«To Snap Us as We Are»
The Implied Camera in Virginia Woolf’s The Lady in the Looking-Glass: A Reflection
In the last few decades, considerable critical attention has been devoted to exploring the multiple relationships between Virginia Woolf’s life and works on the one hand, and various forms of artistic expression on the other, with particular focus on the most recent ones, such as photography and cinema, which are emblematic of the modern machine age. As several studies have shown, Woolf was thoroughly familiar with, and deeply interested in what she herself – in an introductory essay to the retrospective collection Victorian Photographs of Famous Men and Fair Women (1926) by her great-aunt Julia Margaret Cameron described – as the newborn art of photography. While previous research has mainly focused on biographical accounts and/or feminist interpretations of the subject, this essay aims to analyse Woolf’s use of photography in terms of narrative technique by showing the implied presence of an invisible camera, whose eye coincides with the fixed point of view or the observing eye of the anonymous narrator, in her short story The Lady in the Looking-Glass: A Reflection (1929). In this ‘visual’ piece, Woolf engages in verbal imitations of snapshots, and the stiff artificiality of the photographic image, contrasting with the sheer vitality outside its frame, reminds us of what Walter Benjamin terms the loss of «aura» of the work of art in the age of its mechanical reproduction, a loss which in the case of photography is partially counterbalanced by the revelation of a hidden reality – Benjamin’s «optical unconscious» – or, in Woolf’s story, of the character’s inner truth.