Saturday, 24 February 2018

The Birth of Art Photography

Duchess of  Cambridge with Photos Curator Philip Prodger and NPG Director Nick Cullinan at Victorian Giants.  Photo: Noah   Goodrich

Alongside and in some ways ahead of Pre-Raphaelite painting came art photography – images with aesthetic intent as well as visual recording.  During the second half of the nineteenth century the two art forms, polychrome and monochrome, intersected and impacted on each other.
From March to May Victorian Giants at the National Portraits Gallery explores four pioneers of Victorian art photography – two female, two male.  The women are Julia Margaret Cameron (of course, with claims to being the overall leader in the field) and Clementina Hawarden, who with eight surviving children was professional enough to exhibit prize-winning studies before dying prematurely aged 42.
The men are Lewis Carroll of ‘Alice’ fame (of course, and more properly Charles Dodgson) and Oscar Rejlander, who enjoyed some attention in 2013 around the bicentenary of his birth but deserves more for his innovative practices.
The exhibition, curated by Philip Prodger, sadly outgoing NPG head of photograph collection, is full of familiar and less familiar images, many of girls in roughly the same age group as Waterhouse’s now-controversial water nymphs.  While the photographs are chaste, in the sense of being decently clothed and not evidently presented for male pleasure, it will be interesting to see how they are received in today’s cultural moment  especially those by Carroll, who had an undeniable paedophilic gaze.

Clementina Hawarden is the least-known of the featured Victorian Giants. For a full account of her photographic practice see  Suzanne Fagence Cooper's recent blog


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