mean to speak about literary 'realism' in the context of Fox-Talbot's new negative/positive process? How did post-mortem photographs affect literary portrayals of death and the spirit world? What was the impact upon Victorian institutions such as the asylum of the new genre of the photographic 'mug-shot'? What form of translation occurred when a two-dimensional photograph recorded the three-dimensional form of sculpture? This module explores the emergence and development of the photographic medium in relationship to a range of literary texts. Beginning with the 'pre-history' of photography as manifest in a range of optical toys, gadgets and visual spectacles it traces the emergence of various photographic forms as they intersect with literary ones. You have the opportunity to engage, in the context of 19th century fiction, poetry and non-fictional prose, fascinating material and conceptual changes that occur in the wake of the advent and popularisation of photography. 

Topics for discussion include: the Picturesque; photographing sculpture (the case of the Parthenon Marbles); Pre-Raphaelitism; post-mortem photographs; spirit photography; photography and science; collecting and cartes de visite; the camera in colonial encounters; photography and disciplinary institutions; detective fiction; and photographing children. 


No prior experience of photography or other visual media is required simply a readiness to engage visual technologies and images in addition to literary texts.

Module learning outcomes

  • Engage independent research.
  • Confidently navigate and synthesise primary and secondary reading in an extended piece of work.
  • Present written work in a scholarly and professional manner.
  • Demonstrate evidence of sustained critical analysis appropriate to the 5,000 word assessment format.
  • Display a sound knowledge of image/text relations and understand the impact of cultural and social processes on the production of literature and other media in the period.