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Robert A. Sobieszek. British Masters of the Albumen Print: A Selection of Mid-Nineteenth-Century Victorian Photography. International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House & The University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London, 1976

British Albumen Printing: 1850-1880

Albumen's ascendancy during the middle 1850's coincided with the loosening of legal restrictions on photography in Great Britain. Talbot had secured a patent for his invention of calotypy in 1841 restricting its practice by both professionals and amateurs to those who procured a license. The daguerreotype process was, of course, covered by Daguerre, and it was much too complicated and expensive for all but a few experimenters and professionals. Talbot did, however, prosecute practitioners of Archer's collodion process after 1851. His monopoly, heatedly inveighed against by his friends and colleagues, was finally destroyed by the judgment in Talbot vs. Laroche in 1854, which found Talbot to be the inventor of the photographic process and therefore correct in bringing suit against Laroche but at the same time found Laroche not guilty. Talbot's patent was due to expire in 1855; he did not renew it.

The greater freedom to practice photography without paying a fee to do so, combined with the relative ease and convenience of the collodion-negative process, spurred a dramatic increase in photographic activity. The greatest surge of picture-making took place among the large numbers of photographic amateurs now roaming the fields and partially with a new group of self-styled artist/photographers. It is fundamentally impossible to disassociate this latter group, the artist/photographers, from the definitionally distinct body of professional photographers during this period. Except for one or two notable personalities, most such photographers supported themselves by setting up studios as businesses. Even clearly evident examples of commercial enterprise in photographic picture-making—those pictures which had as their sole imperative the satisfaction of a commission or a client—were often aesthetically as viable and on a similar plane as those images made by the artists.

Professional documentation of the world by camera brought to the English viewer an encyclopedic definition by pictures of the Victorian universe. This universe was wonderful (in the old sense of the word), substantial, and indisputably existing in a materialistic sense. The clarity of the collodion image as printed on the hard and brilliant surface of the albumen paper paralleled and supported this view of the external world. Photographers like Roger Fenton and Philip Henry Delamotte recorded with a nearly abstract eye the gardens of Chatsworth and the architectural splendor of the Sydenham Crystal Palace. 16 Robert Howlett proved its presence in the world by photographing the building of the Great Eastern on the Isle of Dogs. John Moffat and Thomas Annan presented the urban realities of Glasgow and Edinburgh. 17

While photographers like these were printing on medium to large sheets of reddish brown albumen, the commercial stereoscopic companies were mass producing those ubiquitous cards whose twin images coalesced into a virtual three-dimensional surrogate world including everything from Windsor Castle to a stuffed swan. George Washington Wilson and John Mayall both, officially, recorded the likenesses of the Queen, her Prince Consort, and, at times, her horse and groom; Camille de Silvy was fashion-plating his carte-de-visites of "London Beauties," most of whom are now forgotten and unidentified. On the small visiting card photograph or on the double-imaged stereo card, photographers whose business it was to make and sell quantities of photographs recorded architectural details, landscapes, and particular visages with equal accord and interest.

The spreading empire and the shrinking world were likewise documented for the folks back home. Legions of British photographers fixed permanently the look and substance of those places and things belonging to and yet different from Great Britain. Perhaps the most famous in this regard was Francis Frith, who in 1857 and 1858 witnessed the splendors of ancient Egypt and a few years later shared them with his countrymen by way of his overwhelming, large albumen prints. There were others, of course, James Anderson and Robert Macpherson established themselves in Rome and provided grand tourists with haunting memories of Roman scenes and antiquities; Macpherson's romantically lyrical views were also as monumentally large as were Frith's: nearly 17 X 18 inches. John Thomson, more famous for his sociologically motivated suite of London, street merchants and denizens, 18 was wandering through Southeast Asia during the late 1860's. And most impressive of all, the possibly naturalized British photographer, Felice Beato, after reporting on the Near East and the Crimean campaigns along with James Robertson, traveled to India, China, and Japan. In his capacity as one of the first global photojournalists, Beato documented the architectural disaster following the mutinous rebellion at Lucknow in 1857. In 1860, he created the first war photograph depicting the human body disaster brought on by a battle at North Taku Fort at the end of the second China War (1856-60). In about 1861, Beato settled in Yokohama and began bringing out numerous albums of hand-colored, albumen prints showing the phenomenal appearances of samurai, fire-brigades, Japanese customs, and landscapes.

