Visual Modernity and the Industrial Subterranean, 1826 - 1941

Date of Award

Spring 2022

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


History of Art

First Advisor

Barringer, Timothy


AbstractVisual Modernity and the Industrial Subterranean, 1826 – 1941 Shirlynn Sham 2022 This dissertation argues that the technological mastery of the subterranean realm in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is crucial to the evolution of visual modernity. Throughout this period of rapid infrastructural modernization, major underground public works projects radically transformed the urban fabric of cities in the trans-Atlantic world, initially through widespread excavations that visibly tore up the metropolitan landscape, and later through the sleek new velocities of the railway era. A dominant issue that attended this period of urban renovation was visual legibility: how did engineers, inventors and bureaucrats make the new invention of manufactured underground space intelligible and acceptable for a skeptical public? What visual strategies were used by stakeholders and artists to promote the industrial subterranean as a safe and usable space? How did a wary public in turn make sense of the mess of industrial materials interwoven through their daily lives, and how do scholars of the histories of art, visual culture, and technology today consider such infrastructural chaos in the writing of history? Through a series of case studies spanning from the 1820s to the 1940s, this dissertation charts a trajectory from the shadows of danger, disaster, and sublimity associated with the nascent moments of subterranean development, to the hypermodern structures of order, hygiene, and omniscient visibility. Beginning with the construction of the world’s first underwater tunnel in 1826, Chapter 1 examines the visual culture surrounding the construction, operation, and spectacular display of Marc and Isambard Brunel’s Thames Tunnel project in London. Dubbed an “eighth wonder of the world” and a feat of “heroic engineering” at the time, the Thames Tunnel project galvanized the visual interest of Britain and the world, and was the most popular site of industrial tourism in nineteenth-century London. This chapter analyzes the different visual strategies that the Brunels and their draftsmen used to picture underground industrial space for a disbelieving and superstitious public. The case of the Thames Tunnel provides an instructive look at the early challenges of visualization posed by the industrial subterranean, and demonstrates the way that new modern visual mediums were practically instrumentalized to tackling this unique visual challenge. Chapter 2 studies two separate archives of photographs from the 1860s that document the construction of London’s Metropolitan Railway and the Parisian sewers respectively. This chapter argues that these photographic bodies served as a means of visualizing and emblematizing a critical moment of capital formation in the nineteenth century. A key stake of this chapter lies in the messiness of process, and in the visibility of such process in the visual narratives of nineteenth-century modernity. Chapter 3 examines the infrastructures, labors, and products of early cinema through the lens of a materialist history. The central object of this chapter is Thomas Edison’s Black Maria film studio – the world’s first film production studio – which was built in 1893 at the site of his laboratory campus in West Orange, New Jersey, close to Edison’s ore-milling experiments on the same campus. The proximity of the film studio to an industrial underground operation results in material resonances in the visual form of the early moving image, and provides a discursive avenue for considering the occlusion of the non-white body on film and in film history scholarship. Chapter 4 explores the visual program of the London Underground train network in the 1930s, including its modernist graphic posters, its typography, and its station architecture. It proposes that the London Underground was the site of a unique synthesis of British visual modernism with the practical needs of learning how to use a vast subterranean network of trains. Finally, this dissertation concludes with an analysis of Henry Moore’s tube shelter drawings, and, as a corollary, reflects on how visual entropy and material frictions – as refracted through the infrastructural chaos of the industrial subterranean projects – can trouble historical narratives that uncritically privilege the supremacy of Western development.

This document is currently not available here.