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Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography at the National Portrait Gallery

The Evening Sun (Iphigenia), c 1860, by Oscar Rejlander

The Victorians lived in a world flooded with new optical instruments and physiological investigations, provoking anxiety about technological progress and the nature of beauty. Early photographers – like Julia Margaret Cameron, Lewis Carroll, Clementina Harwarden and Oscar Rejlander – faced these issues head-on when experimenting with a fledgling medium. This exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, however, emphasises composition over novelty, pushing its audience to consider these photographers, shown together for the first time, as artists akin to painters.

While iconic portraits of celebrities like Tennyson and Rossetti fit the gallery setting, the emotive ‘art photographs’ featuring ordinary figures provoke the freshest ideas. Remarkably, their stylised backdrops and quietened narratives echo the rhythms and motifs of later Aesthetic Movement paintings. Rejlander, for instance, uses the myth of Iphigenia as a mere vehicle for capturing the sensuous beauty of a woman draped in fabric, whilst Hawarden plays with doubling and mirroring in the domestic sphere. Indeed, the most theatrical pictures are scientific: in 1872, Darwin commissioned a series of wildly animated self-portraits from Rejlander for his study of facial expressions.

The interactive displays are subtle and effective. Pinned beneath a stereoscopic photograph is a pair of lenses enabling the viewer to see twinned images combine in 3D, while a short video demonstrates the laborious wet-plate collodian process used to create these mid-century images. Stimulating, too, are the rarely exhibited glass negatives of Carroll and Rejlander, illuminated at the press of button.

While the final image, a portrait of Robert Browning, is speckled with star-like dust marks, it is Cameron’s photograph of the astronomer John Herschel which feels the most transcendent. His arresting gaze cutting through the soft focus, this pioneer of photographic technology, called ‘High Priest’ by Cameron, seems to reach out across time, as if challenging us to reconsider the possibilities of a medium he helped to create.

The exhibition runs until 20 May 2018.

Photographic Study (Clementina Maude), 1863–4, by Clementina Hawarden

This article was first published in SEE:TWO, The Courtauldian’s printed publication. You can find the full first issue of SEE here:

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