The Beginning and The End Of The World
It was enchanting and surreal, an amalgamation of art and science in a visual medium that captured instant moments of time. Following Daguerre’s invention of the daguerreotype in 1839, this technological marvel – commonly known as photography – became a contested topic of academic discourse. So easily could individuals manage a camera without training in the “fine arts” that critics deemed it merely “science,” a chemical manifestation of reality. To the intellectuals of St Andrews, however, it was the gateway to man’s understanding of life and death, of the world’s birth and ultimate apocalypse. As Robert Crawford insightfully examines in his book The Beginning and the End of the World: St Andrews, Scandal, and the Birth of Photography (Birlinn, £16.99), photography became the means through which Victorians could grasp their diminutive state in the universe.
The figureheads in this process were David Brewster, an eccentric scientist; Robert Chambers, an overworked magazine publisher; Hugh Lyon Playfair, a retired army colonel; John Adamson, a St Andrews-trained doctor; and Robert, his calotypist younger brother, among others. Through their connections with the St Andrews Literary and Philosophical Society, an organization dedicated to the study of the arts and sciences, each sought to master the daguerreotype and, later, calotype processes. The picturesque seaside town of St Andrews proved to be the ideal location for their experiments. Early images include the ruins of the St Andrews Cathedral and St Rule’s Tower, the society’s members, and the photographers’ families.
While art historians probe the effects of these images on the evolution of photography, Crawford suggests that they represent aspects of Victorian consciousness. At the time, philosophical thought focused deeply on “the beginning and the end of the world” – that is, man’s mortal place in a vast universe. Photographers adapted this morbid subject to their images of everyday life. For Brewster, in particular, simple portraits of families could symbolize mortality. By freezing time in an instant, photographs portrayed the fleeting nature of the present, metaphorically “embalming” the sitters in a medium that could survive beyond their future demises. Photographs thus acted as pages in a history book, showing how the world changes as it progresses through time.
But the story of these St Andrews photographers is not just a story of their craft. It is one of sustainability, of men who, even in the nineteenth century, recognized the transience of humanity and, too, the eventual degradation of the world. They saw, as geologists see today, how prehistoric cliffs slowly melt away into the sea. They recognized, as epidemiologists recognize today, how human lives are insignificant in comparison to disease. Through books like Robert Chambers’ controversial Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, or John Adamson’s photographic essay on working class destitution and mortality rates, Victorians could begin to find solutions to the ecological and social problems that face humanity. Indeed, they could attempt to harness the answer of what it means to be human.
Crawford’s analysis, though, does not garner its full effect until the final chapter. Entitled “Legacies,” this section combines personal anecdotes with modern poetry to suggest man’s enduring notion of uncertainty. It is here where the previous chapters’ overburdened use of poetry becomes clear. According to Crawford, poetry functions as an artistic expression of transience in the same manner as photography did for Victorians. Poets and photographers both express man’s concerns over life and both do so quickly and concisely for their respective audiences. By placing excerpts of poems throughout the text, Crawford emphasizes the present day’s connection with past generations – in particular, how man remains uncertain, indeed, fearful of the cycle of life.
As such, the book is both personal and philosophical. Readers can sympathize with the mental breakdowns of Chambers and the heroic attempts of his wife, Anne, to make his life more meaningful. Readers can, too, play golf with Playfair, attend lectures of Brewster, and follow the Adamson brothers as they photograph the harsh landscapes quintessential to the Kingdom of Fife. Certainly, the book assumes an identity of its own – it is not just a treatise on the development of photography; it is a reader’s personal tour book into the stories of St Andrews’ past.