Scud. You! You slew him with that tomahawk; and as you stood over his body with the letter in your hand, you thought that no witness saw the deed, that no eye was on you–but there was, Jacob M’Closky, there was. The eye of the Eternal was on you—the blessed sun in heaven, that, looking down, struck upon this plate the image of the deed. Here you are, in the very attitude of your crime!
M’Closky. ‘Tis false!
Scud. ‘Tis true! The apparatus can’t lie. Look there, jurymen. (Shows plate to jury.) Look there. Oh, you wanted evidence–you called for proof–Heaven has answered and convicted you.
M’Closky. What court of law would receive such evidence? (Going.)
–Dion Boucicault, The Octoroon (1859)
When Salem Scudder, the Yankee overseer and photographer of Dion Boucicault’sOctoroon, brandishes a photographic plate as evidence of murder, it marks the first time that photography would be depicted on stage. Echoing Henry Fox Talbot’s famous comparison of photography as the “pencil of nature,” Scudder represents the photograph as an image without an author or agent and therefore a form of implicitly reliable evidence both legal and theatrical. Given that photography did not yet have official status as evidence in 1859 and wouldn’t until later in the century (I) , M’Closky’s question is apt: “What court of law would receive such evidence”? Yet, his question is also irrelevant. Despite the fact that Scudder ostensibly appeals to a set of “jurymen,” his speech and his evidence are both addressed to and grounded in an extra-legal framework—a form of evidence not just outside of the law but above it, materializing the “eye” and judgment of the “Eternal.” (II) In representing the camera as an instrument of divine justice, Boucicault aligns the technological and supernatural. At the same time, he positions the photograph as simultaneously theatrical and anti-theatrical, as a form performance and a truth beyond performance. As Adam Sonstegard has argued, “The Octoroon stages photography—as if photography could not possibly be staged” (388). (III) As an instrument of divine judgment and a vehicle to bypass (at least in the case of the murder of Paul, a slave) the racial inequities of Southern plantation life and U.S. law, the photography literally and figuratively operates as a ‘Deus ex Machina’ a god in the photographic machine.
This paper explores what happens when photography is remediated as dramatic spectacle and addresses the way in which Victorian drama negotiated between technological and theatrical standards of evidence. In one sense, Boucicault’s representation of photography as simultaneously a form of objective truth and a kind of magic or divinity is in line with the way photography was represented in literature, journalism, and even on stage from the beginnings of photography to the end of the nineteenth-century. Just as the Victorians associated photography with the scientific and impartial communication of what Lady Elizabeth Eastlake calls “cheap, prompt, and correct facts,” it was also associated with a gothic mystery (the photographer’s “dark chamber”) as well as with fiction and imagination. (IV) Theatre represents a fitting space to embody the mix of realism and magic, objectivity and illusion that characterizes Victorian representations of photography and photographers.
But while in The Octoroon the photographer is eclipsed by the machine and its objective truth, in other Victorian drama photography represents neither the objective ‘pencil of nature’ nor the eye of eternal justice. The photographer of Frederick Hay’s farce A Photographic Fix (1865) for example is a fraud in business and in life. Rather than the instrument of justice, he is the target of commercial vengeance. Unable to “fix” or make any of his images last longer than a day, he tells one unhappy client that he “never said [the images] wouldn’t vanish” (8). Instead of appealing to the photograph as the arbiter of guilt and innocence, when the photographer is discovered by his fiancé in an embrace with another woman, he tries to convince her that what she sees is a photographic illusion, “an optical infusion…a camera of the brain” (5). Yet, it is the “naked truth before [her] eyes” that provides both the fiancé and audience with evidence of infidelity not the mechanical eye. Rather than operating outside of performance, in the end, photography is explicitly a metaphor for theatrical illusion, imagination, and deception. As the photographer turns to the audience and he says: “My attempts at photography haven’t been encouraging, but if I have only succeeded in developing a smile and fixing your attention, I shall accept it as a positive proof that however exaggerated might have been the lens employed to focus the follies of an hour, it has at least your approbation, and the Artist and his assistants in this tableau will only be too happy to prepare plates for your entertainment whenever you’ll favor us with a sitting.” (18). If The Octoroon stages photography as a form of non-performative objectivity that can bring justice where the legal system fails, a wider range of Victorian dramas used photography to present the world of the theatre and theatrical standards of evidence as more trustworthy than the “exaggerated…lens” of technological realism.
[I] Photography is presented as a potential source of legal evidence as early as the 1840s, it is not until the 1870s that it is commonly accepted as a form of testimony. See Louis George-Schwartz, Mechanical Witness: A History of Motion Picture Evidence in U.S. Courts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 44. Jennifer Green-Lewis, who mentions this scene in Boucicault’s play and suggests that by 1859 the use of photography in court “was well on the way to becoming standard practice” (Framing the Victorians, 192). See also Charles Scott, Photographic Evidence: Preparation and Presentation (Kansas City: Vernon Law Book Co, 1942).
[II] In The Octoroon, photographic “evidence” is at once unimpeachable but also inadmissible, except in the space of the theatre and the liminal space of ad hoc court in the swamps of Louisiana.
[III] Adam Sonstegard, “Performing Remediation: The Minstrel, The Camera, and The Octoroon,” Criticism 48:3 (summer 2006), 375-395. Sonergarten argues that remediating photography naturalizes it as authentic truth, not a process and medium embedded within racial and class biases and inequalities. The play “performs photography, as if photographic truths were never performances, but authentic, unperformed, and ‘real.’”
[IV] Lady Elizabeth Eastlake, “Photography,” in: Classic Essays on Photography, ed. Alan Trachtenberg (New Haven: Leete’s Island Books, 1980), 65. See Green-Lewis both on the way photographers we associated with thieves and charlatans, and the way in which it was put in the service of imagination and spiritualism. See also Daniel A. Novak, Realism, Photography, and Nineteenth-Century Fiction (Cambridge, 2008).
Daniel A. Novak is Associate Professor of English at the University of Mississippi. He is author of Realism, Photography, and Nineteenth-Century Fiction (Cambridge, 2008).