Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography – National Portrait Gallery

Victorian Giants exhibition

I went to an exhibition of Victorian photography at the National Portrait Gallery, Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography. The exhibition featured four photographers: Oscar Rejlander, Julia Margaret Cameron, Clementina Hawarden and Lewis Carroll. These four were pioneers in the world of photography in the 1960s, sharing ideas and inspiration and creating a body of work that still looks radical decades on.

I have some familiarity with the work of Cameron and Carroll, but I was previously unaware of Hawarden and Rejlander. I particularly liked Hawarden’s portrait of a woman by a mirror, in which we see both the woman and her reflection. I also enjoyed Rejlander’s composite photograph of decadent nudes, which resembled a dramatic painting.

There was lots to enjoy in the exhibition, from candid photographs of children (I loved the grumpy child photographed by Carroll) to portraits of important figures of the age and unknown sitters dressed up as mythological figures.

Magnum Photos Now: New Approaches to the Archive

I went to this New Approaches to the Archive talk, part of Magnum Photos Now, a series of lectures about Magnum Photos in this year of their 70th anniversary, because I work in the field of libraries and archives and was interested to learn more about a photographic archive. I expected the talk to be more about the archives themselves, but actually the evening was fascinating even though it wasn’t really what I had expected.

The evening was made up of two talks. The first was delivered by Diane Dufour, director of Le Bal, Paris, who recounted her experiences with exploring the Magnum Photo archives and exploring the concepts behind the photos taken, as well as looking at the differences in opinions of the photographers involved. One section was particularly telling, with pictures of Jewish people settling in Israel, while another photographer’s work showing displaced Palestinians was not published anywhere.

Dr Mark Sealy, curator and cultural historian, then talked about the Eurocentric gaze of typical photography archives and made the important point that the first photographs appeared at the same time as slavery was just coming to an end in the UK – as part of a wider point that a photo shows just one aspect of the world at a particular time. He showed us photographs by and of black people during the twentieth century and emphasised the importance of having diversity among the people who are able to search the archives in the first place.

As someone who works in the field of libraries and archives, the talk was an interesting look at the varied uses which can be made of those archives, and their importance in terms of culture and history.

Mat Collishaw: Thresholds – New Wing, Somerset House

When I read about this exhibition, I knew I wanted to check it out. Mat Collishaw: Thresholds is a unique recreation of William Henry Fox Talbot’s first exhibition of photographs in Birmingham in 1839. But instead of plonking down the original photos and inviting audiences to view them again, the exhibition is more daring: it uses virtual reality technology to take you back to the original exhibition.

The actual room you enter, in a corner of the New Wing at Somerset House, is stark white and filled with plain white cases. When you put on the special backpack, with glasses and headphones, however, the space is transformed. Around you is a recreation of the original exhibition space. In front of you, cases showcase the impressive photographs that were originally displayed, and you can pick them up to take a closer look. Mice run along the floor, spiders creep over the paintings, and a fire burns in the corner. Outside, you can see guards policing the streets, and towards the end of the experience you can even see and hear the Chartist protesters who rioted in 1839 on the streets of Birmingham.

The actual experience lasts six minutes, though you need to allow time for the introduction and to get your equipment set up. Though short, it’s unforgettable, and its use of very modern technology reminds you of how cutting-edge the science of photography would have seemed to exhibition attendees in the mid-nineteenth century. The exhibition isn’t on for very long, but I’d urge you to catch it before 11 June.

Fox Talbot: Dawn of the Photograph – Science Museum

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I visited the exhibition Fox Talbot: Dawn of the Photograph, held at the Science Museum. Often called the “father of the photograph”, William Henry Fox Talbot pioneered the negative-positive process, a technique that formed the basis of photography around the world for over 150 years. The exhibition contains many photographs taken by him, as well as by those whom he inspired. Many of Talbot’s photos feature his home, Lacock Abbey, in Wiltshire. Though the subjects are often mundane: a door, a tree, a broom leaning against the wall – they are exciting because they are among the first photographic representations of such things.

The exhibition did take a fairly scientific slant (unsurprisingly, it’s the Science Museum after all), which went over my head at times. However, there were snippets of fascinating information, too. In France, another photographic pioneer, Hippolyte Bayard, was so annoyed that his contemporary Louis Daguerre seemed to be getting all the credit that he created a photograph of himself as a drowned man with a suicide note on the back. Pretty dramatic. Ultimately, it was the pictures that were the fascinating things for me.

The exhibition runs until 11 September, so there’s still time to catch it.

Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers – Barbican Art Gallery

I attended the exhibition Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers at the Barbican Art Gallery. Curated by the British photographer Martin Parr, the exhibition consisted of photographs by international photographers chronicling Britain from the 1930s onwards, and it was fascinating.

The usual stereotypes – queueing, drinking tea, sitting on the beach – were present, but there were many quirky and unusual shots. Most people photographed were ordinary people going about their day-to-day lives: even the pictures taken during the Coronation of George VI concentrated on the crowds rather than the royals. The exhibition is going to Manchester later this year, and it’s worth catching it if you can.

Gathered Leaves: The Photographs of Alec Soth – Science Museum

I had some time left at the weekend so popped into the Science Museum to visit the exhibition Gathered Leaves: The Photographs of Alec Soth. The exhibition, which takes place in the Museum’s Media Space, showcases works by one of the world’s most famous documentary photographers, including pictures from four collections: Sleeping by the Mississippi (2004), Niagara (2006), Broken Manual (2010) and the most recent, Songbook (2014).

I’m no photography expert but I admired the poignant, intimate pictures, capturing the personalities of characters across America and the different, often vast landscapes. The collection of Mississippi images was my favourite, with its echoes of great American literature such as the work of Mark Twain. Definitely worth seeing.

