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Adèle Cassigneul
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Giving Something to be Seen

Virginia Woolf and Photography
Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines , 2017

Woolf’s relation to photography is threefold : she practices the art of mechanical reproduction (taking and developing photographs, making photo albums), a praxis which is enriched by a strong family heritage and fostered by the contemporary Kodak culture ; she is immersed in a photo culture which embraces 19th-century and 20th-century aesthetics, and nurtures her theoretical and literary reflexions ; and she uses photo images as rhetorical tools in the iconotexts she publishes with the Hogarth Press. Focusing on Woolf studies on photography, Julia Margaret Cameron’s legacy, the intricate links between photography and biographical writing, and interruptive stylistics in Jacob’s Room, the four contributions I introduce here further Maggie Humm’s pioneering work and provide renewed perspectives on Woolf’s complex relation to photography.

What is the difference between a camera and the whooping-cough ?
One makes facsimiles and the other makes sick families

Stephen children, Hyde Park Gate News vol. 1, n° 9, Monday, 6th April 1891

Virginia Stephen was nine when, with her sister Vanessa and her brother Thoby, she invented riddles and wrote regular chronicles involving photography in the family newspaper. She was still nine when, for Christmas, she drew successive ink vignettes which build up a ‘story not needing words’ (Lowe 19). Later, in 1906, while trying to depict ‘great melancholy moors’, she passionately penned in her diary : ‘But words ! words ! You will find nothing to match the picture’ (Leaska 305). For Woolf, be it through a malicious play on words, a lively succession of images or the expression of a young writer’s frustration, words and images are set in fruitful tension. The quotes mark out the intermedial interaction and emulation underlying the Woolfian prose, its becoming other.

It is now common knowledge in Woolfian studies that Woolf’s oeuvre enjoys intimate relations with the visual arts ; Maggie Humm’s 2010 edition of The Edinburgh Companion to Virginia Woolf and the Arts has proved it admirably. Yet Frances Spalding’s 2014 exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, ‘Virginia Woolf. Art, Life and Vision’ exclusively underlined Woolf’s relation to Post-impressionism and to Bloomsbury pictorial influence. While a few critics have brought to the fore the crucial part played by photography in Woolf’s life and cultural environment, there is nonetheless a need to focus on photographic intermediality and its textual effects in her oeuvre. Taking its cue from the preceding Société des Études Woolfienne seminars and conferences – ‘Outlanding Woolf’ in 2013, ‘Humble Woolf’ in 2014 and ‘Trans-Woolf’ in 2015 –, this collection of articles intends to consider how, in its relation to photography, the plasticity of the Woolfian text actually becomes photographic and makes us see.

Woolf’s relation to photo images is multifaceted. There is first a rich family heritage, which constitutes the studium (Barthes) of her knowledge and practice of photography, namely the work of Julia Margaret Cameron or Leslie Stephen’s 1895 Photograph Album. But there is also what Richard Chalfen names the turn-of-the-twentieth-century ‘Kodak culture’ (Chalfen 9), François Brunet’s ‘Kodak revolution’ (Brunet 214), a domestic practice that Virginia Stephen documents in her youthful Hyde Park Gate News and her first diaries (mainly in 1897 [1]). Between theory, amateurism and actual praxis, Woolf’s intimate relationship to photography bears on contemporary French research into visual cultures, thus opening onto ethical as well as aesthetic debates. As humble craft, that is a ‘middlebrow’ (Bourdieu) or ‘vernacular’ (Chéroux) practice and a ‘conversational medium’ (Ghuntert), home-made photography documents and inventories [2] the everyday experiences that are collected and hoarded in photo albums – Woolf’s Monk’s House Albums – which ‘rationalize’ (Rouillé 131) and order Woolf’s life story, thus connecting photography with her practice of (auto)biography, diaristic writing, her need for self-expression, self-presentation and the private recording of her daily life.

This corpus of images – images before the text – is completed by Woolf’s imaginary museum, [3] a photographic culture encompassing 19th-century Victorian Pictorialism and portrait-carte de visite as well as early 20th-century snapshot or avant-garde aesthetics. These build up a haunting photographic unconscious as László Moholy-Nagy defines it [4], a photographic ‘third’, to borrow Liliane Louvel’s concept, which questions perception (optical or mental) and representation.

Additionally, photography participates in Woolf’s iconotexts. Thanks to the Hogarth Press, Woolf printed illustrated books (Willson Gordon) and included photographs in some of her own productions (Orlando, Flush, Roger Fry and Three Guineas). She also collected newspaper articles and press images for her 1930s scrapbooks [5]. In these cases, rather than being mere redundant illustrations, the photographic images act as rhetorical tools that play with the text, actively contributing to building up the image-texts. And photographic visibility also translates into words, either through the literal metaphors Woolf uses in both her essays and fiction or through the implicit ones which adapt the photographic process or album design into writing. Indeed, at the turn of the twentieth century, Woolf’s oeuvre gives evidence of photography’s ‘invisible revolution’ (Ortel 2002, 18) and of its modelling power as an ‘interpretant’ (21).

