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Fellows Find: Puzzling over composite prints by Henry Peach Robinson

By Emily Talbot

Emily Talbot, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Michigan, received a dissertation fellowship to study nineteenth-century composite photographs by Henry Peach Robinson and his contemporaries in England and France. This research forms part of a larger project that considers the integration of photographic technologies and aesthetic standards into the production of works of art in other media. The Ransom Center is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its fellowship program in 2014–2015.

 

 

With the support of a Dissertation Fellowship at the Harry Ransom Center, I spent a month studying photographs, drawings, and other ephemera related to nineteenth-century British photographer Henry Peach Robinson (1830–1901). My dissertation project at the University of Michigan concerns relationships between photography and other media in the nineteenth century, focusing particularly on “hybrid” practices, such as painters who utilized photographic technologies or photographers who doctored their images with paint or pencil.

 

Robinson is a perfect case study for my project as he was one of the first and most famous practitioners of “composite photography,” an early form of photomontage that involved printing multiple negatives on the same sheet of paper. Composite prints are ambitious works of art that were intended to rival painting in their subject matter and mode of execution. Typically, Robinson would design his compositions in pencil or watercolor, later photographing each figure and landscape element separately before combining them into a single image in the darkroom.

 

The Helmut and Alison Gernsheim collection of photography at the Ransom Center is one of three major repositories of work by Henry Peach Robinson (the other two being George Eastman House in Rochester, New York and the National Media Museum in Bradford, England). However, because Helmut Gernsheim felt that it was important to understand a photographer’s artistic development in its entirety—an idea he notes in correspondence with Robinson’s granddaughter—the Gernsheims collected Robinson’s prints, drawings, and paintings in addition to the photographs for which he is best known. During my residency at the Ransom Center, I was particularly keen to study several rare photographic collages that Robinson made as preliminary studies for his composite prints. These half-painted, half-photographic compositions reveal Robinson’s artistic process to be a fascinating negotiation of painting and photography, imagination, and visible reality.

 

In my attempts to understand how Robinson conceived and created his pictures, I called upon the expertise of Barbara Brown, Head of Photograph Conservation at the Ransom Center. Together we examined 15 combination photographs, identifying and speculating about instances of handwork on the negatives as a result of painting on or masking over parts of the image before printing. During this study session I gained further appreciation for the complexity of Robinson’s technique. By making changes directly on his negatives, he left very little physical evidence of this manipulation on the prints themselves. Without being able to consult the negatives, the viewer must often guess how the image was made.

 

Rather than being an impediment to my research, this knowledge helps me to understand why many nineteenth-century art critics were so disapproving of composite printing. Landscape photographer Alfred Wall even described Robinson’s works as “ingenious fraud” and “contemptible shams.” Composite pictures trick the eye—the critic’s main tool of expertise—casting doubt on the reliability of photographic images and undermining the role of the critic altogether. As I move forward with my research, I intend to explore further this fraught relationship between seeing and making that is exemplified by the rich collections of nineteenth-century photography at the Harry Ransom Center.

 

Enter to win a copy of Henry Peach Robinson: Victorian Photographer by tweeting a link to this post and tagging @ransomcenter. Not on Twitter? Email hrcgiveaway(at)gmail.com with “Robinson” in the subject line. By entering via email, you are also opting-in to receive the Ransom Center’s monthly email newsletter. All tweets and emails must be sent by Monday, August 11, at midnight CST. A winner will be drawn and notified on Tuesday, August 12.

 

Image: Henry Peach Robinson, Study for  A Holiday in the Wood, salted paper print with applied graphite and watercolor, May 1860. 

National Gallery of Art’s symposium 'Truth to Nature: British Photography and Pre-Raphaelitism'

By Jennifer Tisdale

Henry Peach Robinson, 'The Lady of Shalott,' 1861.
Henry Peach Robinson, 'The Lady of Shalott,' 1861.

Ransom Center Curator of Photography David Coleman participates in the National Gallery of Art’s symposium “Truth to Nature: British Photography and Pre-Raphaelitism” in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, January 22.

