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Playing with Pictures

by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra

Playing with Pictures

For my creative project I took the individual research interests of each student in my LM8942 class in Victorian Visual Culture as my text. Inspired by a recent exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage, I decided I would emulate the methodology of the women who invented a playful manipulation of manual and mechanical reproduction in the 1860s and 1870s. Armed with scissors and paste pots, these women cut up family photographs and celebrity cartes de visites in order to create mixed-media works that combined hand drawing and painting with photocollage.

Modifying the technology to suit our own digital age, I collected digitized photos of my students and scans of Victorian visual material related to their research. I then used Adobe Photoshop to superimpose the cropped face of each student onto the body of a figure in an image they were working on for their essay. In this way, each student virtually entered the world of their selected Victorian visual culture subject. Samantha became the love interest in an illustration for Wilkie Collins’s Armadale; Andrea morphed into the “Beardsley girl” from The Yellow Book; Jon appeared on a trade card advertising Gallagher’s Cigarettes; Alison was dropped into one of Richard Doyle’s fairy nests from In Fairyland; and Chris showed up in an engraving in Once a Week celebrating the opening of the Royal Academy Exhibit in May of 1868.

In our course, we’ve studied how “ the explosion of image-making made visual experience and visual literacy important elements in the rubric of modernity.”1 Focusing on the book as an expressive object in material culture, we’ve examined how the printed page inscribes cultural meanings available to historical readers. In order to pay tribute to the book as an expressive form central to the experience of modernity, I used the Photoshopped montages I’d created for each student as the cover design for miniature books, giving each a title and author. I was interested in layering biography and bibliography at the same time that I was superimposing present experience on Victorian visual culture.

In our virtual age, the tactility as well as the visuality of nineteenth-century readers’ experience is notable. I selected a heavy embossed paper to create each book, colouring each in a distinct shade in order to emulate the wonderful variety of Victorian cloth-bound decorative covers. Creating each miniature book also allowed me to mix manual and digital methodology in a way analogous to the Victorian mix of manual and mechanical methods. For the same reason, I added some elements of colour to a few of the black-and-white wood engravings. Finally, because I wanted to emphasize both the wonderful decorative gilt design of so many Victorian books, and the heavy wallpaper and interior decoration Victorians favoured in the drawing rooms that housed their books, I added gold flowers and paisley shapes cut from heavy Japanese paper to my project’s black background. The material presence of this paper also speaks to the influence of Japanese art on late-nineteenth-century visual culture.

1 William Ivins, quoted in Vanessa R. Schwartz and Jeannene M. Przyblyski, The Victorian Visual Culture Reader (9).