The Birth of Art Photography
The National Portrait Gallery’s latest major exhibition offers something different to the usual portraits visitors expect to see. The concept of “art” is difficult to define and everyone has their own opinion as to what falls into that category. Victorian Giants introduces the idea of art photography by looking back at the four most celebrated figures who changed attitudes and artistic approaches in relation to photography, art and portraiture, which has influenced artists ever since.
Endorsed by HRH the Duchess of Cambridge, a patron of the gallery and an aspiring amateur photographer, this exhibition contains a hundred or so images taken during the latter half of the 19th century when a new developing technique was underway. Gone were the days of unwieldy Daguerreotype processes, replaced by wet-plate collodion, allowing photographers to take faster, sharper and more versatile shots.
A single photograph stands alone at the entrance to the exhibition, enticing visitors in with a suggestion of the portraits to come. Although not much is known about the sitter, Mountain Nymph, Sweet Liberty (1866) reveals the emotional and powerful charge of Julia Margaret Cameron’s (one of the four photographers) style of portraiture.
As the exhibition reveals, the four photographers were often inspired by various literature and attempted to capture fictional scenes or characters in their work. In this instance, the title of the photograph was taken directly from a John Milton poem, L’Allegro (1645). “Come, and trip it as ye go / On the light fantastick toe, / And in thy right hand lead with thee, / The Mountain Nymph, sweet Liberty.”
Of the four photographers, only one was a professional. Oscar Gustaf Rejlander (1813-75) was a Swedish émigré who came to England and set up a photographic studio in Wolverhampton in 1856. He later moved to London in 1863 where he learnt the new process of developing photographs, wet-plate collodion. This involved pouring collodion onto a glass plate and exposing it to light, via a camera, to capture the desired image.
Rejlander was known for his expressive portraits, often experimenting in order to perfect his photographs. He became an expert at photomontage in which two or more negatives were combined together to create a completely new image. By this method, people could be added into or removed from photographs as necessary or two very different scenes merged to form an impossible landscape.
The National Portrait Gallery has recently acquired a photo-album of previously unseen portraits, many of which are included in this exhibition. The head of photographs, Dr Phillip Prodger told Art Fund, “The Rejlander album becomes one of the jewels in the crown of our already impressive collection of 19th-century photographs.” It changed the way Victorian photography was perceived, particularly in relation to the extent of experimentation with a comparatively new medium.
Unlike the stiff, wooden portraits associated with the Victorian era, Rejlander’s photographs were life-like and natural. He captured sitters in natural, sensitive poses, such as staring into space deep in thought – a fleeting, almost private moment. It was this evanescent style that inspired the remaining three photographers that make up the Victorian Giants: Julia Margaret Cameron, Clementina Hawarden, and Lewis Carroll.
Lewis Carroll is by far the most famous of the group due to his popular children’s book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). Although often working under his pseudonym, the Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-98) was a lecturer in mathematics at Christ Church, Oxford University and picked up photography as a hobby in approximately 1856. Preferring to work outdoors, many of his portraits are situated in gardens where natural elements frame the model or sitters.
Carroll specialised in pictures of children, which make up half of all his known photographs. Understanding the complexities of working with youngsters, Carroll ensured a parent or governess was always present at the photoshoot. To entertain the children, he often initiated a game of dress up in which they would pretend to be heroes from works of fiction. An example is Captive Princess where one of his favourite models Alexandra “Xie” Kitchin (1864-1925), a daughter of a work colleague, poses as the princess, complete with crown, from the Golden Legend, awaiting rescue from the heroic St George.
Being a mathematician, Carroll was interested in the preciseness of angles and lighting, lining up additional light sources to achieve a particular size and direction of the shadow. It is clear from the photographs in this exhibition that Carroll put a lot of thought into his portraits in order to produce the best possible outcome.
Refreshingly, particularly for the era, the other two photographers are female. Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-79), originally from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) took up photography during her 40s on the Isle of Wight after receiving a camera from her daughter in 1863. As seen in the first photograph of the exhibition, Cameron was particularly interested in Arthurian, legendary or heroic themes and other allegorical subjects.
Cameron usually used family members, friends and the local villagers as her models, however, she also took photographs of well-known people. Her portraits have been described as Rembrandt-like due to the dark, natural backgrounds and the depthless focus on the sitter’s face. Examples of this technique are the portraits of Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), a distinguished historian, and the astronomer J.F.W. Herschel (1792-1871). Both men have an ethereal appearance, their hair and facial features emerging from the darkness.
Last but not least, the fourth photographer is Clementina Maude, Viscountess Hawarden (1822-65) who had a short but prolific stint as a photographer. Picking up the camera just under a decade before she died at 42 from pneumonia, Hawarden produced around 800 photographs, the majority involving her eight children.
Unlike the others, Hawarden photographed full-length figures more often than head and shoulder portraits, creating emotional scenes. Rather than focusing on the faces of her models, Hawarden thought carefully about the overall composition, draping fabrics to create a background, or employing props such as furniture.
A theme that initially tied the photographers together is childhood innocence. Victorians viewed children as pure souls who had not yet been affected by the corrupt realities of life. Their presence in artworks portrays the raw, unsullied youth that eventually gets lost as they approach adulthood, which makes the viewer want to care for and protect them from the rest of the world.
Photographing children was not an easy feat, therefore, these images display the skill and patience each of the four photographers possessed. Although children are still not easy models to work with today due to their inclination to fidget, capturing a child’s portrait in the late 1800s was much more difficult. Early cameras had long exposure times, requiring the sitter to remain completely still for at least 30 seconds. The slightest movement could ruin the picture.
