The Ghostly Beauty of Victorian Photography

     Imagine looking at old photographs in a family album or while browsing through an antique bookshop. Many of these photos will be black and white or will have a yellowish tint. This type of photograph is often referred to as a “daguerreotype”. The term was coined by entrepreneur, Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre (1787-1851), the first person to publicly announce the perfect method of capturing images.  He, along with William Henry Fox Talbot and Frederick Scott Archer, experimented with different methods of photography that would eventually define the aesthetic of the Victorian Age. Invented by Talbot, “calotype” is known as “the ancestor of nearly all photographic methods using chemistry.” The final product of this method was a negative image created by a piece of chemically sensitized paper fixed inside the lens of the camera and later exposed to sunlight for the final effect. This method, like the daguerreotype, was effective yet expensive.

By 1851, Archer presented a new form of photography that incorporated the two methods of his colleagues known as the “wet collodion process”. This would become the foundation of photography for the next 140 years. The technique involved the use of coating images in a chemical, salt-based solution and letting them dry in a dark room for roughly fifteen minutes, which many photographers use to this day. 

Calotype of the Royal Family

     There were several occasions as to which photography in the Victorian Era was taken but the most commonly noted by historians were portraits. These portraits included newlyweds, families, and children. Eventually, Victorian photography would be best known for the Momento Mori movement. This movement marked the beginning of capturing death on camera. The Victorian period was plagued with several illnesses such as cholera, typhus and measles, which lead to a widespread of early deaths. Thus, Victorians used photography as a way to preserve their lost loved ones. Photographs and other trinkets, such as jewelry with locks of hair of a deceased loved one, were kept as memorabilia. Perhaps the most unsettling part of this movement was that the dead themselves, even young children and infants, were the ones photographed. Mothers would pose with their lost infants and corpses in open caskets were printed onto greeting cards sent to family members. Though it is debated by some scholars as a hoax, it has been speculated that photographers even propped up the dead into upright poses to appear alive again. Even if this method was an illusion, it confirms just how fascinated Victorians were with post-mortem imagery.

     This gruesome portraiture became increasingly popular well into the late 1800’s, especially as photography became cheaper and with more advanced methods invented. Looking back on such images, while upsetting to the modern eye, this was a comfort to those during a time when proper healthcare was unavailable, and death was inventible. In fact, Victorian photography was seeing beauty in the darkness of times, staring death in the face without despair, and instead embracing it.


Bell, Bethan, “Taken From Life: The Unsettling Art of Death Photography”

“Victorian Photographic Techniques”, National Museums Scotland


From the Altar

From the Altar

The years it takes to craft a suitable altar

can leave permanent scars, cracks that linger

in the heart of women who just want

a lit candle and a respectable bow of the head,

then to be left alone to bask in the warmth.

Why then must she be silent and resilient

when others criticize her placement of the cloak

around her shoulders or the roses on her head?

I never fashioned myself a goddess,

offerings from swine make me tremble.

Yet, the vulgarity no longer phases me

when spat from the lips of men.

It hurts more when my sisters scowl

in my direction, as if I want to be gawked at.

But still I try to explain that I have no shame

when I know that they will try to desecrate me

whether I hold a crucifix or a calavera,

no matter if the cloak hangs off my shoulder

or obscures me entirely, they will stare and cast a stone

should I refuse their touch.                                                                                                                                                               

Queer Eye for the Merchant’s Plight

One of the common observances in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is the implied romantic relationship between Antonio and Bassanio. Their passionate comradery and willingness to sacrifice for one another simply cannot be read as platonic. In his critical essay, “How to Read the Merchant of Venice Without Being Heterosexist”, Alan Sinfield emphasizes this point with several examples, particularly in the rivalry between Antonio and Portia for Bassanio’s affections. Moreover, Sinfield suggests that Portia’s internal quest to conquer Bassanio and therefore assert her dominance as a lover over Antonio, while not exactly homophobic, is heterosexist in nature. Due to the seemingly “happy ending” of the play, in which Portia and Bassanio resume as husband in wife in a hetero-normal relationship, it is suggested to readers that the relationship between the two men was not meant to be taken seriously. Thus, the ideal of homosexual relationships in Shakespeare’s work may be disregarded by the readers.

