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How the Giants of Victorian Photography Introduced Art to the Medium

  • Oscar Rejlander - Two ways of Life, 1856-7, Victorian photography had weird post mortem fascination with death like portraying a deceased loved family or a dead daguerreotype
March 1, 2018
Andreja Velimirović is a passionate content writer with a knack for art and old movies. Majoring in art history, he is an expert on avant-garde modern movements and medieval church fresco decorations. Feel free to contact him via his Linkedin profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/andreja-velimirovi%C4%87-74068a68/

The National Portrait Gallery in London is about to stage one of the year’s most peculiar and interesting exhibitions that will unfold in the following months – the gallery is preparing to display a selection of photographs by four of the most celebrated figures in Victorian photography. Titled Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography, this upcoming show celebrates four key nineteenth-century figures – Lewis Carroll (1832–98), Julia Margaret Cameron (1815–79), Oscar Rejlander (1813–75) and Lady Clementina Hawarden (1822-65).

Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography will examine the relationship between the four ground-breaking photographers, and it will feature some of the most breath-taking images from the early photographic history.

This event will be the first time the portraits by these four artists are presented as a single exhibition. Besides allowing us to view some previously unseen works, it will also present the famous first instances of photo-montage, a trait of their work whose real creative impact wasn’t felt until the early years of the 20th century.

Julia Margaret Cameron - Post Mortem Mountain Nymph photograph, Sweet Liberty of Death Photos, 1866; Post mortem stands for doing something to someone after death
Julia Margaret Cameron – Mountain Nymph, Sweet Liberty, 1866. Courtesy Wilson Centre for Photography

Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography

Due to their willingness to experiment and go a mile further than where their contemporaries were prepared to do, the four photographers in question left a deep mark in photographic history, a mark that can still be felt to this day. Their radical attitudes towards photography led them to make an improbable alliance which was unlike any other art grouping of its time.

Oscar Rejlander was a Swedish émigré with a past shrouded in mystery, Julia Margaret Cameron was an expatriate originally from the colonial Ceylon (today’s Sri Lanka), Lewis Carroll was an Oxford academic and a talented writer of fantasy literature, and Lady Clementina Hawarden was the child of a Scottish naval hero and a Spanish beauty.

Carroll, Cameron and Hawarden all studied under the guidance of Rejlander, who was the oldest and the most experienced photographer of the group at the time the four met. They maintained long-lasting and fruitful associations that eventually led to many breakthroughs in photographic portraiture and narrative.

The group was heavily influenced by historical painting, as well as by the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood and together, they were able to create the conceptual bridge that can now be viewed as something connecting contemporary photography with its earliest predecessor.

Clementina Hawarden - Photographic Look Taken Study; Daguerreotype was used for the dead, when, in the case of death, a post mortem image of the deceased was taken
Clementina Hawarden – Photographic Study (Clementina Maude), early 1860s. Courtesy The MMOA, New York

Forgotten Photography from the Past We Should Explore

Visitors of the National Portrait Gallery in London will be able to see how each of the four photographers approached same subjects in different ways. Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography will include a rich selection of portraits of sitters such as Charles Darwin, Alice Liddell, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Thomas Carlyle, George Frederick Watts and Ellen Terry.

Dr Nicholas Cullinan, the Director of the National Portrait Gallery who’s obviously looking forward to the event just as much as we are, said the following when he was asked about what will be on display when the 1st of March comes around:

The National Portrait Gallery has one of the finest holdings of Victorian photographs in the world. As well as some of the Gallery’s rarely seen treasures, such as the original negative of Lewis Carroll’s portrait of Alice Liddell and images of Alice and her siblings being displayed for the first time, this exhibition will be a rare opportunity to see the works of all four of these highly innovative and influential artists.

One of the show’s true highlights will be the presentation of the finest surviving print of Oscar Rejlander’s famous picture Two Ways of Life of 1856-7, an image that saw the photographer apply his pioneering technique of combining several different negatives (over 30 separate ones) to create a single final image. This picture is the reason many like to call Oscar The Father of Photoshop as he was one of the first to deal with photo-montage, at least at that creative scale.

Editors’ Tip: Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography

The work of Oscar Rejlander, Julia Margaret Cameron, Lewis Carroll and Lady Clementina Hawarden embodies the very best of photos from the Victorian era. These giants of 19th-century photography experimented with new approaches to picture-making and shaped attitudes toward photography that have informed artistic practice ever since.

The Often Overlooked Magic of Victorian Pictures

When people are asked to discuss about Victorian photography, many will usually start talking about the stiff portraits of women in crinoline dresses and images of men with bowler hats. However, the true avant-garde Victorian photography was far from being as simple as that.

The Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography exhibition will show us how four brave explorers gave a birth to a new idea that photographs can be a lot more than what their contemporaries had in mind – raw, edgy and experimental, the works of Cameron, Carroll, Hawarden and Rejlander forever changed the way people think about photography and there’s a strong case to be made that the subsequent history of the medium would surely not be the same if these four artists were not a big part of its early development.

These photographers are also one of the main reasons why contemporary photography has such an expressive power as it does. All of them studied the depths of the human emotion and the best ways of capturing it within the camera’s frame, something so revolutionary back then that it can now comfortably be called a true milestone of photographic history.

Lewis Carroll - Alice Liddell photograph, 1858 / Lewis Look Carroll - Alice Liddell photograph, 1870; Look at the way post mortem daguerreotype artists loved to embrace dead or the death of someone like a deceased family member
Left: Lewis Carroll – Alice Liddell, 1858. Courtesy National Portrait Gallery, London / Right: Lewis Carroll – Alice Liddell, 1870. Courtesy National Portrait Gallery, London

Victorian Photos Art Exhibition at The National Portrait Gallery

Drawn from both public and private collections on an international level, Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography will feature some of the most mesmerizing images in photographic history and give us valuable insights into what made these four key nineteenth-century figures tick. By exploring their bold and experimental approaches to capturing images, the exhibition will precisely display just how much modern and contemporary photographers really owe to Carroll, Cameron, Rejlander and Hawarden.

Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography, a show celebrating vital moments in picture-making history, will be on display between the 1st of March and the 20th of May 2018 at the National Portrait Gallery in London, England.

Featured image: Oscar Rejlander – Two ways of Life, 1856-7. Courtesy Moderna Museet, Stockholm. All images courtesy the National Portrait Gallery