All of these pictures found their own routes back to England, usually by tourists who collected them on their travels or by having the photographer bring his negatives back, print them in his studio, and sell them by the piece or in collected volumes. Photographers and critics, from the very commencement of the medium, foresaw the role of the photographic image in making the furthest corner of the globe accessible to us. Lake Price, an influential British photographer during the 1850's and later, mentions this role in 1858:

In a multiplicity of ways, Photography has already added, and will increasingly tend to contribute, to the knowledge and happiness of mankind: by its means the aspect of our globe, from the tropics to the poles,—its inhabitants, from the dusky Nubian to the pale Esquimaux, its productions, animal and vegetable, the aspect of its cities, the outline of its mountains, are made familiar to us.19

This accessibility was fairly complete, even though it was merely superficial and devoted to obvious appearances. The primary concern was to record and delight over the look of objects and people. Understanding events at home or realities of exotic places was limited to "seeing" them in an extremely realistic rendition. Understanding and believing was simply based on the prima facie evidence of the object's or event's existence in the photograph. And what the professional photographers felt was insufficient in interest and marketability, the amateur hobbyists recorded and placed in their families' scrapbooks.

The British amateur found his and her place beginning in the middle 1850's. There were others before this, but they were mostly interested in playful experimentation of picture-making with the calotype process, and mostly in Scotland, where Talbot's patents did not apply. It was the ease and predictability of the collodion process along with the convenience of ready-made (or easily made) albumen papers that provided the matrix in which the nonscientifically minded middle class could operate. Photography was still far from being a totally democratic picture-making activity; this had to wait until even more convenient negative types, factory printing, and small hand cameras were developed. The evidence, however, of thousands of extant albums, scrapbooks, and images, of a fairly widespread system of clubs and societies for the amateur, and of steadily increasing numbers of articles focused on assisting the nonprofessional photographer demonstrates the vast and popular mass appeal of photography during the Victorian era.

A taxonomy of amateur photography needs to be developed, both in terms of the social position of the various sorts of amateurs and the differing stances of iconographic emphasis they subscribed to. During the mid-nineteenth century in Britain, two discrete types of amateurs are discernable: those who worked independently and privately and those whose forum was within the context of an organized club or society. The Photographic Society of London, founded in 1853 and continuing presently as the Royal Photographic Society, was the principal photographic society in Great Britain. It was, of course, only one such society and grew concurrently during the 1850's with others in Liverpool, Leeds, Glasgow, and Manchester, for example. All of these organizations, however, were established for the betterment of the medium and its practitioners who were mainly professional operators. In 1855, the Photographic Exchange Club of London began a type of club whose intended purpose was to allow photographers the means by which they could trade and distribute their pictures among themselves and an interested public. Between 1855 and 1857, this club produced at least two, and possibly as many as four, albums of pictures compiled from its membership. In many ways, these albums are some of the very earliest publications of photographic art for art's sake. The photographs by Delamotte, Hugh Welch Diamond, and William Lake Price, among others, range from pure landscapes and studies of beech trees to architectural views and domestic interiors. The only imperative these images had was art; and it was a photographic art without rival.

The Photographic Exchange Club was still made up of many professional photographers, but it also included a number of devoted amateurs including at least two lady photographers.20 In 1861, a purely nonprofessional organization was created in London. Entitled the Amateur Photographic Association, it had for its purpose

... the interchange and publication of the productions of Amateur Photographers, in order, on the one hand, that they may realise the full value of every negative which they possess, and on the other, that the thousands of interesting and valuable negatives, now buried in the plate-boxes of Amateurs, may be brought before the notice, and placed within the reach, of the general public.21

This association, perhaps the first of its kind, lasted until 1905 and included some of the most surprisingly sensitive photographers of Victorian England. Among many others, Captain Bankhart, the Earl of Caithness, F. C. Curry (or Currey), Ernest Edwards, Major F. Gresley, F. H. Lloyd, the Countess of Uxbridge, and Virginia Waters all produced pictures that are perfect distillations of the British romantic sensibility. Principally involved with landscapes and still-lifes, the members almost universally printed on albumen paper. Their images, largely forgotten today, are far from the tough, impressive art productions of Cameron or Rejiander, nor do they possess the scale and pervading aestheticism of Robinson. Their quiet harmonies and peaceful, bucolic arrangements are perfectly exquisite and refined examples of an appreciation of nature's own glories and wonders. Their's is also a perfect salutation to the charms and beauties of the albumen print.

