Thursday, January 19, 2012

Austen Before Kodak

In the National Portrait Gallery in London hangs what appears to be an unfinished portrait of Jane Austen executed in pencil and in watercolors. It is the work of her sister, Cassandra. Anyone wishing to see pictures of this writer need but to go to Google Images and type in “Jane Austen” to see lots. Cassandra’s portrait, of which I reproduce a cropping from a BBC documentary shown on Austenonly (link), apparently served as the starting point for many other portraits produced much later, each as it were “improving” on the original. The picture may not have been entirely successful—the reason, perhaps, why Cassandra only colored the face. The National Portrait Gallery (here) cites a niece of Jane’s as follows: “There is a look which I recognize as hers, though the resemblance is not strong, yet as it represents a pleasing countenance it is so far a truth.” The picture dates to 1810, thus more than a decade before photography began as the daguerreotype. I’ve been thinking about Austen again because I’m reading P.D. James’ most recent novel, Death Comes to Pemberly. And today I learn that Eastman Kodak has declared bankruptcy. The days of old-fashioned photography on film are drawing to a close. So I thought I’d mark the day.

I’ve always liked this picture and have viewed all others as somehow failing. The clue to that is the phrase I quote above: “a look which I recognize as hers.” Even Cassandra may have rendered her sister as prettier, perhaps, than she was, but she did manage to capture “a look.” Someday perhaps fairly soon all photos will be held exclusively on minute surfaces of doped silicon accessible only by means of machines and electricity. And when electric power fails or flags at last, those picture will be altogether lost unless someone bothered to print out copies and saved them in an album. And then back to the drawing board… 

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