Coleman presents “Matters of Fact and Pleasant Fictions: Henry Peach Robinson and Victorian Composition Photography,” elaborating on Robinson’s relationship with Pre-Raphaelite painting.

The Ransom Center loaned 14 items from its photography collection to the National Gallery of Art for the exhibition The Pre-Raphaelite Lens: British Photography and Painting, 1848-1875, on view through January 30. Beginning March 6, the exhibition opens at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris as A Ballad of Love and Death: Pre-Raphaelite Photography in Great Britain, 1848-1875. Running through May 29, this exhibition also showcases the Ransom Center’s loaned photographs.

Before and After: A Henry Peach Robinson photograph

By Alicia Dietrich

Before: Henry Peach Robinson, 'Bringing Home the May,' ca. 1862-1863. Albumen print.
Before: Henry Peach Robinson, 'Bringing Home the May,' ca. 1862-1863. Albumen print.

After: Henry Peach Robinson, 'Bringing Home the May,' ca. 1862-1863. Albumen print.
After: Henry Peach Robinson, 'Bringing Home the May,' ca. 1862-1863. Albumen print.

“Before and After” goes behind the scenes with the the Ransom Center’s conservation department. The most recent installment highlighted work that Head of Photograph Conservation Barbara Brown completed on the Henry Peach Robinson photograph “Bringing Home the May,” taken ca. 1862–1863.

Learn more about how the photograph was repaired and re-mounted.

Some of Robinson’s work is on view in the current exhibition Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection.

View video of "Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection"

By Christine Lee

The exhibition Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection opens today at the Ransom Center.

Drawn from the peerless collection of Helmut and Alison Gernsheim, the exhibition features masterpieces from photography’s first 150 years, alongside other images that, while lesser known, are integral to the medium’s history. Highlights include the first photograph (on permanent display at the Ransom Center); works by nineteenth-century masters such as Lewis Carroll, Julia Margaret Cameron, and Henry Peach Robinson; and iconic images by modern photographers such as Man Ray, Edward Weston, Robert Capa, and Henri Cartier-Bresson.

The Harry Ransom Center will celebrate the opening of the exhibition with “A Picture Perfect Evening” on Friday, September 10th from 6 to 8 p.m. The event is free for Ransom Center members or $20 for non-members. Tickets can be purchased in advance on the website or at the door. The event will feature exhibition tours, refreshments, a photo booth, and make-and-take photo keepsakes with The Wondercraft.

Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection
Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection

Items from Dress Up: Portrait and Performance in Victorian Photography

By Harry Ransom Center

Julia Margaret Cameron (English, 1815-1879)<br />The Rising of the New Year, 1872<br />Albumen print
Julia Margaret Cameron (English, 1815-1879)
The Rising of the New Year, 1872
Albumen print

Julia Margaret Cameron (English, 1815-1879)
The Rising of the New Year, 1872
Albumen print

Julia Margaret Cameron did not take up photography until she was 48 and the last of her children had left for college. Over the next 14 years she made over 1,200 images. She promoted her photography as fine art through sales and exhibitions, once writing that her passion was “to ennoble photography and to secure for it the character and uses of High Art by combining the real and the ideal and sacrificing nothing of Truth by all possible devotion to Poetry and beauty.” Cameron was more artistically ambitious than her predecessors, and the bulk of her work consists of allegorical, mythological, literary, and Biblical illustrations, using as models friends, friends of friends, neighbors, family, and servants.

Cameron’s technique also distinguished her from her peers. By using a lens with a short focal length, she produced images in which only a small region of the sitter’s face would be in focus. Although this technique evolved from her early, awkward attempts at mastering photographic technique, she embraced and exploited this style for maximum expressive effect.

This was a controversial decision, however, as many critics felt she was turning her back on photography’s unique ability to capture detail. H. P. Robinson, her art photographer colleague and competitor, was blistering in his criticism, writing, “It is not the mission of photography to produce smudges. If studies in light and shade only are required, let them be done in pigment or charcoal, with a mop, if necessary, but photography is pre-eminently the art of definition, and when art departs from its function it is lost.”

