Virginia Woolf: the Original Influencer? How Apps like Instagram Continue a Tradition of Using Photographs to Tell Stories About Ourselves.

By | May 17, 2022

Guest post by Emily Ennis

Apps like Instagram tap into a centuries’ old tradition of using photographs to tell stories. Yes, taking photos often provides a window directly into how we live our lives on a day-to-day basis. But we also edit those photos – apply filters, crop, resize – and our choices of captions – or no captions – as well as our very selection of the images we use says something about how we choose to present ourselves to the world.

The very earliest processes of photography – of capturing an image on a sensitive surface using light – appeared in the 1830s. By 1857, author and art historian Lady Elizabeth Eastlake thought that photography was now used so widely, with photographs ‘found in the most sumptuous saloon, and in the dingiest attic’, that it had become a ‘household word and a household want’.[1]

Virginia Woolf

For her, photography was now the core way that all strata of the public told stories about themselves. In fact, much later, in the 1880s, the first Kodak film and cameras were designed and marketed to appeal directly to the everyman, with the belief that any and everyone should have access to the medium: they advertised a photograph developing service where ‘you push the button, we do the rest’ and George Eastmann, the owner of Kodak, noted that the name ‘Kodak’ itself was an entirely made-up word, designed to be easily understood across the world without the opportunity for misspelling.[2] It seemed that photography was everywhere, in the hands of the true amateurs, and presented opportunity for people to share images of their lives like never before.

Unfortunately, the automatic nature of capturing these images proved difficult for authors of the late-nineteenth century to appreciate. At the point where photography seemed to move into the hands of the everyman, with the emergence of cheap, portable photography, literary authors became increasingly nervous about what this meant for them. Thomas Hardy believed that photography was beginning to shape how writing itself was constructed, with a focus on ‘exceptional fidelity’ to reality that was only a ‘photographic curiousness’ and which culminated disappointingly in a feeling of having missed something quintessential to life itself.[3] Joseph Conrad invoked much of the same imagery in some of his own statements about photographic media, claiming that ‘the artist is a much more subtle and complicated machine than a camera, and with a wider range, if in the visual effects less precise’.[4] For him, the way we tell stories relied on telling them slightly inaccurately, slightly out of focus.

Certainly, photographs have always offered a profound way to document our lives. In the past, this meant photographing dead bodies in order to preserve the image of the loved one or relative. Now, in our highly-photographed world, it means finding familiar ghosts in images we see every day. To many, sites like Instagram and Snapchat are just one way, one “grass roots” way, of telling our stories. But this is exactly what some earlier authors feared so deeply: that they would no longer be telling those stories for us. In fact, it was only much later authors who embraced photography so willingly. Virginia Woolf was an avid photographer, taking many photographs of family and friends herself and with her sister Vanessa Bell. She also scrapbooked, and her photography albums are testament to the creative ways in which she ordered and captioned her photographs, using them artistically to tell her life story.[5] How we use photographs on social media is the same: with private in-jokes and quotes serving as captions for those in the know, with images taken out of life in a snapshot, a moment of being.

A page from one of Virginia Woolf’s scapbooks

My book, Writing, Authorship and Photography in British Literary Culture, 1880 – 1920: Capturing the Image, captures further the experience of British writers at the turn of the twentieth century as they begin to assimilate photography into the modern world. What this book also explores, just as much of the discourse surrounding photography-based social media likewise does, is how being able to take and disseminate photographs of everyday life is an immense class privilege. If Woolf is the first photographic influencer, then her direct descendants are people like the Kardashians, whose ‘everyday lives’ we have become accustomed to seeing online, but which perpetuate a way of living that is so divorced from the reality of the majority. While photography offers us the potential to tell stories, those stories are shouted the loudest by people who have a platform. Like Virginia Woolf, Lady Elizabeth Eastlake, and Instagram influencers of 2022.

[1] Lady Elizabeth Eastlake, ‘Photography’, London Quarterly Review,April 1857, Vol. 8, 442–68, reprinted in Classic Essays on Photography,ed. Alan Trachtenberg (New Haven, CT: Leete’s Island Books, 1980), 40.

[2] From Photography,vol. 15 (1903), p. 438, qtd. in Newhall, History of Photography, 129.

[3] Thomas Hardy, ‘The Profitable Reading of Fiction’, Forum 5 (March 1888), 57–70, in Thomas Hardy’s Public Voice: The Essays, Speeches, and Miscellaneous Prose, ed. Michael Millgate (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001), 82.

[4] Conrad’s notes for this survive at the Lilly Library, Indiana University. See Don Rude, ‘Joseph Conrad’s Speeches in America: His Texts Recovered’, L’Époque Conradienne, 13 (1987), 21–32.

[5] Virginia Woolf Monk’s House photograph album, MH-6 (1850–1900 and undated). MS Thr 563 (12). Houghton Library, Harvard College Library, Harvard University. (accessed August 2016).

Writing, Authorship and Photography in British Literary Culture, 1880 - 1920 cover

Emily Ennis received her PhD from the University of Leeds in 2016. Since then, she has taught Victorian and Modernist literatures, as well as modules on visual cultures, at University of Leeds, Newcastle University, and Bishop Grosseteste University.

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