Print the Legend

Buffalo Bill’s Buffalo Pen, Scout Ranch, North Platte, NE © 2006 Jeff Ward

Legend has several meanings which have evolved over time. Initially legend simply meant story or collection of stories. It was also applied to collections of the lives of saints, so it makes sense that it became stories of a larger, more mythic significance in the 17th century. In the 19th century, it was stretched to mean popular (and probably untrue) stories. In the 20th, it was first applied to people, as in “a legend in his own time.” In the 16th century, it was associated with an explanatory caption associated with an image (such as engravings), and in the 19th, with the instructive and interpretive captions attached to photographs and maps.

Legend in the first sense blurs the distinction between myth and fact, and in the second has a more rhetorical or logical aim. One of my favorite works of scholarship on 19th century photography also serves as a primer for useful approaches to critical thinking about technology. Martha Sandweiss’s Print the Legend (2002) speaks directly to the social development of reproductive technologies:

New reproductive technologies did not immediately create new ways of understanding the world. There was, in the late nineteenth century, a gap between the technological capacity to convey certain sorts of visual information and the more conservative popular expectations for what images should look like. This is a gap that is visible at many moments of technological change, from the development of the daguerreotype to the development of digitized image banks on the World Wide Web. . . . We should probably not be too quick to scorn them for their lingering preference for traditional forms of communication, for images that fit into a comfortable frame of reference created through exposure to other pictures. (324)

The research question Sandweiss begins with is wondering why so many 19th century photographic images were held in low esteem and discarded in favor of reinterpretations of them produced through a variety of reproductive processes. The predominant form of reproduction at the time was relief printing, produced by typeset text and woodcut engravings that allowed the combination of words and images on the same printing press. Many common terms emerged from these technologies, though they have long since lost their metonymic connection. Stereotype and cliché were originally printing terms.

A stereotype was a casting of type or the combination of type and engraved woodblocks made by creating an impression in paper mâché and then pouring metal in it to facilitate consistent impressions. Cliché is the French term for the same thing, a way of avoiding shifts or uneven wear in the components of a printing plate. Exactness and repeatability are essential parts of modern communication. This characteristic was the crowning achievement of photography, according to William Ivins:

The seriousness of the role of the exactly repeatable pictorial statement in all the long development since about 1450 has escaped attention very largely because that statement has been so familiar that it has never been subjected to adequate analysis. Having been taken for granted it has been overlooked. The photograph, as of today, is the final form of that exactly repeatable pictorial statement or report. Although it has very great limitations, it has no linear syntax of its own and thus has enabled men to discover that many things of the greatest interest and importance have been distorted, obscured, and even hidden, by verbal and pictorial, i.e. symbolic, syntaxes that were too habitual to be recognized. It is unfortunate that most of the world is still unaware of this fact. (180)

There is a palpable sense of technological optimism in both Walter Benjamin and William Ivins that is commonplace. Here, Ivins speaks directly to the enlightenment claim of “demystification” common to the pursuit of science where a veil of myth and legend has obscured the truth from us. Walter Benjamin’s claims are different in that he emphasizes evolving social effects as a positive influence, enabling people to formulate their own tastes. Sandweiss quotes liberally from both, but does not make the positive evolutionary claim for the ascension of photography. Rather, she looks critically at the devaluation of photography in the nineteenth century in terms of its actual use. There is an important turn in Ivin’s vocabulary that directly impacts the evaluation: “pictorial statement or report.”

The printing terms stereotype and cliché, developed as a technology serving repeatability, have reversed in connotation to be negative terms for prejudgment by myth and mindless repetition. Photographic technology at first was prized for its uniqueness of representation: daguerreotype portraits were in a literal sense like looking in a mirror and confronting the face of the other. In the end, technological demands for reproduction transformed what might be considered “cult” objects, in Benjamin’s terms, into objects created primarily for exhibition and reproduction.

The demand of the public for images, then and now, creates a market, or better, troc (in William Baxandall’s usage), that reinforces a particular type of image. Sandweiss frames this in a remarkably useful way:

In his classic western film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) director John Ford includes one of the great lines of western filmmaking. “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes a fact print the legend.” The newspaper editor who utters the line understands that the interests of his readers are best served not by exposing a much-loved historical legend as a lie. Like Ford himself, he understood his audience well, understood their preference for the comfortable myth over the unsettling truth. (324)

Ultimately, legend functions in two ways simultaneously. It is both an aid to reading (as in a map’s legend, or an image caption) and a way of framing a statement or report in a way the public wants to hear. The two meanings reinforce each other and like stereotypes legends have both positive and negative connotations if we consider critically what is being repeated.