T. A. RUST (active 1900s) The Game of Life, ca. 1895 Albumen prints
T. A. RUST (active 1900s) The Game of Life, ca. 1895 Albumen prints

T. A. RUST (active 1900s)
The Game of Life, ca. 1895
Albumen prints

The tableau vivant, or “living picture,” was one of the most popular forms of amateur performance and entertainment for the middle and upper classes during the nineteenth century. Tableaux required performers, dressed in suitable costumes, to arrange themselves in imitation of a literary or historical character, scene, or work of art. Tableaux were performed both privately and publicly, in venues ranging from aristocratic drawing-rooms for invited guests to large public theaters in front of a paying audience.

The Victorians’ interest in tableaux vivants carried into the popular imagery of the day. Commercial photographers who predominantly spent their time taking portrait photographs would, on occasion, produce genre-type scenes and other narrative images.

These types of images were most commonly produced as stereographs, which were collected by the thousands by Victorian households. These images were also issued in larger sizes, such as this one by T. A. Rust. It is unlikely that this photograph documents actual tableaux performed for an audience, as other photos in the exhibition with identical backdrops and floors would indicate that these were taken in Rust’s photographic studio.

“The Game of Life” is a moralizing tale of human existence, yet its humor playfully undermines the seriousness of its theme.

Henry Peach Robinson (English, 1830-1901) The Lady of Shalott, 1861 Albumen combination print from three negatives
Henry Peach Robinson (English, 1830-1901) The Lady of Shalott, 1861 Albumen combination print from three negatives

Henry Peach Robinson (English, 1830-1901)
The Lady of Shalott, 1861
Albumen combination print from three negatives

H. P. Robinson was one of the most prolific and vocal proponents of art photography in nineteenth-century Britain. One of his first attempts to link photography with literature was Tennyson’s poem “The Lady of Shalott.” In the poem, a lady is sequestered in a tower on an island near Camelot. She is forbidden to look directly outside, so she can only see the world through its reflection in a mirror. When Lancelot passes by one day, the temptation is too great and she looks directly out the window. A curse falls upon her, and she climbs into a boat, lies down, and sings to her death. This work was to become the most pivotal of Robinson’s career.

Robinson’s Shalott declared early in the medium’s history that photography could illustrate and interpret poetry, that is the imaginary. Critics felt otherwise, saying that the subject was beyond the appropriate boundaries for photography. After the negative reception to this work, Robinson vowed to stick to themes of “the life of our day,” and the rest of his career is dominated by genre themes, as is represented in his other photographs in this exhibition. Robinson’s photograph was also controversial because of his technique of combining multiple negatives to form the composition. Robinson and his supporters argued that any means should be available to a photographer in making a work of art (it was the final product that mattered, they argued, not the manner in achieving it). The majority of critics, however, argued that photography’s chief asset was its unique capability to accurately depict nature.

For these critics, slight-of-hand techniques such as combination printing were deceitful and inappropriate. Although Victorian England often embraced the blending of fiction with truth, it did not always approve of this approach when applied to photography.

Joseph Cundall (English, 1818-1895) Highlanders, 1856 Albumen print from The Photographic Album for the Year 1857 (London: Photographic Exchange Club, 1857)
Joseph Cundall (English, 1818-1895) Highlanders, 1856 Albumen print from The Photographic Album for the Year 1857 (London: Photographic Exchange Club, 1857)

Joseph Cundall (English, 1818-1895)
Highlanders, 1856
Albumen print from The Photographic Album for the Year 1857 (London: Photographic Exchange Club, 1857)

Printer, publisher, and photographer Joseph Cundall produced some of the most attractive popular illustrated books of the 1850s and ’60s, as well as several important early photographic publications. He was a founding member of the Photographic Society of London and, in 1871, was sent by the British government to Bayeux to organize the first photographic record of the famous tapestry.

The Photographic Exchange Club, which published the album containing this photo, was a club comprised of amateur photography enthusiasts who promoted the technological development of photography by trading prints. Each image in the album is accompanied by detailed information regarding its process and chemistry.

In 1856, on the instructions of Queen Victoria, Cundall took photographs of these soldier heroes, newly returned from the Crimea.

 

 

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