19th Century British Photographs

A year ago I took in the National Gallery of Canada exhibit “19th-Century French Photographs,” and today I took in the British equivalent, which of course is designated “19th-Century British Photographs.”

Henry Fox Talbot, “The Haystack” (1844)

I don’t know that there could indeed be a French-English equivalence, beyond the superficial, marketing sort. Both collections have been drawn from the NGC permanent collection, and there are comparisons to be made. But the comparisons only further the contrasts. In both the English and French exhibits, the photos may be categorized by subject. There were on both sides of the channel landscape photographers, architectural photographers, formal portrait photographers, historical photographers (for example, of warfare), and social documentary photographers. Many if not all took pictures across these artificial boundaries, but it is interesting to note that most photographers did show themselves to be specially suited to one or perhaps two kinds of photography. And the French and English approaches differ in some respects, at least as these have been presented by the curators.

Charles Darwin, by Julia Margaret Cameron

My overall impression of the French exhibit from last year was that it was more human than the English. The portraits in the case of the French were mostly shots of artists and citizens and otherwise ordinary folk.

A good representative example is the unflattering Baudelaire portrait taken by Étienne Carjat, or again the work of A. Le Blondel or Charles Nègre. Among the English portraits I’m unable to come up with a comparison, only (again) contrasts. It is as if everyone who took up portrait photography in nineteenth-century England did so in order to put up a sign in some respectable quarter of London announcing their services to actual and aspiring persons of rank. At the forefront of this socio-economic model was Henry Fox Talbot, considered the inventor of the chemical process which made possible the negative-to-positive photograph.

Charles Baudelaire, by Etienne Carjat

Talbot called his invention “calotype,” and he spent his life in the courts defending the patent, in sharp contrast to the French daguerreotype process (invented by Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre) which was made public domain. Photography in England was thus bound up from the beginning in the British class system, capitalism, and Empire.

The foremost example along these lines is Antoine Francois Jean Claudet, whose work makes no secret of being show-offish. The sets are opulent, the compositions self-conscious and laboured. It happens that British portraits of this era (1850 to 1890) are infected almost without exception with the strain of Empire, and so one is never just looking at a person – one is looking at a Person of Importance in the Most Important Realm. It does get a bit tedious after a while, even when the photos are technically and aesthetically interesting.

Antoine Claudet, Portrait of a Lady

There are exceptions. Julia Margaret Cameron was one of the first female photographers, and perhaps the very first. This exhibit features two of her photos: “Laura,” and “Allegory: Dejátch Alamayu and Báshá Félika.” Her work rather stands out to the contemporary viewer, and although she was harshly criticized in her day, it impressed a few discerning contemporaries as well. Alfred Lord Tennyson, who was her neighbour, asked her to provide the photographs for his publication “Idylls of the King.” I wish they had more of her extraordinary and lovely photos, in particular her famous portraits of Charles Darwin and of Julia Jackson, Cameron’s niece and the mother of Virginia Woolf. She and Roger Fenton, who was sent to document Britain’s involvement in the Crimean War, were for me the highlights of this exhibit, and I could have stood to have had much more.

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