Julia Margaret Cameron – V&A

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The Julia Margaret Cameron exhibition at the V&A opened yesterday, and since I was meeting up with a friend in the museum café, I suggested that we pay it a visit, as she is also interested in Cameron’s work. The first thing we noticed on approaching the entrance to the free exhibition was the installation outside allowing you to take Victorian-style pictures. I’m not convinced my photo looks particularly authentic – the glittery pink bag strap is a bit of a giveaway – but I think this will be really popular with exhibition-goers. You can share your pictures on social media using the hashtag #VictorianMe.

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#VictorianMe

The free exhibition, held in one room on the first floor, marks the bicentenary of Cameron’s birth, and is made up of over 100 photographs from the Museum’s collection. The V&A, then the South Kensington Museum, was the only museum to exhibit Cameron’s work during her lifetime: the founding director, Sir Henry Cole, presented her work in 1865. In 1868, the Museum offered Cameron the use of two rooms as a studio.

The photographs exhibited include portraits of the great and the good – among them Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and Charles Darwin – and Cameron’s own servants and family members, many of whom were posed as biblical, historical or allegorical characters.

Julia Margaret Cameron’s style was unique for the time, and wasn’t always appreciated. I personally love the out-of-focus technique she employed, which give her pictures an ethereal, dreamlike quality, which is unique in Victorian photography. Many contemporary critics were less than complimentary. One of the things that surprised me was seeing how confident Cameron grew as her career developed: in her letters she describes her own work as innovative and groundbreaking. On reflection, this lack of modesty probably helped her promote and establish herself in an industry dominated by men.

The most interesting thing about the exhibition, for me, was the inclusion of some “imperfect” works that Cameron herself did not want exhibited or sold. These show the issues that Cameron had in creating her work, including cracks in the images and damage to the negatives. Critics may have seen Cameron’s work as clumsy and flawed, but she had high standards of her own, knew what she wanted and how to achieve it, and was able to turn her mistakes to her advantage.

The exhibition runs until 21 February next year. While you’re in South Kensington it is also worth visiting the Science Museum’s exhibition, Julia Margaret Cameron: Influence and Intimacy, which I have also written about.

Julia Margaret Cameron: Influence and Intimacy – Science Museum

The Science Museum‘s Media Space is currently home to two exhibitions, one of which focuses on one of my favourite Victorian photographers. Julia Margaret Cameron: Influence and Intimacy, which is free to visit, contains pictures from the National Photography Collection, taken largely from the Herschel Album (1864), 94 images which Cameron compiled into a book, feeling that they were her finest. Originally a gift to the scientist Sir John Herschel, Cameron’s friend and mentor, the works still have a great deal of power even after all these years.

I first came across Julia Margaret Cameron’s work during a holiday on the Isle of Wight. She took up photography relatively late in life, when she was living in Dimbola Lodge on the island. I was fascinated by her work, and this exhibition, which also includes her camera lens – the only surviving piece of her photographic equipment – and handwritten autobiographical notes, reminded me why. The photographs from the Herschel Album, and those Cameron took later in life in Sri Lanka, are beautiful, artistic and imaginative, taking inspiration from fairytales and Biblical stories.

Open until 28 March next year, this is the first of two exhibitions in South Kensington mounted to mark the 200th anniversary of Cameron’s birth. The second opens at the V&A on 28 November.

 

Victorian London in Photographs – London Metropolitan Archives

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The LMA

I wanted to visit the Victorian London in Photographs exhibition at the London Metropolitan Archives, which I became aware of thanks to The Exhibitionologist’s excellent review. The LMA is open late several nights a week, so I headed down after work.

The exhibition consists of selected images from the LMA collections, photographs taken in the nineteenth century from 1839, when photography first arrived in London. Though small, it is a rich collection, consisting of portraits and street scenes, people at work and at leisure. One of my favourite sections consisted of actors and actresses, including Henry Irving and William Terriss, the latter murdered outside the Adelphi stage door by a disgruntled actor. Another was a collection of images of orphan boys, taken before they left for Canada to start new lives. Yet another poignant collection was made up of inmates of the Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum.

Less personal, but equally interesting, pictures covered the Crystal Palace, the construction of the Metropolitan Railway, and the Blackwall Tunnel. The earliest images captured ancient inns, roadways and other buildings which had grown up since the Great Fire, and which are no longer around. We have the Society for Photographing Old Relics of London to thank for this: founded in 1875, they could not stop the demolition of these beautiful old buildings in the name of “progress”, but they could, and did, capture them on camera.

Many buildings from the Victorian period were destroyed in the Blitz, and new construction means that modern-day London looks very different from its Victorian counterpart, as two contrasting images taken from the same spot demonstrate. However, there are still recognisable elements to be seen in the pictures, and these clear, crisp images seem to bring the past even closer. A fantastic, free exhibition that is well worth a visit.

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London Metropolitan Archives
40 Northampton Road
Clerkenwell
London
EC1R 0HB

Audrey Hepburn: Portraits of an Icon – National Portrait Gallery

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I visited the National Portrait Gallery at the weekend to see the exhibition Audrey Hepburn: Portraits of an Icon. It covered the life of the actress and fashion icon Audrey Hepburn (1929-1993) from her early years training for the ballet through her film career and ending with her humanitarian work.

The exhibition was interesting and comprised images by photographers such as Richard Avedon, Cecil Beaton, Terry O’Neill, Norman Parkinson and Irving Penn. The pictures conveyed Hepburn’s beauty, charm and style over several decades. I was surprised, however, that it was so small – there were only a couple of rooms and it didn’t take me long to go through it.