Lewis Carroll had plenty of opportunities to photograph children due to his close friendship with the Liddell family. Henry Liddell (1811-98) was the dean of Christ Church, Oxford, where Carroll was employed and was a great supporter of his photographic experimentation. The Liddell family consisted of four children, the fourth being Alice (1852-1934) who inspired Carroll to write Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel, Through the Looking Glass (1871).
Although Alice Liddell was a favourite of Carroll, only twelve solo photographs exist, which is a mere handful compared with Xie Kitchin of whom he produced 45 portraits. Carroll also produced several photographs of Alice’s sister Ina and several with more than one Liddell child present. It is unknown why Carroll eventually stopped spending time with the family and only one photograph of Alice is thought to exist from the period after the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Carroll was not the only photographer to use Alice as a model, Julia Margaret Cameron made several portraits a few years later. The example displayed at the National Portrait Gallery is a profile shot of the 21-year-old Alice, which shows the physical changes from a cropped-haired little girl to a young adult with long, flowing locks. This photograph was titled Aletheia (1872), which is Greek for true or faithful.
Although the four photographers never collaborated as a group, they often photographed the same sitters, including a few famous faces. Rejlander, Cameron and Carroll produced photographs of the Poet Laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92) and his sons Hallam and Lionel. The Tennyson family lived near Cameron on the Isle of Wight allowing for plenty of photographic opportunities. Rejlander, when tutoring Cameron, took the opportunity to visit the family, and Carroll came across them whilst on holiday in the Lake District.
Cameron produced the greater amount of photographs of Tennyson and experimented with style, pose and light. The poet was impressed with her skills and used one profile shot, titled The Dirty Monk (1865) as the frontispiece for a publication of his poems, Idylls of the King (1885).
Rejlander and Cameron were also responsible for taking photographs of Charles Darwin. Once again, the connection between Cameron and Darwin was made whilst on the Isle of Wight, however, Darwin preferred the style of Rejlander. Darwin often used photographs for research purposes when writing his books, particularly after discovering the way the camera could capture emotions and expressions. These were a great visual aid for his writing, and Darwin also hired Rejlander to contribute images to illustrate The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872).
“I am now rich in photographs, for I have found in London Rejlander, who for years has had a passion for photographing all sorts of chance expressions, exhibited on various occassions … instantaneously.” – Darwin, 1871
Portraits of family, friends and famous people allowed the photographers to experiment with the camera, location, light and so forth, however, they took things a step further by controlling the scene they were photographing. It is at this moment the argument that photography is art becomes strongest. In a similar way to painters, photographers have to think about composition, tones and shades and the message behind the overall image.
Occasionally, the four artists dressed their sitters as characters from literature or mythology, for example, Xie Kitchin as the Captive Princess and Tennyson as The Dirty Monk. In other photographs, models were positioned carefully to depict a particular scene, often replicating a well-known painting. A small number of the images displayed as part of Victorian Giants have been based on existing artworks. Some are loosely inspired by them, whereas, others closely resemble the exact portrait.
An example of a photograph based on a painting is Non Angeli sed Angli (1857) taken by Rejlander. It is a pastiche of Raphael’s cherubs in the Sistine Madonna. The two children pose in the exact same position, head on their hands, looking both innocent and mischievous at the same time.
The reason for making pastiches or reinterpretations of historic paintings was to prove to those who considered photography a tool rather than a visual art that photographs could do anything painting could do. Although they could not recreate brushstrokes, the composition, emotion and tone of the image could be produced equally as well with a camera as with a paint brush.
Carroll’s pastiche of Rembrandt’s Andromeda (1630) shows the actress Elizabeth “Kate” Terry chained to the rocks awaiting rescue from the sea monster by her future husband and hero Perseus. In this instance, the photograph is only loosely based on the painting, the position of the model, clothing and backdrop being completely different. Rejlander’s The Virgin in Prayer (1857), however, is a much closer representation of Sassoferrato’s painting of the same name. Rejlander has restaged the painting as closely as possible and, although the camera could not yet capture colour, the photograph is a very close approximation.
Rejlander’s most impressive reinterpretation of an artwork is his partial pastiche of Guido Reni’s Salome with the Head of St John the Baptist (1638-9). Focusing only on the head on a charger, Rejlander produced a powerful likeness of the Baroque painting. As recorded in the new testament, Salome requested and received the head of St John on a platter. Missing from the photograph is Salome holding her prize, however, Rejlander’s biographer believed he intended to use this image as the centrepiece of a larger picture made up of a variety of photographic elements. Unfortunately, Rejlander never got the opportunity to complete this but there are a couple of examples at the National Portrait Gallery of Rejlander’s combination photographs, including one made up of at least 32 separate negatives.
Victorian Giants is both a demonstration of photography as a visual art and a celebration of the development of the camera. Included in the exhibition is a four-minute film demonstrating the nineteenth-century technique of printing photographs using wet-collodion glass-plate negatives and albumen paper.
Although it is still a matter of opinion, the National Portrait Gallery strongly expresses the view that photography belongs under the category of visual art. None of the photographs exhibited is simply a resource for other outcomes and can exist and be displayed in their own right. Some, particularly the innocent photographs of children, are extremely beautiful and full of emotion. They look equally as good framed on a wall as a hand-painted version would.
Some pictures visitors may not care for as much, but it is interesting to see the innovative methods these four photographers experimented with during a time when new technology was only just developing. Compared with what the camera can do today, these photographs feel much more precious than any modern photographer’s work.
Closing on 20th May 2018, Victorian Giants is open daily from 10 am until 6 pm. Tickets cost £10 or £8.50 for visitors over the age of 60. Members and patrons may visit the exhibition for free and National Art Pass Holders receive a 50% discount.