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The ‘Mirror with a Memory’: Vision, Technology, and Landscape in the United States, 1830-1880

Leonardi, N; (2012) The ‘Mirror with a Memory’: Vision, Technology, and Landscape in the United States, 1830-1880. Doctoral thesis , UCL (University College London).

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This dissertation analyses the social, cultural, and material construction of the landscape observer in the United States in mid-nineteenth century. Based on the aesthetic ideal of a perfect union between technology and nature, the reception of landscape entailed the notion of the artist/observer as a hybrid figure that comprised the human and the machine. This quasi-mechanical gaze, individual and corporate at the same time, played a determining role in the construction and diffusion of a nationalist model of democratic spectatorship embedded within pastoral ideology. In this cultural climate, the photographic apparatus, defined by Oliver Wendell Holmes as a ‘mirror with a memory,’ was adopted as a model for the landscape observer. Contrary to previous studies on the relationship among vision, technology, and modernity, in which modern visuality is considered as an abstract, totalizing, and homogeneous phenomenon based on a francocentric model, this dissertation emphasizes the ‘plurality’ of modern vision by situating visual practices and technologies within their specific local and material contexts. First, I discuss how the nineteenth-century enthusiasm for technology shaped the representation and reception of landscape within the visual arts, constituting the American spectator as a performative and collective cohabitation of the visual and the political. The analysis moves on to show how ‘high’ and popular culture embraced the model of the ‘mirror with a memory.’ Transforming landscape experience into a personal and collective ritual of nation formation, this model informed the paintings hanging in the homes of the élites, the large canvases by famous artists shown to the wide public as ‘Great Pictures Exhibitions,’ panorama and diorama spectacles, stereoscopic photography. Lastly, I investigate the relationships among scientific culture, survey photography, and landscape painting. Rather than questioning photography’s ‘artisticity,’ I look at the commercial and debased manifestations of painting and their relation with popular culture at the time of industrialization, media explosion, and the commodification of images.

Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Title: The ‘Mirror with a Memory’: Vision, Technology, and Landscape in the United States, 1830-1880
Language: English
Additional information: Permission for digitisation not received
UCL classification: UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH > Faculty of Arts and Humanities > The Slade School of Fine Art
URI: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/1369752
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