Photographs and Other Deceptions, Circa 1839

Friday, 1 February 2013, at 18:30
Concordia University, EV-1.605 (map)

Jordan Bear

University of Toronto

How and why were photographs seen as more, or less, persuasive than the haunted houses, magic-lantern projections, mermaids, and stock-market bubbles with which they competed for evidentiary credulity upon their announcement in 1839? This talk investigates the evolution of visual deception in the years flanking photography’s appearance, proposing that the milieu into which this supposedly revolutionary medium was inserted was not primed to receive photography as unquestionably objective. Rather, it was better situated to locate photography within a vast mosaic of visual discernment in which political, commercial, and pedagogic institutions had disparate, vested interests in photography’s status. In a moment of modernization that enfranchised viewers with the ability to judge the reliability of their own visual experiences, the photograph resided at the centre of a constellation of venues and practices in which the task of visual discernment – of telling the real from the constructed – became an increasingly crucial element of one’s location in cultural, political, and social relations.

Jordan Bear is an assistant professor in the Art Department, University of Toronto. Bear has been a lecturer in Art History and Archeology at Columbia University and he held a Chester Dale Fellowship in the Department of Photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His scholarship has focused on the historical intersection of visual representations, knowledge, and belief in European art of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He has published articles on nineteenth-century photography and illusion; Magnum photojournalists Robert Capa and Chim; and Walker Evans in journals such as Visual Resources, Visual Studies, Photography and Culture, Photographies, and Cabinet. Bear is the editor of Seeing and/or Believing the Photograph, a special issue of Visual Resources (26:2), a contributor to Faking It: Manipulated Photography before Photoshop (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012), and is currently preparing a book-length study under the title Disillusioned: Victorian Photography and the Discerning Viewer.

Images: Montague Chatterton & Co., Dr Cramer's Illusions, lithograph, c.1880. Collection of the British Library. / Oscar Gustave Rejlander, The Juggler, platinum print, 1860.  Royal Photographic Society Collection, National Media Museum, Bradford, UK.


Of Related Interest

Jordan Bear's faculty page

Seeing and/or Believing the Photograph special issue

“Head Trips,” in Cabinet, Deception issue

Faking It exhibition at the Met

Faking It exhibition catalogue

Faking It iPad app