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“Beata Beatrix” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, c.1864-70  (©Tate)


The birth of photography is generally dated to 1839 with the revelation by Henry Fox Talbot and Louis Daguerre of their different experimental techniques, on which they had been working simultaneously but independently on either side of the Channel. From the first, photography had a dual role: as an objective, scientific recorder of appearances, and as a medium that aspired to art. The early decades of photography coincided with a period of artistic change — Courbet, Manet and the Impressionists’ experiments with new ways of looking at everyday life in France, and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s hyper-naturalism and the origins of the Aesthetic movement in Britain. As a result, art and photography became closely entwined. Painting with Light at Tate Britain (May 11-September 25) is a 75-year survey, from the Victorian to the Edwardian age, of this fruitful miscegenation.

While the theme of the exhibition is in no way novel, what it seeks to do is give form to the dictum of John Ruskin, the key figure in 19th-century aesthetic thinking, that “the greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something and tell what it saw.” Photographers took this to heart every bit as much as painters. This sort of concern helped forge, for example, the friendship between Julia Margaret Cameron and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Cameron’s photographs, with carefully posed models but no ostensible subject, were the direct equivalents of the painters’ essays in the same genre.

The exhibition makes its case by showing the works in pairs (90 pairings in all) and so includes, among others, Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix (c.1864-70) alongside Cameron’s ludicrously if earnestly titled mood piece Call, I Follow, I Follow, Let Me Die! of 1867. The similarities — identical hair, the upturned faces, the closed or half-closed eyes, the wan yearning, the presence of death — are so striking that the images could have emerged from a shared studio. The models, though, were not the same: Rossetti’s is a remembrance of his wife Lizzie Siddal, who had died in 1862, but Cameron’s lookalike can surely be no coincidence.

Whistler was another painter interested in photography and his Thames “Nocturnes” have the atmospheric blurring of developing photographic plates. Indeed, the borrowing from photography inherent in Whistler’s Mother is given away by its real title, Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1. It is a long-exposure portrait but in paint rather than chemicals on paper or a glass plate. The photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn (1882-1966) meanwhile took Whistler’s evocative Thames pictures as his inspiration and produced his own images of the London’s waterways and their traffic. They are not quite homages but rather instances of a synchronicitous vision. The same is true of P. H. Emerson and T. F. Goodall’s photographs of the Norfolk Broads which in their wateriness and concentration on unpicturesque corners of the landscape cannot help but bring to mind the work of the Impressionists.

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