The nineteenth century saw the rise of a new text-image economy, one defined by the mass reproduction and dissemination of pictures, together with text, in lucrative and popular illustrated newspapers, weeklies, and books. The explosion of these media had many proximate material causes, including the development of the steam press and the stereotype and the availability of cheap paper. But the rise of the mass image during the period between about 1820 and 1890 was due primarily to the epochal rise of a single print process: wood engraving.
Photography is usually considered to be the pivotal visual technology of the nineteenth century. But it was wood engraving that made high-quality images (including photographs) reproducible, transmittable, and combinable, and it was wood engraving that most effectively integrated images with text, unleashing their potential for narrative, illustration, and documentation.
This lecture will explore the implications of the fact that it was specifically wood engraving, and not some other material process, that inaugurated the era of communication that we now call the age of mass media. What does it matter that the mass image was borne forth in wood rather than, say, copper or silver or graphite? What does it mean that despite its original qualities, any image that was to be mobilized as mass illustration had first to be painstakingly carved into a wooden block; had first to go through the wood? The lecture will suggest that wood engraving subjected images to a series of physical and conceptual inversions that profoundly destabilized them. Just as in countless deep-forest folkloric journeys by the likes of Goldilocks or Little Red Riding Hood, moving through the wood produced transformative disorientations for images — and for the very idea of the image — in the nineteenth century.