Reading James Joyce via Photography on Bloomsday

By | June 16, 2022

Guest post by Georgina Binnie-Wright

Mentioning ‘Bloomsday’ to those unfamiliar with the work of James Joyce may provoke a quizzical reaction. Yet the date of Ulysses’ setting, on 16 June 1904, marks an opportunity to celebrate a text that has been heralded as signalling the birth of literary modernism. Celebrations will be heightened this year given the centenary publication of Ulysses, which was published in book form by Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company, Paris on 2 February 1922.

Contemporary global Bloomsday activities are frequently photographed, featuring readers dressed in costume, consuming protagonist Leopold Bloom’s meals and touring Dublin locales. That the day is so often photographed is significant, since photography is fundamental in Ulysses, and Joyce’s wider literature, in exposing the dichotomy faced by his protagonists between stasis and innovation.

In James Joyce and Photography (2022), I use Joyce’s literary manuscripts, photographic and newspaper archival material, as well as the full range of his major works, to shed new light on his personal and professional interest in photography. Building upon work by scholars of Joyce and Irish visual culture, my book takes Joyce’s intention in Dubliners (1914) to ‘betray the soul of that hemiplegia or paralysis which many consider a city’ as key to his interaction with this visual medium.[i]

In 1903, in his only critical exploration of photography, Joyce wrote, ‘Can a photograph be a work of art?’[ii] His answer was that whilst a photograph ‘may be so disposed for an aesthetic end […] it is not a work of art!’[iii] Joyce’s dismissal of photography’s aesthetic value initially appears to belie the medium’s importance to his writing. Yet only one year later, in 1904, he published ‘Eveline’ in the Irish Homestead, a story in which the ‘yellowing photograph of the priest’ (D 30) proves intrinsic to his portrayal of Dublin’s paralysis.

Figure I.I: Carola Giedion-Welcker, Joyce at Platzspitz, Zürich, 1938. Courtesy of the Zürich James Joyce Foundation.

The period in which Joyce was writing marked a critical point in photography, as technological developments such as the introduction of handheld cameras rapidly increased the medium’s popularity and accessibility. Just as in Ulysses, Leopold Bloom considers the gramophone to ‘Remind you of the voice like the photograph reminds you of the face’ (U 6.966-7), photography initially appears to suggest permanence. Yet Joyce interrogates the medium’s temporality, as in the photograph of Molly Bloom in Ulysses that is only ‘Very like her then’ (U 16.1438-39).

Photography’s hemiplegic potential to inspire both regression and progress is at its most apparent in Joyce’s engagement with women and the camera, as in Ulysses, where the Blooms’ daughter, Milly works in Mullingar as a ‘Photo girl’ (U 1.685). Joyce juxtaposes the more innovative features of her professional work with late nineteenth and early twentieth-century exploitation of young women, both behind and in front of the camera. The importance of photography and the daughter motif spanned beyond his literature; in 1935, he arranged for his daughter, Lucia to receive a new camera, writing in Italian in a letter dated 29 September, ‘I enclose a few rather wretched photographs and, by the way, you will receive from Mrs Curran (just now in London) a new camera which, I hope, will prove useful and enjoyable’.[iv]

In Finnegans Wake (1939), Joyce writes of ‘The Tulloch-Turnbull girl with her coldblood kodak’ (FW 171.31-32).[v] Modernist writers were quick to respond to George Eastman’s Kodak cameras. In Alfred Jarry’s short story, ‘Passion considérée comme course de côte [The Passion Considered as an Uphill Bicycle Race]’ (1894), ‘It is not certain whether a female spectator wiped his brow, but we know that Veronica, a girl reporter, got a good shot of him with her Kodak’.[vi] In Jacob’s Room (1922), Virginia Woolf acknowledges the aggressive potential of the female photographer, depicting ‘Madame Lucien Gravé perched on a block of marble with her kodak pointed at his head. […] she jumped down, but not before Jacob had seen her’.[vii] Like Joyce, Woolf was photographed by Gisèle Freund, to whom she dedicated an essay on the works of her great aunt, photographer Julia Margaret Cameron.

Figure I.2: Herbert Bell, Amateur World Tour Album, Taken with Early Kodak Cameras, Plus Purchased Travel Photographs by Various Photographers, c. 1880-1890. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

My book, published this Bloomsday, uses modernist archives to expose the continued influence of photography on James Joyce’s writing. Intrinsic to my study is the argument that Joyce imbues the medium’s more innovative, technological aspects with a sense of stasis and sexual innuendo, rather than ever rendering photography wholly progressive.


[i] James Joyce, ‘Letter to Constantine Curran’, 1904, in Letters of James Joyce, vol. I, ed. by Stuart Gilbert (New York: Viking Press, 1966), p. 55.

[ii] Joyce, ‘Paris and Pola Commonplace Book’, 1903-04, The National Library of Ireland, MS 36,639/02/A, pp. 22.

[iii] Joyce, ‘Paris and Pola Commonplace Book’, p. 26.

[iv] Joyce, ‘Letter to Helen Laird Curran’, 1935, in Letters of James Joyce, vol. III, ed. by Richard Ellmann (New York: Viking Press, 1966), p. 374.

[v] Joyce, A First-Draft Version of ‘Finnegans Wake, ed. by David Hayman (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1963), p. 111.

[vi] Alfred Jarry, ‘The Passion Considered as an Uphill Bicycle Race’, in Anthology of Black Humor, ed. by Andre Bréton, trans. by Mark Polizzotti (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1997), pp. 223-25 (p. 225).

[vii] Virginia Woolf, Jacob’s Room (London: The Hogarth Press, 1960),p. 150.


Cover of James Joyce and Photography

Georgina Binnie-Wright is an Independent Scholar specialising in modernism and visual culture. She received her PhD from the University of Leeds. James Joyce and Photography is part of the Historicizing Modernism series.

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