New York

“Selected 19th Century Images”


Like “The New Dimension,” the show at Photograph was a historical one that contained, in many cases, only one or two examples of a photographer’s work. Most of the photographers are so well-known, at least to regular gallery-goers, that a show like this could get away with such abbreviation. (Still problematic is what could be made of the show by summer visitors who came as novices hoping to learn something about the history of photography. They left the gallery, I suspect, with their eyes rolling around in their heads.) Nonetheless, while 90 images by a dozen photographers is more tolerable as a form for a historical show of this type, the most interesting inclusions were predictably the photographers whose work was given a generous representation. These were John Thomson, Charles Hugo, and Lady Lucy Bridgeman.

Thomson’s Street Life in London, from which the show contained a selection of Woodburytype plates, is now so well-established as a classic of photographic literature that it would be redundant for me to praise it further here. Less well-known are the calotypes done in the early 1850s by Charles Hugo. The book is a record of the life on the Isle of Jersey lived by Charles’ famous father Victor, who was in exile from the Second Empire. Most of the pictures in the show were from the book, and my only regret is that there weren’t more of them. All except one of those included were portraits, a number being of Hugo père and the rest of other notables of the period who were visitors or members of the Hugo household at some point. These are all wonderful, but it would have been of even greater photographic interest to show the snapshots Charles took of the family’s home and surroundings. The personality and casual expressiveness shown by some of those pictures are a real eyeful, especially when you consider that they were made during what is referred to as photography’s “primitive” period.

The show’s final selection worth noting is that of Lady Lucy Bridgeman, an amateur like Hugo who also photographed guests and members of her household in the early 1850s. These photographs, which I’d not seen before, are certainly not great. Their ordinariness is rather their charm, in fact. Lady Lucy tried to pose her subjects in attitudes that would look informal, even candid; and her failure to achieve the desired illusion is what gives her pictures their character. Or maybe these people are relaxed, for Victorians. In one picture, a woman wearing more clothes than modern women do in a year stands reading beside a castle door that’s even more overdressed than she is. Didn’t anybody ever flop on the lawn with a book in those days? Was the height of summer fun for a woman to venture two steps outdoors and come to rigid attention? The rest of the ten pictures in the show by Lady Lucy are just as awkward in the same disarming way.

Colin L. Westerbeck Jr.