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Lady Elizabeth Eastlake (1809-1893)

From her text, Lady Eastlake would appear to represent the archetype of the "scientific girl," the educated and scientifically knowledgeable woman who emerged as the popular crazes for microscopy and telescopy -- the lensed instruments that preceded the photographic camera -- swept the middle and upper classes of Europe and the United Kingdom in the 18th century. In this classic, frequently reprinted, and much-quoted essay from 1857, her only known writing on the medium, Eastlake deftly and knowledgeably summarizes the scientific prehistory of photography and the discoveries involved in its invention by divers hands, before outlining the achievements of the medium's first two decades. he also considers the various photographic technologies, with their capacities and limitations, in sufficient detail to convince the reader that, if she did not herself have hands-on experience with the tools, materials, and processes as an amateur practitioner, she had read and understood the technical manuals, listened closely to photographers discussing their craft, and perhaps peered over their shoulders as they worked in the darkroom.

Her text also includes a brief yet intriguing discourse on the economic and sociological consequences of the medium. However, she devotes herself at greatest length to the relationship between photography and art, and makes her own position clear: Though not an art form, then or -- in her anticipation -- ever in the future, photography has its own great contribution to make to human knowledge, and the ability to push the visual arts away from literal description and toward territories more authetically their own. She points to the enduring informational value of virtually all photographic images, and predicts that photography, though not capable of functioning as an autonomous art form in itself, will liberate the other arts (she had painting most in mind, surely), thereby hastening "the time . . . when art is sought, as it ought to be, mainly for its own sake."

Among other things, this essay provides evidence that the debate over photography's potential as a creative medium had already begun as of 1857, and sets forth some of the terms thereof. That dispute would continue unabated -- heatedly, and sometimes bitterly -- for another century, with those who insisted on photography's status as a non-creative medium doing little more, in the main, than parroting Eastlake's argument: "[Photography's] business is to give evidence of facts, as minutely and as impartially as, to our shame, only an unreasoning machine can give. . . . Photography isÊ intended to supersede much that art has hitherto done, but only that which it was both a misappropriation and a deterioration of Art to do." Eastlake's prophecy proved wrong; few today would deny that something accurately described as art has been produced in numerous instances by photographers. Nothing in the closely reasoned tone of her essay suggests that this outcome would displease her, even if it contradicts her conclusions. Indeed, to her credit, she included a caveat: "[O]f all the delusions which possess the human breast, few are so intractable as those about art."

-- A. D. Coleman

In the Photography Criticism CyberArchive:


(Photo credit: "Lady Elizabeth Eastlake," 1854. Photo by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson.)

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