Magic Mirrors: Formalist Realism in Victorian Physics and Photography
This chapter argues that British photography of the 1850s and 60s wedded realism—understood as a commitment to descriptive truthfulness—with formalism, or a belief in the defining power of structural relationships. Photographers at mid-century understood the realistic character of photography to be grounded in more than fidelity to detail; the technical properties of the medium accorded perfectly with the claims of contemporary physicists that reality itself was constituted by spatial arrangements and polar forces rather than essential categorical distinctions. The photographs of Clementina, Lady Hawarden exemplify this formalist realism, dramatizing the power of the formal logic of photography not only to represent the real but to reveal its fundamentally formal nature.
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