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Henry James and the Art of Auto/biography

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Mirosława Buchholtz

Henry James (1843–1916) has been widely acclaimed for the elegance of his prose, the incisiveness of his social comment, and the subtlety of his psychological analyses. Whereas James’s tales and novels have been carefully studied over the past decades, his non-fiction, including literary criticism, travel writing, biographies, and autobiographies, still remains at the margins of critical activities. This study seeks to explore some of these neglected aspects of James’s work, while at the same time interrogating the traditional formula of literary auto/biography. It also attempts to piece together an image of James as a subject and object of biographical and autobiographical endeavors, including portraiture.
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CHAPTER IV: A Photographic Remembrance

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← 112 | 113 → CHAPTER IVA Photographic Remembrance

At the time of Henry James’s birth, the era of photography was just beginning. In 1839, the French painter, amateur chemist, and inventor, Louis Daguerre presented the process of making permanent images from a camera to members of the French Academy of Sciences in Paris. What was new about the process was the quality and permanence of the image. The prototype camera itself, the camera obscura, had been known, however, as early as the eleventh century,1 and since the fifteenth century painters, such as Leonardo da Vinci, Albrecht Dürer, and Johannes Vermeer, used it as a draftsman’s aid.2 In the eighteenth century portable models of the camera obscura became widely popular, and would be used not only by amateur, but also professional painters, including Canaletto and Joshua Reynolds. Travelers, like Goethe, would carry such a box with them if they wished to make quick sketches of sights that seemed worth remembering. The box had a lens at one end that threw an image onto a frosted sheet of glass at the other end. The artistic traveler’s task consisted merely of tracing the reflected image. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, the challenge for inventors was to automatize the process of making permanent images. As early as the 1820s, efforts toward this direction were made by the now forgotten French inventor Joseph Niépce. The twenty years younger Daguerre was his business partner.3

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