Socially distinct from these amateur artist/photographers, and pictorially concerned with far more simplistic objectives, the ordinary amateur photographer also found the new photographic processes enticingly useful. These photographers, mostly unknown to us by name, could now use photography as a means to structure a private thesaurus of memories. Planning, composition, artistic lighting, and the like were of little value. The subject was all important. And a photograph of a given subject proved it happened at all. Mostly, their work remains at the level of ordinary static snapshots of family and friends, of home and familiar places. Every so often, however, these unassuming iconographies of the commonplace transcend their own intentions and contribute to the history of imagery. The naive amateur created a new pictorial language: the family or scrapbook album. In these pleasant productions, charming juxtapositions of awkward niceties are combined at times into elaborate assemblages of fictional constructs. The naive arrangement of these pictures, even so far as to attempt a temporal narrative through sequential images as in the twelve prints that tell the complete story of a tiger hunt in one album from India, often lead to surprising and eloquent evidences of an untrained artistic sensibility, potentially quite modern.

The single pictures that make up family scrapbooks and travel album compilations were seldom made with the intent of placing them within such contexts. These contexts regularly communicate more about their architects than about the total meaning of the pictures. What each album possesses is really a private selection of value and significance. The individual picture contains just so much data; the information stored in a complete album extends beyond the sum and total of all images and begins to address social, psychological, and philosophical issues. But on an individual level, the amateur photographer's pictures are customarily focused on subjects that no other photographer, either professional or artist in their nominal capacities, would consider quite so importantly. Therefore, we are presented with a body of images that in addition reflect the value systems and the appearances of familiar domesticity and utter commonplaces of the Victorian period. Not only local tiger hunts, but group portraits of family theatrics, portraits of native porters, views of stone gateways, cottages and forests were made—subjects that contrast vividly with the allegories and psychological narratives and art for art's sake of the British artist/photographer.

The fine art of photography has over the decades taken on many forms and styles. Exactly what constitutes the artistic principles of photography is constantly redefined by each succeeding generation. Obviously, achievements of the highest aesthetic order were obtained prior to the advent of the collodion process and albumen printing papers in Great Britain. The daguerreotypes of John Mayall and Antoine Claudet are reasonably famous examples, as are the spectacularly sensitive calotypes of David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, who worked together in Edinburgh during the late 1840's. And in many ways it was the work of countless early practitioners of the new medium that began establishing the art of photography. Yet the daguerreotype and calotype predicated very distinctively different aesthetic formulations. The collodion process provided still another set of formal and stylistic mandates, and the albumen prints generated from it another visual quality to the photographic image. It would be impossible to compare justly, on any aesthetic plane, an albumen print with a calotype, for instance; neither is better nor worse, only different. Similarly, the qualities of luminosity, color, scale and stylistic approaches to subjects would make an evaluatory comparison between an albumen print and its later contemporaries such as the woodburytype or photogravure suspect at the least. Given these preliminaries, it is still safe to claim that it was during the three decades from 1850 to 1880 that British photography attained a level of artistic production in photography so intense and so widespread that it has been scarcely matched. Technical, aesthetic, and social reasons all contributed in a delicate combination to this so-called l'age d'or of Victorian photography.

The Victorian artist/photographer is not a part of a special class of picture-makers, distinct from the professional documentarian or societal amateur. The only factors that may distinguish this photographer from the naive amateur may be simply the degree of artistic intent and self-perception each may possess. But the art of any culture, within any specified medium, is not just the products of those who label themselves artists. This is especially true with photography during the nineteenth century when the entire question of authorship is at times questionable.22 Philip Henry Delamotte and Robert Macpherson were both commercial photographers who sold their photographs to clients and were principally involved with documenting architecture and landscape views. Their images, however, are some of the most emotive and compelling artworks of the period. Considered as artists by themselves and their public, Oscar Gustave Rejlander and Henry Peach Robinson also maintained commercial studios. Delamotte and Robinson were, in addition, members of the same photo graphic society, the Photographic Exchange Club. In fact, only a single figure stands out from this era as a truly modernist, self-defining romantic artist: Julia Margaret Cameron, who willingly placed herself apart from the rest of the photographic world and developed an entirely personal style. In short, many of the images in this selection were not produced as artwork but are now seen as such; others were so produced but are presently seen as quaint Victorian aberrations of art. Still others were intended as purely aesthetic endeavors and still maintain this position.

During the Victorian period, "artistical" photographs were customarily judged on four points. First, that they were exact replicas of Nature's outward form and appearance. Second, they were to communicate the "feeling, sentiment, or sensations of Nature" and be able to cause similar emotional reactions. Third, and more vague, the artistic photograph was to record the romantic expressions and impressions of this same Nature. And finally, the print, or the final photograph, was to be formally and spiritually perfect, reflecting Nature's perfections.23 In the words of one anonymous critic of the period, "There is no question that the irrestible tendency of modern art is towards imitation.... We want Dutch truth allied to Italian poetry, and this, more than this, Photography promises, nay, gives." 24 The landscapes of Roger Fenton and Francis Frith, the portraiture of Antoine Claudet and Henry Collen, and the architectural views of Delamotte and Hugh Welch Diamond are clear and certain applications of the above prescriptions to photographic picture-making.

