Arguably, Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography is the first photography exhibition ever. Of course, there have been thousands of photography shows since the early 19th century when the photographic process was just starting to be developed. But, this exhibition brings together work from some of the earliest “photographers” when that word was only just being defined.
As such, this new exhibition at Millennium Gallery recalls a period when Lewis Carroll, Julia Margaret Cameron, Oscar Rejlander and Clementina Hawarden were learning how to be photographers. Their varied approaches reveal a time when it wasn’t even clear what a photograph was or how to best utilise technology to take one. Hawarden likes styling; Cameron likes eyes and faces; meanwhile Carroll focuses on detail and Rejlander strays into documentary territory. But placed together, they tell a story of photography’s entrance into the art world.
To get approval in the art world, they decided to mimic it. There is an entire section entitled Art and Photography where the photographers utilise classic artistic tropes and visuals to elevate this brand new art form. Rejlander’s The Virgin in Prayer is a recreation of Sassoferatto’s 1645 painting of the same name, and several other Biblical figures appear in Cameron’s Mary Mother and Rejlander’s Head of St John the Baptist. These types of works required models to pose as recognisable characters, which seems a million miles away from Henri Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment.