Yesterday, on 5 March, I submitted my thesis, Ministers of ‘the Black Art’: the engagement of British clergy with photography, 1839-1914. As many of you know, I’ve been working on my Ph.D since September 2014, but my research into Victorian clergy-photographers stretches back many years prior to this. It was my original intention to write a book on the topic, but when publishers showed no interest and the opportunity arose to apply for doctoral studies, the project was turned into a Ph.D. The viva will follow in a couple of months and we’ll see how that goes, but in due course I expect to adapt the thesis for publication as a book.
Ministers of ‘the black Art’ looks at clergymen from all denominations – Anglican vicars, cathedral precentors, Catholic priests, monks, Methodist missionaries and so on – who were active photographers between 1839 and World War One, exploring the relationship between their religious background and culture, and their photographic work. This is a topic that has been overlooked by both photo-historians and church historians, largely because there are very few researchers who possess sufficient knowledge of both disciplines to make the connections. Having spent many years with my feet planted squarely in both camps, it seemed a good idea to attempt it myself.
Conceptual theories do not interest me, and so the thesis focuses on what people actually did on a grassroots level, looking at original photographic material – paper prints, glass negatives, lantern slides etc – and examining a wealth of printed and manuscript material from archives, museums and libraries all around the country: theological works, printed sermons, diaries, correspondence, exhibition catalogues, photographic society log books and ephemera. I managed to identify over 200 clergymen-photographers (and yes, it’s a shame that they’re all men – but inevitable given the period in question) and amassed a huge amount of information about their work. I think this project can contribute a great deal to our understanding of Victorian visual culture and I have really enjoyed the challenge of shaping my mass of handwritten notes (some written last century) into an ordered argument. It’s been hard work, and I won’t deny that finally submitting my thesis brings with it a sense of relief, unburdening and liberation. Time now to prepare for the viva, and also crack on with other projects. Further developments will be announced here….