What is it about?

Victorian practitioners of photography-as-science often worked within Romantic, metaphysical, even theological, concepts of what they were doing. My essay presents one of them, the Revd Alexander Keith (1792-1880), and his use of daguerreotypes to 'prove' that biblical prophecies about the landscape of Palestine had come true. I want to show that the 'truth' in Keith's widely-published images was something he constructed through a particularly biblical way of seeing, in which the camera's accuracy was like the clear prophetic eye/word of God.

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Why is it important?

Early ideas about photography's 'truth' are commonly filtered through our modern understandings of science, objectivity, and experiment, which tend to present a blind spot when it comes to religion. Particularly in regard to Christianity and the Bible, religious reference is reduced to thematic illustration and (a nostalgic) art iconography. This essay presents an important challenge to reductionist simplifications of Christian thinking prevalent in early photography, revealing the intellectual sophistication of what is Keith's photo-biblical apologetic. His highly articulate faith-based defence of photography's superior documentary capacity reveals a more complex relation between science, visual culture, and religion than has typically been assumed.


Keith's 19th-century engravings from daguerreotypes might look a bit dull, but they had the punch of truth-telling propaganda in their day: seeing was literally believing. I think it's urgent work to recover this religious conviction, or at least to give those who held it (he had thousands of readers at a time when over half the population went to church, his book running into over fifty editions) the benefit of the doubt when it comes to their intellectual capacity. If nothing else the biblical literacy of our ancestors in the West ought to be more fully reckoned with, and I hope Keith's creativity with the prophets and their photographic vision proves thought-provoking.

Dr Sheona Beaumont
King's College London

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: Photographic and Prophetic Truth: Daguerreotypes, the Holy Land, and the Bible According to Reverend Alexander Keith, History of Photography, October 2018, Taylor & Francis,
DOI: 10.1080/03087298.2018.1514768.
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