The nineteenth-century world in photographs

The British Library currently has an exhibition (on until 7th March) entitled “Points of View: Capturing the Nineteenth Century in Photographs”. It’s an interesting exhibition, and bigger than I expected, covering a huge range. It begins with the origins of photography in the mid-nineteenth century, with Louis Daguerre and William Henry Fox Talbot. Alongside technical information about the new “science” of photography are early images produced by these pioneers, especially of the natural world, including Fox Talbot’s wonderful Oak tree at Lacock (left). It’s interesting to note that although once photography began to catch on it was of course a pursuit for the wealthy who had money and leisure for it, Fox Talbot himself took remarkably unpretentious images of labourers and farm buildings as well as family and grand buildings.
Ther exhibition explains the social and historical changes which took place at the same time as the development of the photographic medium, including the growing possibilities of foreign travel. Consequently many of the photographs displayed are early holiday snaps, basically, but of the most fascinating places, which really help to bring the wider world of the nineteenth century to life. Alongside these are portraits, which became increasingly popular, especially as Queen Victoria was known to collect cartes de visite, and there are some familiar images of Dickens (right), George Bernard Shaw and Maud Allen, among others. Apparently, according to an exhibition note, going to be photographed was often considered to be on a par with going to the dentist – a tedious chore, and when you see the “posing stand” – an uncomfortable-looking object designed to keep sitters still during long exposures, you can see why.
The numerous uses of photography, and the changes it facilitated in society, are brought out well here: its scientific uses, in botany and diagnostics, for example, and from the 1890s, X-rays, are examined. Early war photography is also represented, in the Crimea (1853-6) and the American Civil War (1861-5), while the possibilities brought about by art reproduction through photography are also explained.
This exhibition is scrupulous in its consideration of the photograph as historical artefact, social document and also initiator of social change, and the range of images available here alongside the informative and discursive exhibition notes make this a fascinating exhibition.

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3 thoughts on “The nineteenth-century world in photographs

  1. Thoughtful post 🙂

    It didn’t occur to me to test whether early photography was a pursuit for the wealthy who had money and leisure time, or not. Until I had looked closely at Julia Margaret Cameron, I simply “understood” that early photographers couldn’t make a living from photography! That meant that photographers either had to live off their parents or spouse, OR they accepted that photography was AT BEST a second career.

    That makes this line interesting: “This exhibition is scrupulous in its consideration of the photograph as historical artefact, social document and also initiator of social change”. Historical artefact and social document, yes, but are independently wealthy people likely to initiate social change?

    I will create a link to your page
    Hels
    “Julia Cameron, Lord Tennyson and the Isle of Wight”

  2. Great blog. This exhibition sounds amazing. I always find it more fascinating to see photographs of people who were not privileged; these images are often very revealing.

    Can’t help being a little sympathetic of the poor sitters on the ‘posing stand’ though. It sounds like some kind of torture device!

  3. Thanks for your comment, Hels – I suppose “social change” was the wrong phrase to use; I was thinking about the changes it brought about in, for example, medical work, and making images of art and foreign countries more available to people. That’s not necessarily social change, I agree, but it does constitute progress and, in some cases, a shift in cultural understanding…

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