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The Woman with the Still Camera: Photographs in Virginia Woolf’s Fiction

Shinjini Chattopadhyay, Jadavpur University, India

Abstract

The advent of photography and the emergence of Modernism in literature are imbued with an essence of breaking away from the past. Photography shares with the Modernist aesthetic a similar mode of appropriating reality. As the photographs capture within the frames a particular moment in the flow of time and establish a distinct ethic of perception, Modernist literature also fixes the focus on certain crucial moments in the life of an individual (for example a day in the life of Leopold Bloom or Mrs. Dalloway) and presents a holistic view of reality in its essential fragments. The incorporation of photographs within the Modernist aesthetic marks the emergence of a new mode of dialogue between fiction and reality. The paper attempts to investigate this mode of dialogue by investigating the interaction among reality, photographs and literature in the works of one of the proponents of Modernism, Virginia Woolf.

The very earliest years of Modernism saw the emergence of a particular technological innovation, photography. Even in its infancy, with the Calotype and the Daguerreotype, photography showed potential for forever transforming the way of perceiving reality. It amazed people how photographs were able to capture every minute detail of a scene and for the first time it was felt that the whole world could be captured within frames. The invention of photography marks a distinct disjunction from the time when photography was not invented:

“The very existence of a modern period, broken away from the time before, is to some extent the creation of photography, which has made all time since the 1840s simultaneously available in a way that makes the years before seem that much more remote.” (North 3)

The same spirit of rupture, which is present in the history of the advent of photography, can also be recognized in the attitude that Modernist literature had assumed towards its immediate predecessors by advocating the implementation of highly conscious artifice, revolutionary usage of linguistic forms and other radical literary techniques. Having identified this similarity Modernist writers were soon interested in this new form of technology and photography gained a turbulent admission in the world of art amidst positive and negative reactions. Charles Baudelaire condemned photography for its unimaginative realist mode (North 14). Ezra Pound seems to share Baudelaire’s disdain for photography and voices his contempt for cinema as well. But his experiments with the vortoscope affirm that despite his attempts he was not able to keep photography entirely out of his artistic endeavours (North 27). On the other hand, distinct photographic qualities became apparent in the writings of James Joyce and Gertrude Stein. Joyce, inspired by the thriving cinematic climate of Trieste, opened the first movie-house in Dublin, the ‘Cinematograph Volta’, in 1909. In 1926 Virginia Woolf “wrote the first British essay on avant-garde cinema.”…Access Full Text of the Article


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