Narrative genre pictures, allegories, and "history" themes, were practically all defined during this time in Great Britain. At this point, critics and theorists began to shy away from advocating a perfect equality of aesthetics between painting and photography. Whereas painting could easily accommodate such subjects as Millais' "Death of Ophelia" or Hunt's "The Hireling Shepherd," photography's ultra-realist position was considered inappropriate for such literary productions. The camera, by many, was limited to recording only those objects and events that were actually before it and not created fictionally for its purpose. Henry Peach Robinson made his "Study" in 1858 in order to demonstrate a model looking as close to death as possible.25 Later the same year, considering himself successful with this attempt, he produced "Fading Away," a saccharine, melancholic scene of a young girl dying while attended to by her parents and sister. The final picture was judged by some to be entirely indecorous and an invasion of privacy.

The criticism against Robinson's "Fading Away" did not apparently hinder him and others from exploring photography's ability to create "photofictions." Robinson continued making images in a highly literary vein for the rest of his career. Oscar Gustave Rejlander, after the critical failure of his monumental "Two Ways of Life" (1857), specialized in low-keyed dramas and domestic genre themes such as "Caught" and "The Carpenter and His Family." Narrative genre and allegorical themes were exceptionally popular in Victorian England, or so it would seem from the number of them extant. The rather second-rate, academic sculptor, Richard Cockle Lucas, could easily although eccentrically construct an album of fifty self-portraits posed in various histrionic tableaus. A similar utilization of posed theatrics and historic costumes is apparent in Cameron's illustrative compositions accompanying selections from Tennyson's idylls of the King (1874-75). Probably the culmination of Victorian literary photography, Cameron's illustrations to the Idylls rank along with the best and most complex painting by the pre-Raphaelites in spirit and resolution of subject.

As the product of a self-styled artist, Cameron's oeuvre is a transition from the art of High Victorian photography to a more self-conscious and more modern photographic art. Taking her stylistic cues from the suggestions of Sir William Newton and John Leighton as well as from the portraiture of Antoine Claudet and David Wilkie Wynfield, Cameron elevated the art of portrait-making to an evocative, effusive, and impressionistic idealization of form and syntactic meaning. Writing to her friend John Herschel in 1864, she states,

... I could not help wishing you had been writing on the subject and that you had spoken of my photography in that spirit which will elevate it and induce an ignorant public to believe in other than mere conventional topographic photography—map making and skeleton rendering of feature and form without that roundness and fullness of force and feature that modelling of flesh and limb which the focus I use only can give tho' called and condemned as 'out of focus'.... My aspirations are to ennoble photography and to secure for it the character and uses of High Art by combining the real and ideal and sacrificing nothing of Truth by all possible devotion to Poetry and beauty.26

Cameron's stance is a perfect summary of Victorian High Art photography while at the same time it predicts a more modernist posture of highly individualized aestheticism. Were it not for her gloriously Victorian productions of religious themes and allegorical subjects, her work could clearly be compared with certain twentieth-century aesthetic modes. But she was a part of her time enough to find value in recording tableaus of angels, medieval kings, and Madonnas.

In 1857 an anonymous London critic summarized the position of artistic photography:

Photography is an enormous stride forward in the region of art. The old world was well nigh exhausted with its wearisome mothers and children called Madonnas, ... its dead Christianity, and its deader Paganism. Here was a world with the soil fainting and exhausted; worn by man into barrenness, over crowded, over-housed, over-taxed, over-known. Then all at once breaks a small light in the far West, and a new world slowly widens to our sight. ... This new land is Photography. Art's youngest and fairest child.... For photography there are new secrets to conquer, new difficulties to overcome, new Madonnas to invent, new ideals to imagine. There will be perhaps photograph Raphaels, photograph Titians, founders of new empires, and not subverters of the old.27

Photography in mid-nineteenth-century England did not exactly abandon its ties to the art of the past. While it did manage to produce some exceptionally modern and essentially pure photographic images, it also produced a large number of quintessentially Victorian pictures that could fare equally with the other Fine Arts of the period. A very large number of all these photographs—in fact the vast majority—were impressed and printed upon one of the most elegant and ravishing of all photographic papers: albumen.


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