The Utilitarian Photographer

Lindsay Barrett


In 1854 eighteen-year old William Stanley Jevons, who would eventually find fame as an economist, was sent out by his father from Britain to work at the newly established Sydney Mint. Jevons had studied chemistry and mathematics in London, and minerals assaying in Paris before taking up his position at the Mint. However, these proved to be only two of his many areas of inquiry. His obsessive gaze also traversed the fields of Geography and Topography, Meteorology, Botany and Natural Science, and what he called “poliography”, the study of urban landscapes and demographics, closely related as it was to his growing interest in the field in which he would eventually make his name, Political Economy. And, like the majority of the young bourgeoisie of his time, he also had a serious interest in Literature and Music.


Eventually Jevons would take up the Chair of Political Economy at University College in London, famous for his part in the marginalist revolution in economic theory, the paradigm shift which replaced the labour theory of value (which saw the cost of a commodity defined by the amount of worker's labour expended in its production) with the utility theory of value, explaining “value” as the consequence of an object's utility, of the extent to which it was desired by those who wanted it. This was no small intervention, it was in fact a key step in the making of the paradigm which still dominates the  contemporary understanding of economic life. But remarkably, not only was Jevons a central figure in what J.M. Keynes called “the black arts of inductive economics”, he was the only influential member of that most influential of modern professions to have had a serious interest in photography.


Jevons learned to make photographs in Sydney, and on the weekends he went on picture making expeditions with the other young Englishmen from the Mint who shared his interest, the areas around Middle Harbour and Lane Cove being two of their favourites. Or he went on longer, often solitary, trips into the bush, during which he would meticulously record the lie of the land, drawing maps and collecting specimens of every different type of plant or rock that caught his eye. He also studied the climate in detail, providing the meteorology reports for Henry Parkes’ newspaper Empire for a couple of years, and writing a definitive treatise on the climate of eastern Australia and New Zealand. And when he wasn’t busy with these other activities, Jevons would take long walks through Sydney, assessing the social climate, and drawing up maps of the urban and economic structure of the city.

Its obvious that Jevons was obsessed with assembling, collating and recording. And in this bent he was far from alone, for as he travelled the Colony hunting and collecting facts and objects of all kinds, so Victorians the world over engaged in the same pursuits (Griffiths, 1996:16-17). Still there is no doubt Jevons was at the more extreme end of the practice: “I have such a strong disposition to classify things as is sometimes almost painful”, he confessed, in a letter from Sydney to his sister Lucy.


But there was also an important link between this obsession and his work in economics, as J.M. Keynes astutely observed:

Jevons was the first theoretical economist to survey his material with the controlled imagination of the natural scientist. He would spend hours arranging his charts, plotting them, sifting them, tinting them neatly with delicate pale colours like the slides of the anatomist, and all the time poring over them and brooding over them to discover their secret (Keynes:119).

In terms of his economic theories, Jevons was heavily influenced by the founder of Utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham. A classic liberal, Bentham had maintained that the interests of society were served best by allowing the individual to pursue their own happiness via the consumption of material goods, while at the same time living a life free of the restraints of governmental intervention or regulation (Galbraith, 1987:118). In particular, Jevons drew on the “felicific calculus”, a theoretical device which Bentham had formulated to illustrate the manner in which all human actions were in one way or another rationally calculated in order maximise happiness and minimise discomfort. Jevons made Bentham's calculus the leitmotif of his major work The Theory of Political Economy, in which he argued that economic activity was in essence a continuous series of choices made by individuals all obsessed with maximising pleasure, and minimising pain.

For we cultural theorists Bentham is of course best known not for his utilitarian theories, but for his design for a new type of prison, defined by  Foucault in Discipline and Punish as an exemplar of the modes and functions of power within modernity: a configuration within which the subject was regulated by the society of surveillance and discipline. Its hard to overstate the importance or the influence of Discipline and Punish, but despite its perception, Foucault's argument can also be seen to have placed too much stress on the observer's gaze as the predominant social force. As Jonathan Crary has argued, “Foucault's opposition of surveillance and spectacle seems to overlook how the effects of these two regimes of power can coincide”. This oversight is crucial for Crary because, as he puts it, “Foucault relentlessly emphasizes the ways in which human subjects became objects of observation, in the form of institutional control or scientific and behavioural study; but he neglects the new forms by which vision itself became a kind of discipline or mode of work” (Crary, 1992:118).

