Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

More Than Meets the Eye: Photographic Records of Humboldtian Imaginings

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

More Than Meets the Eye: Photographic Records of Humboldtian Imaginings

Article excerpt

Current photo-historiography largely ignores the influence on nineteenth century photographers of Alexander von Humboldt's co-examination of poetry, painting, and the cultivation of exotic plants. This essay argues for a Humboldtian reading of selected photographs by the European-born Australian photographer John William Lindt (1845-1926).


From 1880 to 1910, the German-born Australian photographer John William Lindt (1845-1926) produced a series of photographs documenting his garden and residence known as The Hermitage, sited in the Yarra Ranges just north of Melbourne in Victoria, Australia. Lindt's images depict an exotic garden of European trees and flowers ensconced in a natural setting of giant eucalypts and tree ferns. Within easy travelling distance from Melbourne, this manipulated landscape was used by Lindt as a site for soirees of food, wine, art, and song. It was also the principal location for his photographic work from 1895 until the year of his death in 1926. The photographic record of these gardens and the surrounding environs was in turn supplemented by two written documents: Trip to the Blacks' Spur, written in 1880 before he made his home in the area, and Companion Guide to Healesville, Blacks' Spur, Narbethong and Marysville, which he wrote in 1904 with fellow photographer and bushwalker, Nicholas John Caire (1837-1918). (1)

This essay considers the cultural and aesthetic context of these photographic images. We argue that the intersection of art, poetry, gardening, and photography at The Hermitage can be attributed to Lindt's understanding of Cosmos: A Sketch of the Physical Description of the Universe, a five-volume study of the physical universe written between 1846 and 1862 by the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt. In the first volume of this popular treatise, Humboldt argued that the exposure of the European eye to the exotic flora of both the tropical and temperate rainforest would heighten the "artistic powers" and intellectual insight of the "untutored mind" (5). Enabling one to "spontaneously" arrive at the impression that "one sole and indissoluble chain binds together all nature"--a conclusion the cultivated intellect discerned only through slow and "laborious deduction" (5)--Humboldt's thesis offered a social rationale for both the artistic and scientific documentation of the new world and its display in European cities. Humboldt noted that the diverse mediums of literature (nature poetry and travel writing), landscape painting (the panoramic landscape), and the cultivation and display of exotic plants functioned readily as vehicles for the European engagement with the exotic. A more recent aid to this project, he also observed, was offered by the new technology of the photograph (2:456-457).

In the final decades of nineteenth-century Melbourne, Humboldt's theories and methods were current in both scientific and artistic circles (Home 7-8; Bonyhady, Images 64-6). We argue that Lindt's photographic record of The Hermitage and its surrounding environs seeks to capture the "grand sublimity" of nature imagined by Humboldt. If we can demonstrate this shift in taste in Australian landscape photography of the late nineteenth century, this essay will break new ground in understanding landscape photography of the period.

The essay begins with an overview of Lindtian historiography; it then briefly introduces key Humboldtian concepts, followed by a reading of Lindt's photography against Humboldtian criteria. We argue that landscape images that heretofore have been read as accomplished art photographs and postcards that have been seen to play into the tourist trade, must also be read as responsive to contemporary scientific discourse. Few scholars in photographic theory have considered the impact of Humboldt's Cosmos on the medium. Certainly in terms of Australian scholarship, there has been no sustained coupling of a Humboldtian critique of photographic images. …

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