The National Gallery was founded in 1824 and modern photography evolved just a decade or so later with the processes developed by Henry Fox Talbot in England and Louis Daguerre in France. Nevertheless, it has taken nearly that full 180-year span for the wranglings about photography’s claim to be an independent art form to lose their heat before the gallery could hold its first major photographic exhibition.
Seduced by Art: Photography, Past and Present is not a survey of “art photography” (that is photography with aspirations rather than casual snaps) but an examination of how the traditions of painting affected photography from its inception and continue to do so today. It is a show comprising three elements: paintings from the National Gallery’s collection, images by the Victorian photographic pioneers who were inspired by them, and photographs by a cluster of modern practitioners working in the same idiom.
That the first photographers should look to the example of painting was entirely logical. Theirs was a new medium through which to capture the visual appearance of the world and so they turned to its closest antecedent. They also wanted to raise photography’s status above that of a merely reproductive technology. In 1786, Joshua Reynolds dismissed the camera obscura as producing only a “cold prosaic narration or description”, without the elevating influence of the “poetical mind”. Art offered a way of making photography poetical.
As a result Fox Talbot photographed a 15th-century drawing and included it in his publication The Pencil of Nature (1844-46) and Julia Margaret Cameron made consciously imitative subject photographs as well as portraits of the likes of Thomas Carlisle, Lord Tennyson and Ellen Terry. Light and Love (1865), for example, is a reimagining of a Madonna and Child painting in which she utilised her camera’s shallow depth of field to give her subject a soft focus and gentle tonal gradation that, in the words of one early viewer, resembled “a sketch by Correggio”. Oscar Gustav Rejlander was more direct, his Non Angeli sed Angli (1857) is a staging of the pair of slightly bored angels in Raphael’s Sistine Madonna. Rejlander put two small children in identical poses (minus the wings) and photographed them both as an independent work and as though they were Raphael’s own models.
Where photographs were most like paintings was in the fact that both required generous amounts of time: while the application of paint on canvas was necessarily laborious the long exposures required by early cameras (often needing several minutes) meant that subjects needed to be static. Portrait sitters would have to hold a pose, often supporting themselves with a table, chair or hidden metal armature to keep themselves still and not blur the plate. Roger Fenton’s celebrated photographs of the Crimean War have a carefully composed feel precisely for that reason. He was not able, as today’s photojournalists are, to capture battle action so his compositions resemble the static military paintings of Horace Vernet. His soldiers, though real, have to pose every bit as carefully as an artist’s model.
Long exposures meant that other painterly genres such as landscapes, still lifes and the nude were natural topics for photographers too. This last, however, had to face the problem expressed by Henry Peach Robinson in the 1850s: “The nude is the divine ideal; the undressed is the modern naked girl.” To overcome the accusation of showing simply naked girls, photographic nudes had to ape paintings. There was nevertheless an active market for nude photographs that had nothing to do with noble appreciation of the human body — as what the painter Delacroix, an admirer of photography, described as “this admirable poem” — and everything to do with carnality. The work of modern photographers such as Robert Mapplethorpe and Nan Goldin show that such issues have not gone away.
The third strand of the exhibition is intended to show the ongoing influence of the first photographic generation. The exhibits leap almost the whole 20th century and the selection of photographers is carefully weighted. There is no Andreas Gursky for example, the world’s most expensive photographer, nor William Eggleston or Richard Prince, all of whom can be intensely photographic. In their place are the Israeli Ori Gersht, whose Blow Up showing an exploding vase of flowers is placed alongside 19th — and 17th — century flower paintings by Fantin-Latour and Balthasar van der Ast, and Richard Learoyd, whose dorsal portrait of a man with an octopus tattoo is the companion piece to Ingres’s sinuous painting of Angelica Saved by Ruggiero.
Beneath their postmodern knowingness such images demonstrate how the pictures made by Fenton, Cameron et al preserved the photographer’s spirit as well as the parade of 19th-century faces they put before their lenses.
Over the past few years the Queen’s Gallery has staged a series of elegant exhibitions highlighting the extraordinary riches of the Royal Collection. The latest to draw on the holdings of 7,000 paintings, 40,000 drawings and 150,000 prints is The Northern Renaissance: Dürer to Holbein. The 100 exhibits amount to a roll-call of the great names of the period and an overview of how Renaissance art shed much of its Classical idealisation in favour of detail and particularity when it crossed the Alps.
Among the highlights are an exquisite drawing of a greyhound by Dürer, a painting of a young man by the most rarefied of portraitists, Hans Memling, Brueghel’s affecting snowbound Massacre of the Innocents, and a suite of 25 portrait drawings and paintings by Holbein. These are notable not just for the sitters (Thomas More, Jane Seymour, Princess Mary) but because several of the preparatory drawings accompany the finished pictures.
Apart from Holbein, none of these artists is well represented in Britain and it is a rare chance to see such a gathering — with high-quality secondary artists too. The pleasure is not just Her Majesty’s.