So perhaps it was no accident, in cultural terms, that Jevons, assayer of gold at the Sydney Mint and obsessed with observation and assessment of all kinds, should develop a healthy interest in the new practices of photographic picture making. “In the early nineteenth century”, Johnathon Crary argues, “there was a sweeping transformation in the way in which an observer was figured in a wide range of social practices and domains of knowledge” (Crary:2) He continues:  “What takes place from around 1810 to 1840 is an uprooting of vision from the stable and fixed relations ... it is given an unprecedented mobility and exchangeability, abstracted from any founding site or referent.”

Jevons' wide-ranging observations of life, land and labour in New South Wales were well suited to this new cultural climate, within which the processes of mobility and modernisation were disrupting the formerly fixed point of view of the static, stationary observer.  The Panopticon, both  a mentality and a technology of observation, was quite literally fixed in place. In fact, Bentham had conceived of it not just as a prison but as a multi-purpose institution, however while it may have been capable (theoretically) of creating a space for a number of activities, travelling was not one of them. Jevons by contrast, while the inheritor of much of the legacy of Bentham, literally embodied the newly developing, and radically different, mobile gaze of the later nineteenth century.

Essentially, Jevons is an example of the panoptic machine made human, and turned loose upon the world. So it is understandable, perhaps, why he gave utility such a primacy of position in his plotting of the contours of economic life. Within the new paradigm being developed by Jevons and his contemporaries, value was no longer fixed, contained in the body of the labourer stuck inside the factory, but rather, it was constantly on the move, in circulation, existing within the very objects and commodities exchanging and changing hands every day. Jevons may have drawn on Bentham for his Utilitarianism, and his calculus of desires, but he had added the dynamism of mobile, modern life to the equation.

In 1859 Jevons wrote the following to his sister Lucy, from his home in Double Bay in Sydney:

I have only just returned from a rough, hard-working, but fine excursion to the southern diggings ... I have about twenty pictures, many of which are almost professionally perfect, exhibiting not only general scenery, but all the principal operations of gold-digging and washing and incidents of tent life. The diggers were highly amused at being taken, and only required a hint to stand in any desirable attitude, so that my pictures seem almost alive with real diggers. I even got an aboriginal black with two black gins or wives, who sat still in the sun while I made four or five attempts at their portraits before I succeeded.  (Black, 1972-1981:364-365)

The writer of these words is obviously an imperialist, possessed of both the European's pictorialist sensibilities and habitual condescension to both the Indigenous and the Colonial-born: patiently they wait, good naturedly they perform, as he struggles with his technology to produce a faithful replication of a landscape in which nature and natives perform as one. At the same time though, even as he studies his subjects through the lens of his apparatus, they are also looking back at him.

This two-way arrangement is in fact is crucial, for its Jevons own point of view, structured by his faith in the objectivity of “scientific” investigation, which is responsible for producing what he sees through his lens. In fact, his own text announces as much. The diggers were “highly amused at being taken”, he writes; they “only required a hint to stand in any desirable attitude”. The ability of the new medium to “freeze” a moment, to remove it from historical time and the social processes from which it derived, it is not lost on Jevons. Nor is the  “constructed” nature of his documentation of what is supposedly the natural and the authentic. His pictures, “seem almost alive with real diggers”. We can’t call this the unconscious of his text, because its actually there on the surface, announcing the contradictions that these attempts to depict reality provoke. What’s clear from this statement is that Jevons, even as a photographer aiming at “professionally perfect” images, does not take the act of representation for granted, rather he knows its an act. Photography as a practice was barely more than a decade old at this point, still the plaything of European men working in the intersection between art and chemistry, and it was yet to take on any of the currency of the institutionalisation and naturalisation which it would acquire over the next few decades. For Jevons the photographic image was not so much a representation of reality as it was an experiment in observation.

Jevons took hundreds of photographs of Sydney and the bush nearby, of the harbour, of landscapes, housing, shipping, his bourgeois social circle, of workers and machinery. But these were all objects and ways of life which he had meticulously recorded in a variety of other media as well, and here his photography folds back into all his other works of observation. For a chemist in the 1850s, the techniques of photography presented a more or less natural extension of their already existing work (and interestingly enough, this is a cultural echo which still persists in the most practical and banal of fashions, via the all-in-one processing machine in the corner of the pharmacy, as well as the fact that, through an even more tenuous connection, now you can have digital photos printed at the pharmacy too.) Photography, like chemistry, and like assaying gold in particular, was about getting the balance right: the right amount of light, the right amount of exposure, the right amount of chemicals in the process. Its no surprise that this new, trendy activity took off among the chemists and assayers of the Sydney Mint, men whose job it was to ensure that the foundations of the currency of New South Wales, the very foundations of the colony’s economic life, were in balance.