As Jacques Derrida rightly underlines, the ‘miracle’ of photography is to give ‘something to be seen’ (Derrida 3). It captures, reveals and preserves appearances but can also make the ‘unseen’ (Marion 11) [6] visible. In its performance, photography produces a new regime of visibility [7] which provides Woolf with ‘a third eye whose function it is to help out the other senses when they flag’ (Woolf 175). According to Maggie Humm, photography helped Woolf elaborate the ‘new language of modernism’, what Rancière calls the ‘image-sentence’ (Rancière 2009, 46), that is a linguistic practice which entails a certain idea of imageity and mobility (Rancière 2011, 49-50). Looking back on her own pioneering critical work, Humm draws on Woolf’s biography and literary strategies – both analogies (between literary descriptions and domestic photography) and adoptions (of the languages and methods of photography) – to see how photographs ‘enabled Woolf to see more clearly’ and structured her prose photographically. In Deleuze’s words, Woolf ‘is imbued to the core with a non-writer-becoming’ (Deleuse & Parnet 44). Becoming photographic, the Woolfian language ‘combines with something else, which is its own becoming’. Tracing her photographic genealogy back, Humm’s ‘Virginia Woolf and Photography’ gives an overview of Woolf studies on photography since the 1990s and ‘the turn to the visual’ up to the 2016 Société des Études Woolfiennes conference, Virginia Woolf and Images : Becoming Photographic.

The articles presented here are a modest contribution to the field that aims at seeing how Woolf’s photographic vision shaped her literary aesthetics, her relation to language and characterization, and her approach of literary representation and life writing. In her 2002 Modernist Women and Visual Cultures, Humm analysed Woolf’s gendered photographic culture and how it influenced her modernist experiments. In her turn, art historian Hélène Orain focuses on Woolf’s ‘Aunt Julia’ (Nicolson 276), the iconic Victorian Pictorialist [8], and her ambivalent representation of women. [9] What did this eminent forebear bequeath to her great niece ? [10] Was Cameron a figure of feminine emancipation or did she embody a truly Victorian spirit ? Pondering over the atypical photographer’s life and work, Orain examines Cameron’s posture as female photographer together with her ‘anti-modern’ concerns and photographs. Reading the portrait of this puzzling figure, one sees how much Virginia Woolf’s complex relation to photography reactivates the problematic link between modernist aesthetics and the Victorian tradition and heritage.

A similar tension is at play in Florian Reviron’s ‘Virginia Woolf’s ‘raids across boundaries’ : biography vs photography’ in which she studies Woolf’s contradictory and changing relation to photography through the prism of biographical representation. In the 1920s and 1930s, Woolf had simultaneous commitments to photography and biography which transpired in two theoretical essays – ‘The New Biography’ (1927) and ‘The Art of Biography’ (1938) – and her three illustrated biographies – Orlando (1928), Flush (1933) and Life of Roger Fry (1940). For Reviron the differences in Woolf’s biographical use of photography can be ascribed to the shift in her theory of biography. Underlining the ‘cross-fertilization between the photographic and the literary’, she makes clear that Woolf’s conflicting appreciation of photography is connected to her challenge of 19th-century realism and its cult of verisimilitude.

No doubt, in Woolf’s work, the photographic image questions literary representation, modelling it to make it more expressive and to create anew. Focusing on Woolf’s first truly modernist novel, Jacob’s Room (1922), Jessie Alperin investigates Woolf’s ‘interruptive stylistics’, her photographic modes of representation ‘to express what language alone cannot’. Drawing from Woolf’s twofold visual culture – Victorian Pictorialism and the Kodak snapshot culture –, Alperin shows that in Jacob’s Room ‘the visual interrupts the verbal’, thus literalising communicative struggles and failures of language. Dwelling on both narrative strategies and characterization, she describes Woolf’s idiosyncratic blend of ‘conscious act of language production’ and ‘the optical unconsciousness of photographic perception’. Yet another way of giving something to be seen, through literary creation this time.

