Victorian London in Photographs

Art, Photography Free
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4 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

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Rapacious, unchecked development, a growing gulf between the richest and poorest and a realisation that modern life is damaging to mental health. Anyway, enough about London in 2015: here are some photos of dead people. There are plenty of contemporary resonances in these images of London from 1839 to 1901. One thing above all else drove Victorian photographers, and saw their technology evolve incredibly quickly: change.

Almost all these pictures – many of them stunningly technically accomplished as well as being fascinating documents – reflect a city and a society whose pace of change is both thrilling and terrifying. So we have the Society for Photographing Relics of Old London, who couldn’t get the plates in their cameras fast enough to record the historic buildings getting pulled down around them. There was no legislation to protect architecture, so they were about all there was in terms of awareness-raising. At the same time, photographers strove to reveal the social iniquities beneath the Victorian dream of progress: the appalling slums just streets away from fashionable thoroughfares; the children cast aside by their parents; the homeless, the destitute, the maimed and the mad.

Most moving is a series of portraits of inmates of the Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum. Literally shorn of luxuriant Victorian hairdos and dressed with institutional severity, these men and women look startlingly contemporary. The unusually close-up portraiture (presumably they had little choice) is also what we expect today when we associate photography with invasion and analysis as much as documentation. In context, though, the images bleakly reveal all the vulnerability of their subjects, and all the responsibilities that a city and a society might or might not choose to accept.

Chris Waywell

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