Just as artists of the mid-nineteenth century were set free by the invention of paint in tubes, so technological advances of the 1850s led to a photography renaissance. Now its pioneers could get up and about, experiment, and turn a relatively new scientific novelty into a serious art.
This exhibition of works by Lewis Carroll, Julia Margaret Cameron, Oscar Rejlander and Lady Clementina Hawarden is nearly exquisit. In a few walls it tells the story of the medium and its surprising developments: Rejlander’s ‘Two Ways of Life’ presents a Victorian version of photoshop, stitching together 32 negatives so as to ensure the sharpness of each individual figure in a painterly scene. Cameron, the real star here, seems consistently radical, and cultivated a blurry, almost impressionist style, which she applied to everyone from her niece to heavyweights such as Thomas Carlyle. Charles Darwin privately didn’t like the 'muzziness' of her portrait of him, but his vividness is brought out by the movement of the image. Same with her side-on shot of the maudlin Lord Tennyson, perpetually wreathed in darkness.
As you’d expect, there’s a wall dedicated to the Victorian cult of childhood innocence, featuring many contributions from Lewis Carroll. There’s something undeniably ritualistic, almost cultish, in his images of children. All those uncanny kids in crowns, glowing with the photographer’s otherworldly understanding of chiaroscuro. If there’s a failing of the NPG exhibition, it’s an eagerness to smooth over or justify this dubiousness rather than probe it. Of the thousands of pictures Carroll took, blurbs tell us, only 12 were of his supposed obsession Alice Liddell, dedicatee of Alice in Wonderland. Still, the look she gives him, either turning away as a child or staring him down as a young woman, is deeply unnerving. The camera never lies, and is more than capable of speaking for itself.