Victorian Giants, the birth of art photography

Alerted to the fact that the Victorian Giants exhibition was visiting the Millennium Gallery in Sheffield, I was determined to pay a visit before it ends late in September 2018.  I already had the book of the same name, which accompanies the exhibition However, there is absolutely nothing to compare with being in the presence of the actual photographs by mid 19th century greats, Lewis Carroll, Julia Margaret Cameron, Oscar Rejlander, and Clementina Hawarden.

The Exhibition is a triumph of curating. Visitors are greeted by the sight of large vintage prints of the four artists themselves, accompanied by short biographies. The exhibition of actual prints from the 1850s onwards, which follows, is quite breathtaking.

Victorian Giants, The Birth of Art Photography book

We spent about two hours viewing and discussing the works and reading about their subjects and learning something of the history behind the taking of the photographs. However, what was sadly missing was any technical detail to help non-photographers and non-historians to understand how these works, combining both the science and the art of photography, were actually produced at that time.

Instead we were treated to such art speak as how the photograph conveyed both strength and vulnerability at the same time. To us, as judges of modern works, we might equally comment that the subject looked bored, perhaps due to the very long exposure times, or was precariously balanced, standing on one leg on a chair! Other examples of art speak seemed rather alien to us and we wondered who had dreamed up the interpretations or if they had been snatched from the writings of the authors themselves.

Favourite subjects of the four photographers were children, who were captured, in many cases, in such natural poses that they could have been photographed today and, “art speak” aside, they do display a quality of communication and connection with the photographer which seems to allow us a glimpse into their private world.

This group of artist photographers knew the Pre-Raphaelite painters and frequently dressed their subjects in clothing from a different age to produce romantic studies…just as we do today…and just as the Pre-Raphaelite painters also did then.

Many of Clementina Hawarden’s photographs were of her own daughters…some had strangely cut off corners, perhaps in order to fit into ornate frames?

Oscar Rejlander and his relevance to myself and to Oldham Photographic Society

Everyone will have their favourites. Julia Margaret Cameron is lauded in the world of art photography for her portraits of celebrities of the time and her heroic compositions. Carroll is remembered for his infatuation with the Liddell children, Lorina, Edith, and, especially, Alice and his nude photographs of childhood; Hawarden, for her studies of children in romantic poses. However, it is the work of Rejlander which interests and impresses me the most. Looking through the exhibition, I noticed a photograph by Rejlander which was clearly, to me, a cut-out (extraction from one photograph and given a new background) and was not one of his obvious artistic photomontages. It was labelled as a single photograph, intended to pass as a single photograph, in my opinion, and I wonder how many other viewers would have noticed the cut-out. It appears to have been made retrospectively to fit in with a series of photographs shown later in the exhibition, which were not themselves cutouts but had the same background. Clever man to do it so well over 150 years ago when some people struggle with Photoshop these days, which is much easier.

Oscar Rejlander was probably born in Sweden about 1813 and came to live in Lincoln then moved to Wolverhampton, where he worked as a portrait painter and miniaturist, probably around the mid 1840s. This was an exciting time for photography as the Daguerreotype photograph had become popular with those who could afford it and the science of photography was further advancing to enable a process where a negative image was produced, which enabled photographs to be reproducible and therefore to become more commercialised.

Rejlander soon saw how the detail of his subjects could be better captured in a photograph than a painting and he opened a studio where he specialised in the wet collodian process. He undertook portrait work and made nude studies of children, which were not used commercially, but made available as reference photographs for artists.

Already other photographers were dabbling in the black art of composite art photography, a genre in which I have personally been much engaged in the last couple of decades…and, from about 1854, this also became Rejlander’s passion. In 1856 he made his best-known allegorical work, The Two Ways of Life (used in my heading for this article). This is a composition made from thirty-two separate photographs. Queen Victoria ordered a copy at 10 guineas to present to Prince Albert, which legitimised an image that had been condemned as indecent, depicting, as it did, naked women. This I find a bit odd, as painters and sculptors had depicted naked women many times, but apparently such photographic realism was not to the taste of the average Victorian.

Many of Rejlander’s images were sentimental, dramatic and sometimes theatrical,  a genre with which, again, I can identify. He also worked closely with Henry Peach Robinson, another pioneer of creative montage, or “altered reality”. Their link with Oldham Photographic Society was simply that one of the founding members of the society (John Robert Heaton) was so impressed with their work that he wished to emulate it himself and presented a paper on the subject in 1868. When the society brought in their first competition rules, a year after founding, they forbade the use of more than one negative to make a print, thus holding back photomontage in the society for (as it turned out) over a hundred years and John Robert disappeared from the society very soon afterwards to pursue a career in Scotland!

Charles Darwin by Oscar Rejlander via Wikimedia Commons

When some of us began making montages about 20 years ago, we were, like Rejlander and Robinson,  condemned as cheats and the society was split, just as the Photographic Society of Scotland split in 1861, in response to Rejlander’s work (the latter split and is said to have partly led to the formation of the Edinburgh Photographic Society). But we were not cheats and Rejlander was not a cheat; he was an artist and a scientist; he had great rapport with his subjects; he was the complete photographer and he raised photography to the status of fine art. (IMO)

In 1862, Rejlander moved to London and more or less abandoned his photomontage work. He helped to teach photography to Julia Margaret Cameron and it was in 1871 that Charles Darwin, impressed by Rejlander’s work, commissioned him to produce photographic portraits to illustrate the expression of emotions for his new book.

Rejlander’s Photo Album

Returning to the subject of the “Victorian Giants” exhibition, the pièce de résistance, for me, was one of Rejlander’s own portrait photograph albums, shown in a glass case at the end of the exhibition, open at a page. A four minute slide show alongside depicts all of the portraits in the album and they are magnificent, beautiful, high quality photographs. His quality shone even more than that of the rest of the group and so, for me, Rejlander “takes the biscuit”.

It is a shame that Rejlander died in poverty in 1875 and was buried in an unmarked grave. Truly a Victorian Giant, sixty of his wet collodian prints were later acquired from his widow, by the Royal Photographic Society.

A Victorian Society

Much of the photographic history of this period is included in my own book “A Victorian Society”, written to commemorate 150 years of photography in Oldham…which can be seen at this link.

© Christine Widdall