Harro Maas has noted the central place of the chemist’s set of balances as Jevons’ primary tool of research, not just in his actual work as a chemist but, in a metaphorical sense, in his economic theorising too. As Jevons saw it, the individual, traversed by the forces of pleasure and pain, attempts to strike a balance between the two, ensuring that too much pleasure is never purchased at the cost of too much pain. Maas understands this as the expression of a mode of thought he calls “mechanical reasoning”, a method of apprehending the natural and social world which uses “mechanical contrivances” to observe, analyse and to understand. As Maas points out though, this is a method of interpretation that ultimately entails “epistemic”, not “ontological” claims about the world (Maas, 2001:217-226).

It is then this method of “mechanical reasoning” which allows Jevons, in his studies of the social and industrial landscape of Sydney, to attempt a depiction of “the whole internal organisation of the machinery of the city in question ...”. What looked at first glance to be nothing but chaos was, it seemed to Jevons, actually a complex, coherent mechanism, maintained by a series of inter-relations which were knowable, ultimately, to the trained eye of the scientific observer.

Consequently, the mapping of the order of the system illustrated that there was in fact an order, and supported the argument that the system operated best when left to its own devices, as governmental interference only inhibited the invisible hand of the market. This was though only one point of view. For, a few years earlier the young Friedrich Engels had walked around Manchester, mentally mapping that city in the same way Jevons had Sydney, but he had come to completely different conclusions: rather than a smoothly running machine, Engels saw an enormous system of exploitation, organised spatially so as to keep the poor out of sight of the rich, and the inherent contradictions under control (Engels, 1987).

Jevons saw economic life the way he did because he looked at it, as Keynes noted, from the point of view of the natural scientist. Similarly, the idea of balance was his most important conceptual tool, yet this is a connection which economic history has largely ignored. One primary reason for this can be found in the consequences of the very activities with which Jevons was relentlessly engaged. He was the quintessential Victorian polymath, and if we’re able to see links between the various modes and genres of his practices of observation and analysis, a key reason for this is that Jevons could see them himself. Photography allowed him to combine chemistry with observation, as did Geology and Meteorology and Biology. Meanwhile, his mapping of the city allowed him to depict modern “Man” in “his” environment: the spontaneous, natural machine of the industrial economy.

Yet the very project to which Jevons was dedicated, the uncovering of all the secrets of nature, and the compiling of all the knowledge of the modern world, would only lead to an ever-increasing level of complexity, and as a result, an ever-increasing will to specialisation. And the borders between distinct fields of inquiry, so pliable in the hands of the gentleman scientist of the nineteenth century, would become ever more rigid and defined. No contemporary economist, for example, would ever seriously entertain a parallel between their work and that of a photographer. But in the utility of his techniques of observation, shifting from chemistry to photography to political economy and then back again, Jevons’ example allows us a glimpse of the always constructed, always paradigmatic nature of any grand theory, no matter how omnipotent it may appear.


Black , C. (ed) (1972-1981) Papers and Correspondence of William Stanley Jevons, London: Royal Economic Society

Crary, J. (1992) Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century, Cambridge: MIT Press

Engels, F. (1987) The Condition of the Working Class in England, London: Penguin

Galbraith, J.K. (1987) A History of Modern Economics, London: Penguin

Griffiths, T. (1996) Hunters and Collectors, Melbourne: Cambridge University Press

Jevons, W.S. 'Remarks Upon the Social Map of Sydney' (unpublished manuscript), Mitchell Library, Sydney

Keynes, J.M.  ‘Lives of the Economists’, Collected Works of J.M. Keynes

Maas, H. (2001) ‘Mechanical Reasoning: William Stanley Jevons and the Making of Modern Economics’ (PhD thesis), University of Amsterdam

Images reproduced by courtesy of the University Librarian and Director, John Rylands University Library, The University of Manchester.


William Stanley Jevons photographic albums can be seen online at John Rylands University Library Manchester,

For more by Lindsay Barrett and Matthew Connell on Jevons in Sydney, see also ‘Jevons and the logic ‘piano’’ by Lindsay Barrett and Matthew Connell, Rutherford Journal at: