Glimpse of a Remarkable Period in History

Henry White, The Garden Chair, 11 September 1854.Albumen silver print, 17.8 x 14 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.

Photography was born in 1839, making the 19th century the first to be recorded in this medium. Since then, photography has evolved dramatically from the original chemical processes to today’s digital technology. But its transformation during its first decades was an equally important transition. Until April 17, the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) presents 19th-Century British Photographs from the NGC, a fascinating exhibition of some of the national collection’s key holdings, including some that have rarely been shown. The exhibition traces the development of photography in Britain over the course of the Victorian era, from early, salted paper prints, to daguerreotypes, to magnificent turn-of-the-century platinum prints.

From the portraits of family and friends, small, familiar and domestic scenes, to grand and exotic scenes, the photographs in 19th-Century British Photographs from the National Gallery of Canada present a great range of subjects. Viewers will see images of a rapidly changing society: old courtyards and buildings, urban landscapes and village scenes that record daily life in Victoria’s Britain. In all, more than 100 photographs, many taken by the most celebrated photographers of the time, such as William Henry Fox Talbot, Julia Margaret Cameron, and Frederick Evans, chosen among more than 2,000 images in the NGC’s 19th-century British photographs collection. This is an outstanding collection, which began to take shape in 1967, and which comprises some of the most important 19th-century British photographs in existence.

Who were the British photographers of the 19th-century…What began as a series of experiments conducted by men of science quickly turned into a leisure activity for wealthy upper-class men and women. Rapid changes in photographic technology coupled with an insatiable public desire for images meant that not long after its invention photography, as a source of employment or pleasure was available to the middle and, in some cases, even the working classes. Census records show that several of the photographers whose work is now part of the NGC’s collection began their professional lives as opticians, lens makers, chemists, or merchants.

… and what were their interests?19th-Century British Photographs from the National Gallery of Canada also reveals some of the major preoccupations of the period, subjects that were of interest to photographers of the Victorian era along with the tastes, biases and prejudices of their time and place. Contemporary issues such as the need for reshaping the urban environment, the plight of the poor, and debates about social reform along with an unquestioning optimism about Britain’s continuing imperial power are implicit in many of the photographic images from this era. The photographs are evidence of their makers’ fascination with the natural world, their need to understand how things work and their drive to codify and to document. For more information, visit http://www.gallery.ca/.

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