“The Golden Age Of British Photography, 1839–1900”

Predictably, this wonderful show—which opened last fall at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, and will travel in this country till mid 1986—includes its full share of major-exhibition goodies. First, there are substantial selections of work from a long roster of canonized 19th-century pioneers and masters: Henry Fox Talbot, D. O. Hill and Robert Adamson, Roger Fenton, P. H. Emerson, Julia Margaret Cameron, Frederick Evans, etc., etc. Then there are the famous old-chestnut images, familiar to anyone who’s ever taken a history of photography course: O. G. Rejlander’s The Two Ways of Life, 1857, say, or Robert Howlett’s 1857 portrait of Isambard Kingdom Brunel in front of the massive chains of the Great Eastern—this latter image summing up the matter-of-fact hubris of the engineers who industrialized Victorian England.

Next there are thought-provoking critical juxtapositions: for example, an extensive selection of Cameron’s allegorizing photographs follows a series of very similar shots by her little-known teacher, David Wilkie Wynfield—which in turn is preceded by over a dozen emotionally overwrought works by Clementina, Viscountess Hawarden, done in an equally romantic mode a decade earlier. And finally there are virtually unknown photographs that cast light not only on other work in the show, but beyond it. Perhaps the most striking example is a group of photographs taken in 1860 and 1861 by Royal Engineers surveying the Western parts of the border between the U.S. and Canada. These casual images, almost snapshots, of frontier settlements, Indian villages, and the like, have none of the melodramatic grandeur of the pictures made half a dozen years later by photographers on similar surveys in the United States—underlining just how much those images were shaped by particular assumptions about the land.

But beyond all these considerations, the show raises another question, that of the nature and value of authenticity in photography. The works here are the incunabula of photography, many reproduced endlessly, as familiar to photographers as their own images. But instead of disappearing behind the mist of their reputations, they once again become photographs in this show. Not halftones; when you look at them closely they don’t dissolve into dots, but reveal ever more finely articulated detail. They’re no longer the cleanly laid-out and captioned little gray squares you’ve looked at over and over in Beaumont Newhall’s or Helmut Gernsheim’s histories. In photography at least, halftones don’t strip originals of their aura; they impose their own aura. As halftones, photographs are enshrined as significant. Seen in their original form the images here become intensely illusionistic pictures, requiring a viewer to step closer to pore over some detail, then step back to notice the overall scene. As such they again take on the paradoxical qualities of all photographs, daring us to try to figure out just what it is we see when we look at them.

Charles Hagen