    From her introduction, it is clear that Portia does not wish to adhere to patriarchal social norms. In several ways, she effectively rebels against the trope of a woman being controlled by the men in their life. Not only does she successfully marry the suitor of her choosing but she also uses wit and determination to outsmart Shylock in court. In turn however, she abides by patriarchal customs to use against her fiancé, Bassanio, as well as against Antonio. Sinfield explores this notion by analyzing her guise as Balthazar. “It is to contest Antonio’s status as lover, that Portia, in her role of the young doctor, demands of Bassanio the ring which she had given him in her role as a wife.” (Marcus/Sinfield 273). In reality, Portia only asked one thing of Bassanio: to keep the ring she presented to him in their betrothal. After he fails to keep this promise, Portia could have easily severed the ties of their marriage. Instead, she turns the tables when she returns the ring to him, first by gaining it as Balthazar and then by giving it to Antonio. Though it appears that she is welcoming Antonio into her home, she is instead using her decided dominance over both men, theoretically atop them in a power structure.

    As Sinfield explains, just because there are no sexually explicit relations between Bassanio and Antonio, it does mean that there is no possibility of one. Antonio does appear to be more openly gay, as he shows no interest in any woman throughout the play. In turn, though Bassanio does express his interest in Portia and later marries her, their marriage is not immediately consummated. Furthermore, his strong feelings for Antonio are expressed, even in front of Portia. “Antonio, I am married to a wife, which is as dear to me as life itself; but life itself and all the world, are not with me esteemed above thy life.” (Marcus/ Shakespeare 290-293 IV.i). In this moment, Portia is neither disgusted or surprised by this declaration. Rather, she now has further motivation to maintain control over Bassanio. She does not dismiss Antonio nor scorn Bassanio for their relationship; however, she does disrupt it through securing her role as a wife, and therefore “disallows the entire seriousness of male love.”. (Marcus/Sinfield 273). If it were not for Portia, Antonio could have lost his life. In the end, both his life and his wealth are secured by Portia, leaving him entirely in her debt. If any relationship were to continue between him and Bassanio, it would only because Portia allows it.

    Patriarchy is addressed once more by Sinfield, who reminds readers that “patriarchy does not oppress only women; a patriarch is not just a man…”. (Marcus/Sinfield 278) Again, though Portia is not portrayed as overtly homophobic, her rivalry with Antonio reinstates the societal importance of hetero-normal marriage.  Afterall, marriages were meant for the purpose of producing heirs, something that cannot be done naturally in a homosexual relationship. “Because women may bear children, relations between women and men affected the regulation of lineage, alliance, and property, and hence offered profound potential disruptions to the social order and the male psyche.” (Marcus/Sinfield 277). Marriage was not for sexual pleasure but to maintain hetero-normal social constructs. If a man, could produce children, especially sons, they were distinctly masculine in nature. Though she broke social constructs to her own advantage, Portia willingly contributed to the ideal that men should only be with women.

    As a gay man himself, Sinfield focused on the homosocial themes within The Merchant of Venice. In his opinion, the best way to understand the play was to recognize that Antonio was in love with Bassanio and that his love was very possibly requited. In the era which the play was written, openly sexual behavior was seen as improper and moreover, the idea of serious homosexual relationships was disregarded. As Sinfield states, “gay people today are no more immune to racism than other people.” (Marcus/Sinfield 284). It is therefore important for readers, no matter gay, straight or otherwise, to not overlook the homosexual identities and behaviors in the play.

 Works Cited

Sinfield, Alan. How to Read The Merchant of Venice Without Being Heterosexist. 1998.

Shakespeare, William, and Leah S. Marcus. The Merchant of Venice: Authoritative Text, Sources and Contexts, Criticism, Rewritings and Appropriations. Norton & Company, 2006.

When We Met

Why did you choose to dance with me?

Out of all people losing themselves in the song

what entranced you to take my hand

and lead me into your world?

If you had passed me by just like the others

I may still be dancing now, weightless and unbound.

Alas, here I am, clamped down by the chains

you had promised me to free me from.

You let me roam your garden but nowhere far beyond.

Your queen, displayed for the flock you created

donning a more convincing mask than the one I wore

When we met.

I play your game so expertly I almost do believe.

I smile when you come for me.

I smile to survive.

I smile because it’s what I am expected to do.

The only liberation I find is when I give in.

Play the game no matter what my heart may say.

My weapon is my mind and I wield it daily.

I can never sheath it and let my guard down

for I know more than anything

that I am too lost now within your sanctum

too lost to be found.