Preview: Victorian giants

A National Portrait Gallery exhibition celebrating four pioneering Victorian photographers has arrived in Sheffield

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In a century and a half photography has gone from being a laborious and exclusive practice to a ubiquitous one. But the experimental attitudes and radical approaches from early photography have gone on to inform artistic practice ever since. Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography is a new exhibition at the Millennium Gallery, Sheffield, featuring some of the best examples of work from the era. Photos by Lewis Carroll (1832–98), Julia Margaret Cameron (1815–79), Oscar Rejlander (1813–75) and Lady Clementina Hawarden (1822-65) have been selected by Dr Sabina Jaskot-Gill, curator of photographs at the National Portrait Gallery, which lends the collection. She talks more about the artists and their techniques. 

Did the four practitioners in Victorian Giants elevate photography to high art?  
Rejlander, Cameron, Carroll and Hawarden are certainly four of the most fascinating photographers of the period, with a shared belief in photography’s artistic status.

Each contributed to the growing field of art photography, recognising that it could be used to forge new ways of visual thinking.

Other photographers certainly contributed to the rise of art photography in Britain and abroad, but circumstances particular to this moment in the 1850s also contributed to photography’s elevated status. In 1853, Victoria and Albert were announced as patrons of the newly established Photographic Society, and they regularly purchased fine examples of art photography from celebrated photographers such as Roger Fenton and Rejlander. Royal patronage influenced the popularity of the medium and helped photography garner public and artistic attention. The existence of strong independent photographic societies also contributed to the debate over photography’s artistic status.

Technical developments also opened new avenues for photographic expression. The slow and cumbersome Daguerreotype and paper negative processes, both invented around 1839, gave way to a new technology, wet-plate collodion, invented in 1851 by Frederick Scott Archer. The collodion process transformed photography – reducing exposure times, producing sharp and detailed images, and also allowing multiple prints to be made from a single negative. This new method, used almost exclusively by Cameron, Carroll, Hawarden and Rejlander, unleashed a new wave of artistic creativity.

Rejlander produced many composite images but had a disdain for them stating: “There can be no gain and there is no honour [in them], only cavill and misrepresentation.” What do you think he would make of our obsession with image manipulation today?
Photographers and critics have wrestled with questions around image manipulation ever since the medium’s invention: should a photographer use the plasticity of the medium – the power to alter and manipulate what the camera captures – to make pictures of events that never happened? Or should photography be based on the unique properties of the camera and lens?

Initially, Rejlander became famous for his composite photographs, best exemplified in his groundbreaking Two Ways of Life (1857), printed from approximately 32 separate negatives, which were masked and printed one after the other in perfect registration. It is with this technique that Rejlander is still most often associated, but in fact, he only made composite prints during a brief four-year period at the beginning of his career. Afterwards he sought a subtler path, and produced direct portraits with psychological charge.

It is impossible to know what Rejlander would make of our obsession with image manipulation today, given that in his lifetime he tried his hand at both manipulated and straight imagery. Rejlander was one of the most vocal advocates for photography’s artistic potential, so one might imagine that he would encourage us to think about photography not just as a way of documenting the world, but as a medium that is also plastic and malleable.

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What did Julia Margaret Cameron set out to achieve with her goal of “combining the real and ideal and sacrificing nothing of truth by all possible devotion to poetry and beauty”?
There is a letter in the National Portrait Gallery archives, written by Cameron in 1864 to her good friend Sir John Herschel – a pioneer in the invention of photography, and credited for coining the terms negative, positive and photograph). In the letter, Cameron states: “My aspirations are to ennoble Photography and to secure for it the character and uses of High Art by combining the real & Ideal & sacrificing nothing of Truth by all possible devotion to poetry and beauty”.

Cameron was a pioneer in her artistic vision, arguing the importance of bringing together observation and imagination. Rather than simply using photography to replicate outward appearances, Cameron’s portraits attempt to convey emotion, feeling and spirit, alluding to something deeper and more intangible than surface appearances.

Atmospheric backgrounds, dramatic lighting and deep chiaroscuro became her signature style. Cameron also boldly experimented with focus – embracing impreciseness and intentionally suppressing details in her pictures, or using focus to draw attention to particular areas of a sitter’s face. Her photographs of eminent cultural figures have become defining portraits of the period.

How did Lady Clementina Hawarden’s approach to photography differ from the other practitioners in Victorian Giants?  
Hawarden first experimented with stereoscopy, a technique for creating the illusion of depth by presenting two slightly offset images that are combined in the brain to give the illusion of three dimensionality. This form of image making was very popular in the Victorian period, and Hawarden made stereoscopic landscapes and portraits, before moving on to large format monocular photographs.

Hawarden’s favoured subjects were her children, especially her adolescent daughters Clementina, Florence and Isabella Grace. The girls often wear costumes and are carefully posed in domestic settings, illuminated by the natural sunlight streaming through large windows at her home in South Kensington. Much like Cameron, Hawarden photographed family members and friends as her sitters, but her use of mirrors, reflections and props is particularly distinctive. With no descriptive titles to provide clues as to how to read the image, Hawarden’s studies suggest narratives but ultimately remain ambiguous and enigmatic.

Unfortunately, Hawarden’s life was cut short at the age of 42 after a bout of pneumonia, just as her career began to blossom, so we can only imagine the type of imagery that she would have gone on to produce.

Should viewers ignore the controversial aspects of Lewis Caroll’s portraiture when viewing this exhibition? 
Much has been written about the relationship between Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell, who inspired his Alice in Wonderland books, with speculation that Carroll developed an unhealthy fixation on the young girl. It is worth mentioning that no claims of impropriety were ever made against Carroll in his lifetime, and he nearly always photographed his children with their parents present.

Certainly Alice and her sisters, Edith and Ina, were some of Carroll’s favoured subjects, but he was not alone in photographing children – Cameron, Hawarden and Rejlander also photographed children extensively. In the Victorian mind, children represented innocence – the potential to experience pure thought and feeling before the corruptions of modern life intervened. Consequently, depictions of children served as a reminder of collective responsibility to protect and nurture young people.

To the photographer, children also posed a particular set of challenges. Fidgety and impatient, children had a tendency to move during the exposure times. An accomplished portrait of a young child would demonstrate the skill of the photographer.

Photography was a laborious and exclusive practice in Victorian times. Have camera phones destroyed the art form? 
Advancements in photographic technologies have constantly driven interesting changes in the history of the medium and produced remarkable results…

Today, in the age of the camera phone, we see photographers returning to historical processes, such as wet-plate collodion, perhaps to re-emphasise the hand of the artist in the creative process. At the same time, camera phone imagery opens up new fields in terms of documentary practice and increased opportunities for citizen journalism. The ubiquitous selfie also provides increased opportunities for self-expression.

Main image: Lewis Carroll’s Edith, Ina and Alice Liddell, 1850

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