Victorian Giants of Photography at the National Portrait Gallery, London | BLOUIN ARTINFO
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Victorian Giants of Photography at the National Portrait Gallery, London

“Unknown young woman,” by Oscar Gustav Rejlander, 1863-1866
(© National Portrait Gallery, London)

Most people living in our day and age are awash in photographic images of faces, places and things. These high-quality, high resolution stills get streamed onto their electronic devices at a relentless pace, flooding their Facebook pages and Instagram feeds. Photography feels very much like the medium of the moment. In fact, photography was the medium of the moment a couple of centuries ago, too.

When the camera was first invented, it appealed to a large pool of enthusiasts, both men and women, who used it to represent the world around them in novel ways. Those early photographers asked many of the same questions that today’s do. The National Portrait Gallery in London has brought together four 19th-century pioneers of the medium in an exhibition titled “Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography,” through May 20. Unusually, there are as many women as men: The four ‘giants’ are Oscar Gustaf Rejlander, Lewis Carroll, Julia Margaret Cameron and Clementina Hawarden. The idea for the exhibition came up after the gallery’s 2015 acquisition of an album of Rejlander photographs, considered so valuable to the national patrimony that the UK had placed an export bar on it to give Britain’s museums a chance to purchase it before anyone else could.

The enchanting album chronicled some of Rejlander’s psychological portrait work of the period. “It was crying out to be exhibited, but it needed some context,” said Phillip Prodger, the gallery’s head of photographs and the exhibition’s curator. As the National Portrait Gallery had an extensive collection of images by Cameron and Carroll in hand, the decision was made to program an exhibition that would bring the four photographers together. “It became perfectly logical: two men and two women, working in a similar mode, talking to each other, working together, and reinventing photography in the 1850’s and 1860’s,” said the curator. While Rejlander may not be a household name today, he was the only professional photographer in the group. In fact, at various points in time, he taught the three others. Rejlander was one of the first people to treat photography as an art form rather than as a purely documentary tool. He is also known among the cognoscenti as the “father of Photoshop” — for his technique of patching together many smaller images to produce a single large one. Born in Sweden, and initially a painter, Rejlander became a recognized photographer after moving to London. His approach to photography was not unlike the methods employed by contemporary photographers such as Andreas Gursky.

“Two Ways of Life,” 1856-’57, for instance, was a mash-up of 30 different images and negatives developed on two massive sheets of photographic paper. The other male photographer in the exhibition, Carroll, was, and is, a celebrity. His real name and title were the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. He was a lecturer in mathematics and a logician at Oxford University, though the world remembers him chiefly as the author of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and other works of children’s fiction.

Of the two women photographers in the show, Cameron is by far the more famous one. Born in Kolkata to British parents, she came to the medium in her late forties, when her daughter gave her a camera as a present in 1863. She soon became a trailblazer of the discipline. Hawarden, on the other hand, was a Scottish countess whose career as a photographer was brutally interrupted when she died of pneumonia at the age of 42. At a time in European history when women artists were still very much battling for acknowledgement, female photographers living and working in 19th-century England somehow managed to establish solid reputations for themselves. “It was an area where you had some extraordinarily accomplished women practitioners. Not only were they working, but they were recognized, and their work was discussed and debated as some of the most important work of the day,” Prodger said. Why? “Photography was a kind of new frontier, it was wide open, and there were no rules,” he said. “It was possible for people who had creativity and passion to create their own world for themselves.”

The exhibition will offer a chance for visitors to compare and contrast the way in which famous personalities were pictured by each of the four photographers. Subjects include Charles Darwin, Alice Liddell (of “Alice in Wonderland” fame), the painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the philosopher Thomas Carlyle, the painter George Frederick Watts, and the poet Alfred Tennyson. Lenders include the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and Britain’s Royal Collection. The exhibition will endeavor to show “how avant-garde and forward-thinking these photographers were,” said Prodger. “A key part of the story we’re trying to tell is: is photography an art, and if so, should it be unaltered? Can it be manipulated? Should it obey an artist’s will? Should a photographer make a photograph look like a painting?” Some of those questions “have never gone away.” Another area of scrutiny will be Carroll’s images of Alice Riddell. They’re among the most loved photographs in the gallery’s collection, and for the first time ever, will be shown alongside pictures of Alice as a grown woman. The Met Museum’s “Alice Liddell as Beggar Maid” will also be on display in this section. Questions about the nature of Carroll’s interest in young Alice are bound to resurface. They were first raised in 1933. Shortly after the collected writings of Sigmund Freud were published in English, a young graduate student by the name of Anthony Goldschmidt released a paper titled “Alice in Wonderland Psychoanalyzed” in the New Oxford Outlook journal, and offered a Freudian reading of the book. Goldschmidt charged that the story of Alice was filled with sexual overtones that hinted at the author’s hidden frustrations as a man. According to Goldschmidt, many aspects of the story were plainly erotic: from Alice’s chasing of a white rabbit to her falling into a deep well to her unlocking of doors.

The essay was short, but damaging. Soon, Carroll’s photographs of young girls were being tarred with the same brush, and viewed as signs of the author’s inappropriate interest in them. To Prodger, that reputation is undeserved. “While it is the case that Lewis focused on children more than any other subject, this was a subject that many Victorian photographers were interested in: the idea of childhood as a time of innocence, as a kind of tabula rasa for who we would later become as human beings, was an incredibly powerful concept in the Victorian age,” he said. No accusations were brought against Carroll during his lifetime, and he remained friends with his female subjects as they grew older. At his funeral, in fact, “a number of them stepped forward to eulogize him,” the curator said. Besides, written records show that in the vast majority of cases, the parents were present when the photographs were taken. Ultimately, the show’s purpose is not to put any single photographer in the spotlight, but rather to demonstrate how they interacted. “It examines the relationships between the four photographers, their exchange of ideas, the kind of network that they cast between themselves,” said Prodger. “It’s about a give and take, and absorbing lessons from other people’s work but making it your own.”

— This article appears in the March 2018 edition of Art+Auction