Alice Liddell by Lewis Carroll, 1858 © National Portrait Gallery, London

A Trick of the Light

9th March 2018

In the middle years of the 19th century, four individuals – Julia Margaret Cameron, Lewis Carroll, Lady Clementina Hawarden and Oscar Rejlander – revolutionised portrait photography with their new naturalistic approach. Jack Watkins visits a recently opened National Portrait Gallery exhibition devoted to these ground-breaking artists…

“When people think of Victorian photography, they sometimes think of stiff, fusty portraits of women in crinoline dresses, and men in bowler hats,” says the National Portrait Gallery’s Head of Photography, Phillip Prodger. But it wasn’t always like that, he argues, and certainly not in the images in his persuasively curated Victorian Giants: The Birth Of Art Photography. “Here visitors can see the birth of an idea – raw, edgy, experimental – the Victorian avant-garde, not just in art photography, but in art writ large.”

Of the four ‘giants’ whose work is on view here, Lewis Carroll is probably the only name familiar to most people, and even that would be for his story Alice in Wonderland rather than for his photos. However, he, Oscar Rejlander, Julia Margaret Cameron and Lady Clementina Hawarden were united in their interest in breaking free of the stuffy conventions of formal studio portraiture, penetrating beyond the surface appearance to reveal something of the deeper character beneath.

To be fair they were, of course, helped a little by advances in photographic technology. Early calotype and daguerreotype processes were slow, awkward and cumbersome, and although wet plate collodion wasn’t exactly speedy by later standards it was a considerable advance. “Some of the old stiffness melted away,” says Prodger, “and capturing subtleties of mood and movement became possible. We begin to see the hint of a smile or a grimace, the psychology of expression, a glimpse into personality.” Of course, the majority of jobbing photographers went on producing rather wooden, expressionless portraits for decades to come – but not these four.

The most senior of the quartet, Oscar Rejlander was a Swedish émigré who first set up a photography studio in the Midlands in 1856 before moving on to London seven years later. Known for his mischievous sense of humour, he also pioneered the use of combination photography, that is, the use of two or more negatives to create a scene… what you might call today, with the aid of more advanced technology, photoshop. Some people were unimpressed when he produced Two Ways Of Life in 1860, which showed Rejlander himself in the centre of the frame, neighboured on opposing sides by figures representing the Virtues and the Vices. He used 32 negatives to build up the picture and many asked what sort of trickery was this, instead of recognising his skill in getting so many figures to pose in such an exact way that the photo was as convincing as a conventional artwork.

By the 1860s Rejlander had moved on to concentrate mainly on portrait photography and it was his ability to create portraits that caught his subjects in such casual, seemingly unguarded poses that caught the attention of the other three. In these days when 'everybody’s a photographer', capturing the most humdrum of moments at the tiniest click, it’s easy to walk past some of the pictures, but Lejlander’s ability to grasp the passing moment was something new. Such images appear in an album recently acquired by the National Portrait Gallery. It was considered remarkable enough in its day to be sent to the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII), and then on to Pope Pius IX, before going on to Queen Victoria, who is known to have had it in her possession for three weeks

It’s hardly surprising that, as an expert in expressive portraiture, Rejlander acted as something of a mentor – to Julia Margaret Cameron in particular. She’d only taken up photography at the age of 48, after meeting Rejlander who taught her the photographic basics, including how to print an image. She went on to become the most widely known Victorian portrait photographer of her day, although her wealthy background dictated that she was considered an amateur.

Cameron’s slightly out-of-focus approach was derided as slipshod by some, but was actually deliberate, done to convey, she explained, “faithfully, the greatness of the inner as well as the features of the outer man.” There was an element of idealism in this, as her choice of sitters tended to be those whose achievements she felt shone in opposition to the materialism of the age. Among the best examples of her 'psychological studies” in the show are scientist Sir John Herschel and historian Thomas Carlyle. Posing figures against a dark backdrop was considered to achieve a Rembrandt-like chiaroscuro effect. Also here is Cameron’s beautiful study of the actress Ellen Terry, lost in thought. Terry was considered the finest exponent of the art of naturalism in her own field of Victorian stage acting.

Lady Clementina Hawarden was the opposite of Cameron in that she picked up a camera when she was very young, and was dead by the age of 43. Yet they came from similarly privileged backgrounds, and their work is often thought comparable. Inevitably, her relatively short life means there are fewer of her pictures here than of the others, but what is included is effective all the same. She tended to concentrate on taking pictures of members of her family, which may have been why she was able to achieve such informal results. Particularly effective is a photo of two non-shrinking violets, Isabella Grace and Clementina Maude, chins up, staring combatively into the lens: a duo who definitely had attitude.

It’s often thought that Lewis Carroll, who had come into contact with Rejlander when he asked for advice on how to set up his own studio, was obsessed with taking the picture of Alice Liddell, the inspiration for his most famous book. In fact, points out Prodger, Carroll, by profession a mathematician and magician, only took her photo on her own 12 times out of the known total of 2,600 images he made in his lifetime, and always in the company of a guardian. It’s easy to see why he considered her worth concentrating on, though. Even when photographed with her sisters Edith and Ina, she has a presence which commands the frame. Incidentally, a photograph of a child in the Victorian era was often considered an accomplishment, and when displayed at one of the salons, was guaranteed to draw admiring comments. Whereas adults could be relied upon to stand still and not fidget, getting a youngster to do that in those days of slow exposures times was a significant challenge – and so child photography was considered the work of a virtuoso.

Among the other featured 'big name' figures are Alfred Tennyson and Charles Darwin, who apparently thought Rejlander’s pictures of him were muddy and unclear, not meeting the fierce standards of scientific scrutiny. Darwin was maybe missing the point. For me, one of the best images in the show is a photo no self-respecting cameraman would allow to be reproduced today – Julia Margaret Cameron’s picture of Robert Browning taken in 1866. She has allowed the speck marks that cover his picture, which must have been caused by dust settling on the plate after it was sensitised, to remain. Shockingly unprofessional? Or was it, as the caption says in this lovingly curated exhibition, to enable the poet to be seen as a 'transcendent figure emerging from a field of stars”?

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