Five Victorian photographers

Published 19 November 2015

Ahead of the Julia Margaret Cameron exhibition at the V&A, we look at some of the key pioneers of the medium.

1. Julia Margaret Cameron

Although Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-79) only picked up the camera at the age of 48, she became one of the most innovative and rule-breaking photographers of the 19th century. Her photographs were deliberately out of focus and often included traces of her process such as smudges and scratches. Cameron’s sister hosted regular salons in Little Holland House, London, which provided Cameron with many famous subjects for her portraits. They included Alfred Lord Tennyson, Charles Darwin and John Everett Millais. As Cameron would usually know her subjects quite well, she would attempt to capture their personalities within her work. Although criticised for her unconventional techniques, Cameron was celebrated for the beauty of her compositions and her conviction that photography was an art form.

Julia Margaret Cameron’s retrospective is at the V&A from 28 November until 21 February 2016.

2. William Henry Fox Talbot

Fox Talbot (1800-77) was a true photography innovator. Before his inventions, he (like other artists) worked with camera obscura – a small wooden box with a lens at one end that projected the scene before it onto a piece of frosted glass at the back, where the artist could trace the outlines on thin paper. ‘How charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durable and remain fixed upon the paper! And why should it not be possible?’ wrote Fox Talbot. His breakthrough invention was the calotype, the first negative-positive process to make multiple copies from a single negative. It is regarded to be the foundation of all modern photography on film.

Work by William Henry Fox Talbot will feature in Revelations: Experiments in Photography at the National Media Museum.

3. Louis Daguerre

In early January 1839, Louis Daguerre (1787-1851) announced his invention of the daguerreotype. He was unaware that Fox Talbot was working on his own photographic process in Britain at the time. The daguerreotype was the Polaroid film of its day: it produced a unique image which could only be duplicated by using a camera to photograph the original. This was in contrast to Fox Talbot’s calotype, which could be reproduced from the single negative. Daguerreotypes were usually portraits, despite a long exposure time of 10 or more minutes. Subjects had to keep completely still because anything that moved became invisible, which explains why daguerreotypes that captured Paris show empty streets with very few people, vehicles or horses.

You can see works by Louis Daguerre on Getty Images's online gallery.

4. Robert Adamson

The 22-year-old Robert Adamson (1821-48) set up Scotland’s first photographic studio in 1843. A few months later, he was recommended to David Octavius Hill, a painter of romantic Scottish landscapes, which would mark the start of the most significant partnership in the history of photography. Adamson’s studio practice was said to have been ‘confidential to the point of secrecy’. Distinguished individuals from many fields came to be photographed by Adamson and his partner Hill. Within a few years, the two had taken the Scottish art scene by storm. In less than four years, before Adamson’s life was cut short, it is thought they took more than 3,000 photographs – mainly portraits but also land- and townscapes.

A portrait of Sandy Linton by Robert Adamson and David Octavius Hill is currently on display at the National Portrait Gallery, London.

5. Eadweard Muybridge

Muybridge’s primarily scenic work took a major detour in 1872 when he was noticed by the railroad baron and millionaire, Leland Stanford. As a pastime, Stanford took to racehorses and engaged in the debate about whether all four feet of a trotting horse are ever off the ground at the same time. To solve the question, he commissioned Muybridge (1830-1904) to photograph one of his champion mounts in motion. Photography was still slow at the time. Muybridge was tasked with capturing incredibly rapid motion that the human eye couldn’t see. Not only did he succeed in doing so (and proving that the horse did indeed have all four feet off the ground at times), but Muybridge’s study and later work also laid the ground for motion pictures and the birth of cinema.

Work by Eadweard Muybridge will feature in Revelations: Experiments in Photography at the National Media Museum.

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