Photography's early decades were marked by an explosion of photo-portraiture in Great Britain, America and on the European continent. This exhibit collects a rich trove of vintage paper portraits, including wet-plate albumen and salt prints, cartes-de-visite, mounted oval cuts, and other diversely interesting specimens.
The authors range from anonymous photographers to great names in 19th-century artistry: Julia Margaret Cameron, Lewis Carroll, Gustave Le Gray, and studio masters such as Andre Adolphe-Eugene Disderi and Pierre-Louis Pierson. Indeed, as a cross-section of European and American portrait photography at a moment of high energy and discovery, this collection is as compelling as it is vast.
The energy and discovery are evident in the large-family portraits, in which parents and children are massed together, making the most of the era’s first surge of domestic photo-documentation. These images convey the rich variety of family life, when it was not uncommon for parents to raise ten or more children. Other portraits are more eccentric, from Parisian street performers gathered in a studio to experimental images of, for example, painters depicted self-importantly (if not self-satirically) surrounded by their ornate picture frames.
As for style, the muted atmospheric touch of Julia Margaret Cameron always stands out in such photo assemblages, where studio portraiture and its conventions are the norm. Cameron was more expressively engaged--if not expressionistic--in her studies of the famous and the familial, and she captured abstract emotion like few others. Then there are the charming family images of Lewis Carroll, the great Victorian author and Londoner, who photographed subjects in English garden settings that convey a warm sense of place.
Similarly, Philadelphia's great painter, Thomas Eakins, captured family images with a pictorial eye, and the photography attributed to Eakins is excellent complement to Carroll's prints. As for the many others, the studio prevails in striking images of royalty, the rich and their children, by the likes of Pierre Louis-Pierson, while the magisterial work of Le Gray, Hill and Adamson, and images attributed to Nadar are all classic studies of the people who defined this transitional era in the arts and society.