How the Victorians presented themselves to the camera explains a lot about them – and us
Posed for photographs, formal and appalled, our great-great-grandparents look touching and a bit hilarious – all that stiffness, that artifice! But stop laughing and consider just how staged, how hilarious our own snapshots will look to our great-grandchildren. The simplest "us at the lake!" snap will seem quaint and mannered in 150 years. Time uncovers the pose.
Fashions in posing is one of several topics tossed around in the excellent current exhibition at the Harry Ransom Center, "Dress Up: Portrait and Performance in Victorian Photography" (closing at the end of the month, so hurry over).
Ransom Center curator of photography David Coleman offers a graceful and imaginative disquisition on the relationship between art, artifice, and reality in that most democratic medium, photography. And the exhibition ends with a lovely twist: an interactive section that makes the visitor think hard about how his own habits of self-presentation may not differ so much from those wacky Victorians.
What's striking in this exhibition is how many of the art vs. reality issues that trouble us today – sure, great shot, but I heard he punched it up in Photoshop – were equally fraught in the earliest days of photography. In theory, photography is documentary, reflecting reality back to us, holding up a mirror to your third birthday party. In reality, photography has always sustained an uncomfortable tension between the really real (whatever that is) and created/manipulated "reality." This tension played perfectly into what the exhibition labels call "Victorian fascination with blending fiction and fact."
For example: One striking photograph in this exhibition is Henry Peach Robinson's The Lady of Shalott (1861). The image comes from the Tennyson poem about the woman who, for unrequited love of Lancelot, lies down in a little boat and dies, her corpse briefly catching the great knight's eye ("She has a lovely face") as it floats past Camelot. This drippy tale was red meat to Victorians, and Robinson's photo is both insanely overdone – all sorrowing branches and watery reflections and drifts of velvet and cascading hair – and extremely cool.
But the photograph sparked controversy in its day, because Robinson dared to combine multiple negatives to achieve the effect he wanted. The wall label tells us that he believed that in a work of art, "it was the final product that mattered," no matter how it was achieved, whereas most critics said that ur-Photoshopping like Robinson's was "deceitful and inappropriate." That same debate still rages hot today, everywhere from newsrooms to glam-rag covers to Flickr comment strings.
Oddly, Robinson also caught flak because critics were shocked that he photographed an imaginary scene, a fiction. Underlying both critical objections to this photograph is a deep unease with something that looks real but isn't. It's as atavistic as an infant's fear of masks, and it's no wonder photography stirs distrust to this day.
The exhibition is divided into three sections. The first is titled "Play the Part," and it treats the Victorian fondness for dress-up and costuming and how that meshed with the era's fascination with photography. Sometimes Victorians just took pictures of the dressing-up they were already doing – for example, in tableaux vivants. This is a very old form of entertainment; the Christmas Eve living crèche at your neighborhood church is part of a tradition that stretches back to the Middle Ages. And it was a great fad among better-off Victorians, who would spend weekend house parties diving into trunks full of costumes to create "living pictures" of great moments from history, legend, and literature. An album at the Ransom Center exhibition documents tableaux vivants performed by royalty at one of Queen Victoria's own homes.
Victorians also dressed up their offspring. One sequence by Lewis Carroll stands out: Xie Kitchin in Greek Dress, Xie Kitchin as Penelope Boothby (a famous 18th century dead child), Xie Kitchin in Chinese Dress, etc. Alexandra "Xie" Kitchin, daughter of an Oxford colleague of Carroll's, is both lovely and unreadable in most of these photographs – in two, she is photographed asleep (and you wonder where you got that bad reputation, Mr. Carroll), whether in pretense or in actual exhaustion from the burden of all that artifice.
The second section of the exhibit is called "Bodies of Evidence" and explores the way Victorians used photography to identify people by class or "type" – cataloging being a great 19th century obsession. Here we get a downright creepy series by Guillaume Duchenne de Boulogne of faces expressing various emotions – Attention, Discontent, Fright mixed with Pain (jeez) – based on electrical stimulation of the facial muscles.
More surprisingly, this section also includes Jacob Riis, the police reporter who dedicated himself to documenting urban poverty. From his groundbreaking book How the Other Half Lives, we get the bleak home of an Italian ragpicker (aka "Madonna of the Slums"). Riis' work does not fit the "dress up" theme. Indeed, his relentlessly documentarian photographs have often been criticized for their lack of art. Too blunt to seem like a story, they seem true (although, in the context of this exhibition's focus on pose and performance, it is interesting to think about that "seem").
The exhibition's third section, "Portrait & Identity," looks at the representation of Victorian identity via an iconography of attributes and locations signifying profession and social status. Thus we get Buffalo Bill and Henry Stanley in full regalia – the latter with young African servant, just to make sure you get it. We also get Two Gentlemen, a photograph of a couple of Merchant Ivory types ("types": see, I can do it, too) reclined against marble steps with their hunting dog, in a precise delineation of their very upper class.
At the end of the exhibition is an unexpected treat: a large and well-lit nook where you can make your own portrait against a suitably Victorian painted background. Coming at the conclusion of an exhibition that has sharpened your awareness of posing and its iconography, the title of this section – "Be Yourself" – is sly. A sign asks you to consider how you can use this self-portrait to reveal (or conceal?) certain information about yourself.
The resulting photos are posted on the HRC's website, organized by date, and they're fascinating. Some people take standard family group shots, arms around one another. Others strike melodramatic poses, fight off giant hands, raise their arms in mock strongman poses. Couples embrace, either in 21st or 19th century fashions. Some play with focus, one person standing as far as possible from the camera, one as close as possible. Some peer in from the side. Some stand directly in front of the lens. Some are laughing. Some are sober. Some photograph themselves being photographed. All are making self-conscious decisions about how to present themselves. All are posing. Try it yourself, and find out something about the way you construct the self that you show to the world.
"Dress Up: Portrait and Performance in Victorian Photography" continues through Sunday, Dec. 30, at the Harry Ransom Center, 21st and Guadalupe, on the UT campus. For more information, call 471-8944 or visit www.hrc.utexas.edu.