Barthes, Roland, Camera Lucida. Reflexions on Photography, New York : Hill and Wang, 1981.
Benjamin, Walter, ‘A short history of photography’, Screen 13.1, Spring 1972, 5-26.
Bourdieu, Pierre, Photography : A Middle-brow Art, Cambridge : Polity Press, 1990.
Brunet, François, La Naissance de l’idée de photographie, Paris : PUF, 2000.
Cassigneul, Adèle, Voir, observer, penser : Virginia Woolf et la photo-cinématographie, Toulouse : PU du Midi, 2018 (forthcoming).
Chalfen, Richard, Snapshot Versions of Life, Bowling Green State U Popular P, 1987.
Chéroux, Clément, Vernaculaires. Essais d’histoire de la photographie, Paris : LePointduJour, 2013.
Deleuze, Gilles et Claire Parnet, Dialogues II, New York : Columbia UP, 1987.
Dell, Marion, Virginia Woolf’s Influential Forebears. Julia Margaret Cameron, Anny Thackeray Ritchie and Julia Prinsep Stephen, New York : Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.
Derrida, Jacques, Copy, Archive, Signature. A Conversation on Photography, Stanford : Stanford UP, 2010.
Gunthert, André, ‘L’image conversationnelle. Les nouveaux usages de la photographie numérique’, Études photographiques 31, 2014, 54-71.
Humm, Maggie, Modernist Women and Visual Cultures, Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, Photography and Cinema, Edinburgh : EUP, 2002.
— - ed., The Edinburgh Companion to Virginia Woolf and the Arts, Edinburgh : EUP, 2010.
Karpeles, Eric, Paintings in Proust : A visual Companion to In Search of Lost Time, London : Thames & Hudson 2008.
Leaska, Mitchell, ed., A Passionate Apprentice. The Early Journals 1897-1909, London : Hogarth Press, 1990.
Louvel, Liliane, Poetics of the Iconotext, Farnham : Ashgate, 2011.
Lowe, Gill, ed., Hyde Park Gate News. The Stephen Family Newspaper. Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell with Thoby Stephen, London : Hesperus, 2005.
Marion, Jean-Luc, Courbet ou la peinture à l’œil, Paris : Flamarion, 2014.
Moholy-Nagy, László, Painting Photography Film, London : Lund Humphries, 1969.
Nicolson, Nigel, ed., A Change of Perspective. The Letters of Virginia Woolf. Volume 3 1923-1928, London : Chatto & Windus, 1981.
Rouillé, André, La photographie. Entre document et art contemporain, Paris : Gallimard, 2005.
Spalding, Frances, Virginia Woolf : Art, Life and Vision, London : NPG, 2014.
Orain, Hélène, ‘La Fortune critique de Julia Margaret Cameron’, Revue de l’Art 193, 2016, 9-16.
Ortel, Philippe, ‘Trois dispositifs photo-littéraires. L’exemple symboliste’, in Montier Jean-Pierre & al, eds, Littérature et photographie, Rennes : PUR, 2008, 17-35.
— -, La Littérature à l’ère de la photographie. Enquête sur une révolution invisible, Nîmes : Ed. Jacqueline Chambon, 2002.
Rancière, Jacques, The Future of the Image, New York : Verso Books, 2009.
— -, Les Écarts du cinéma, Paris : La Fabrique éditions, 2011.
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Woolf, Virginia, ‘Pictures’, The Moment and Other Essays, New York : Harcourt, 1948, 173-178.


[11897 is the year when Virginia Stephen meticulously records her experiences with X-ray photography, the ‘Rontgen rays’ and the ‘Animatograph’ (Leaska 9-10) and compulsivly describes her photo sessions, mishaps and material.

[2They function as a Derridean archive, which ‘preserves its reference’ (Derrida 4).

[3With Paintings in Proust, Eric Karpeles compiled all the Proustian pictorial references to create an imaginary museum derived from his prose works. Woolf had sensed such intermedial wealth in her essay ‘Pictures’ : ‘Were all modern paintings to be destroyed, a critic of the twenty-first century would be able to deduce from the works of Proust alone the existence of Matisse, Cézanne, Derain, and Picasso’ (Woolf 1948, 173).

[4‘We have – through a hundred years of photography and two decades of film – been enormously enriched in this respect. We may say that we see the world with entirely different eyes’ (Moholy-Nagy 29).

[5Woolf’s scrapbooks are kept at Sussex University Library (Monk’s House Papers).

[6For Walter Benjamin, photography ‘makes aware for the first time the optical unconscious [sic], just as psychoanalysis discloses the instinctual unconscious’ (Benjamin 7).

[7‘Comment se construire un régime de visibilité ? Une époque déclare regardable et représentable ce qu’elle peut voir, ce qu’elle veut voir et ce qu’elle croit digne d’être vu. Le premier facteur est technique ; le second, fondé sur le désir et l’imaginaire peut être qualifié de pragmatique dans la mesure où il résulte d’un dialogue entre l’homme et le monde extérieur ; le troisième est symbolique au sens actuel du terme, puisqu’il renvoie à un ensemble de valeurs rendant digne d’observation, de représentation et de communication telle ou telle partie du visible’ (Ortel 2008, 28).

[8Orain talks of a ‘Cameron phenomenon’ (Orain 9).

[9Woolf was Cameron’s first promoter : ‘Une première monographie lui est consacrée en 1926, à l’initiative de Virginia Woolf, sa petite-nièce, qui en écrit la partie biographique’ (Orain 9).

[10See Dell’s analysis of Cameron’s link with Woolf’s visual writing.