Points of View: Capturing the 19th century in Photographs – but from whose point of view and why?

Lady Alice Mary Kerr, Portrait of Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, c.1870 (British Library)

Lady Alice Mary Kerr, Portrait of Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, c.1870 (British Library)

There’s no excuse if you’re in London or heading to the capital any time from 30 October 2009 to 7 March 2010, not to pop into the British Library and catch the British Library’s first ever major photographic exhibition, Points of View: Capturing the 19th Century in Photographs.

The show examines the history of photography and its influence, from its invention in 1839 up to the growth of a popular amateur market in the early 20th century – and it’s free. A book accompanies the show and what look like a fun series of photo-related performances, talks and events are scheduled for Halloween (spirit photography) and throughout November. Points of View is curated by John Falconer and brings together rarely displayed items drawn from various departments across the British Library’s photographic collections.

“Organised chronologically by subject matter, this exhibition asks: who was taking the photograph and why? Section by section, items are presented within their cultural and technical context, exploring some of the major themes of the 19th century, from expansion to industrialisation, science, the professionalisation of new disciplines and social change. Rarely displayed items from the British Library’s photography collection will show how photography, as an art form and social document, has played a critical role as the primary means of visual expression in the modern age.” (From the press release)

Around 250 photographs will be on show. Of particular interest from the small selection available at the press briefing were examples of calotypes – this is the process whereby a paper negative is produced “from which any number of prints could be taken” – including the photograph below, An oak tree in winter, c 1842-43 by William Henry Fox Talbot. (Calotype negative and salted paper print).

Talbot Photo

An oak tree in winter, c 1842-43 by William Henry Fox Talbot. (Calotype negative and salted paper print)

Accompanying the image below, a rather charming caption says that the hippo – named Obaysch – was acquired from Egypt in exchange for English greyhounds and deerhounds. “It was the first hippopotamus in England since prehistoric times and visitor numbers to the zoo doubled after its arrival”. But this interest was short lived and numbers subsequently dwindled as “the animal didn’t do very much”. Obaysch, for those concerned about his welfare, had a mate, produced a baby hippo in 1872, and died in 1878.

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The hippopotamus at the Zoological Gardens in Regent's Park, London by Don Juan Carlos, Duke of Montizon, 1852

Women photographers feature in the collection but only as a minority. This absence, in itself, says a great deal about the way women have been (and often still are) ‘hidden’ and under represented in what remains a largely male, Western art canon. That said, new material is still being discovered and Lady Alice Mary Kerr’s, Portrait of Wilfred Blunt, c 1870, see opening photograph, is one such gem. “Alice Kerr’s photographs are largely unknown apart from the rare examples in the British Library collections, but her intense and compelling portraits – particularly this study of the poet Wilfred Scawen Blunt – merit comparison with the work of Julia Margaret Cameron.” (From the press release). On the other hand, Anna Atkins, who according to the V&A, “is recognised as the first female photographer”, had a more scientific aim and produced nearly 450 ‘photograms’ of algae, known as cyanotypes, between 1843 and 1853. Originally issued in a small edition, British Algae. Cyanotype Impressions, the British Library’s edition is one of only 12.

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Anna Atkins, Dictyola dichotoma, 1843-53, British Library

The library recently took legal possession of Kodak Ltd Archive which will no doubt prove to be important as it “dates back more than 120 years and represents a treasure trove of primary material for historians and researchers of the history of photography”, as well as the entire contents of the late photographer Fay Godwin‘s studio. Godwin (1931-2005) was known primarily for her landscape photography work. The archive comprises of books, letters and other objects relating to her working life as a photographer, as well as negatives, contact sheets, and exhibition prints. This is in the process of being catalogued.

2 responses to “Points of View: Capturing the 19th century in Photographs – but from whose point of view and why?

  1. well cool!!!!

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