Composite Photography in Victorian Times

Photography as Collage

In the halls of the history of photography, the name of William Notman (1826-1891), does not often appear, and yet he is one of the most adept practitioners of the Victorian phenomenon known as “composite” photography or “combination” printing. In fact, compared to the English counterparts of the Canadian photographer, Henry Peach Robinson (1830-1901) and Oscar Rejlander (1813-1875), he was very successful, and yet he is often overlooked by historians. It is possible that Notham, like Robinson and Rejlander, has suffered the fate of composite photography in general, which was discredited by the twentieth century modernists, horrified at Victorian taste or lack thereof. Composite photography was derided as artificial on one hand and as a precursor to Dada photomontage on the other hand. But it is important to understand this peculiar and particular method of literally “making” an image, in its own cultural context. Victorian composite photography has its charms and those charms, as dubious as they may seem today, and can be understood as a step towards the idea that a photograph could be a work of art. Indeed the composite photograph, especially as practiced by Robinson and Rejlander, was a hybrid entity, combining, not just photographed elements, but also narrative–story telling, moralizing, and poetry. These concocted images functioned as illustrations of England’s best loved literature and upheld the British yearning for the past and for tradition in the midst of the Industrial Revolution.

Composite photography, or assembling multiple photographs into one print, solved many of the problems that dogged wet plate photography with its inconveniently long exposures. It was well known that landscape photographers, such as Gustave Le Gray, often combined prints of a sky with prints of sea or land because even in the late nineteenth century, it was still impossible to photograph the non-reflective land and the bright sky together without the light bleaching out the sky. In the case of landscape, there is a single seam, a join at the horizon, that is relatively simple and natural, but the combination work of Notman and the British photographers was far more demanding. Bringing people together, assembling large group in front of a camera, presents, even today, a problem for any photographer, namely, obtaining a consistent quality of expression and appropriate pose among individuals, any one of whom may move or blink or otherwise mar the overall result. But, if each individual is placed in the controlled situation of a studio, where the light is consistent, where the pose can be determined in relation to a planned composition, then the control of the photographer over the subject is assured. The procedure is not unlike that practiced by, for example, Dutch portrait painters of the seventeenth century or by Gustave Courbet in Ornans, where the artists made individual studies of each face in the confines of the studio. Composite photography was also used to re-create another tradition from painting, that of genre scenes in which a group of individuals acted out an implied narrative or a scene from a well-known episode in history or from a famous work of literature.

For some British photographers, the artists to emulate would be the Pre-Raphaelites for their elaborate compositions and arresting cast of characters, such as the rather straightforward combination of two images by Henry Peach Robinson in The Lady of Shalott (1861). As Robinson himself explained, “I made the barge, crimped the model’s long hair….and gave her a background of weeping willows, taken in the rain that they might look dreary; and really they were very expressive…I think I succeeded in making the picture very Pre-Raphaelite, very weird and very untrue—I mean imaginative.” Robinson’s co-option of John Millais’ Ophelia (1851) to illustrate Tennyson’s famous poem failed to convince the critics of its artistic merits, and the photographer later recanted his early efforts at poetic illustration, saying that “It was a ghastly mistake..” The problems Robinson encountered in all of his composite photographs were technical–the seams showed, and the demonstration of artifice disturbed the viewers. But the more interesting question is the reason for the critics’ scorn. Although boating enthusiasts pointed out that the “Lady” was lying the wrong way in the wrong sort of boat, the photograph was certainly capable to replicating one of the chief virtues of Pre-Raphaelite photography, what Michael Bartram called in his 1985 book, The Pre-Raphaelite Camera: Aspects of Victorian Photography, “the accumulation or scrutiny of detail..” a quality not necessarily on view in Julia Margaret Cameron’s soft-foused illustrations of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. However, it was not the technicality of “detail” that was important to the composite photographs of Robinson, but the ability of the camera of freeze a moment in time, to capture it forever. In deconstructing the work of this photograph, a contradiction is uncovered–a mechanical invention intended to record the present and preserve it forever became an instrument of recreating an irretrievable past. In Victorian Photography and Literary Nostalgia, Helen Goth explained the significance of artistic photography, which replicated already nostalgic and backwards looking traditions in English culture at mid-century. Writing in 2003, she stated that certain types of artistic photography was “More concerned with racing the various symbolic resonances that blurred the line between the natural and the cultural, the symbolic and the real..” suggesting that a photograph by Robinson would have served as a vehicle of desire and a repository of longing for a pre-industrial past.

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Henry Peach Robinson. The Lady of Shalott (1861)

The inartful combination printing of Robinson may well have been lack of skill or patience on the part of the photographer, but, if we understand that the attempt to recreate a poem is also an effort to provide a portal to the imagined past, then the role of the photograph shifts decisively away from the “realism” of what the French call actual to the realism of the simulacra. Once this repositioning of the role of the photographic image occurred, then the demands upon the photographer changed. First, the critical demand for photographic skill at replicating a painting comes to the fore and, second, a photographer, such as Rejoinder could gain credibility due to the sheer tour de force of putting together numerous photographs into one united story. Rejoinder’s Two Ways of Life (1857) joined over thirty separate actors in strained and artificial positions enacting a drama of choice between virtue or vice. Certainly, such themes were familiar in painting, most notably in Thomas Couture’s Romans of the Decadence (1847), but to assemble such a varied company into one “place” was quite an astonishing feat in a photograph.

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Oscar Rejlander. Two Ways of Life (1857)

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Thomas Couture. Romans of the Decadence (1847)

Rejoinder would have, in fact, replicated the same procedure employed by Couture. Once again, individual actors would pose in a painter’s studio and not necessarily with each other. The same tradition used in painting of composing the overall painting, posing the models, and controlling the final outcome was copied by composite photographers. Indeed it was precisely these qualities or abilities of composite photography to overcome the mechanical limitations of the camera and the chemistry, which allowed the photographer to emulate the traditional role of painting. Photography–if it followed the protocol of painting–could be an art form precisely because of the intervention of the artist’s inventive hand. It is no surprise that in the twentieth century supporters of “straight” or unmanipulated photography would not appreciated the cutting and pasting techniques which edited (montage) elements together, but the almost comical awkwardness of The Two Ways of Life, not to mention Rejlander’s other dramatizations were, in fact, versions of a very popular diversion in Victorian life. As Phillip Prodger pointed out in his book, Darwin’s Camera: Art and Photography in the Theory of Evolution, “The view that Rejoinder was principally a dramatist, common in recent assessments of his art, conflates two separate but related issues. The similarities between his methods and Victorian tableaux vivant, as sell as his direct connection with prominent figures n English theater, such as John Coleman, the actor-manager of Wolverhampton Theatre Royal, have been convincingly established. He was certainly influenced by popular entertainment, because he sentimentality of his compositions of the 1850s and 1860s is evident in his attempts to co-opt literary these.”

What Rejlander’s work replicated was something very different from the intentions of Robinson. Rejlander referenced theater, the elaborate pantomimed gestures that would have been completely comprehensible to a Victorian audience. This language of bodily gestures came from painting, migrated to theater–or possibly vice versa, it is not clear–and from there entered into photography and then finally came to rest in silent film. Robinson, on the other hand, seemed to adhere to the language of the art of his time, the tender and sentimental genre paintings that examined the trials and tragedies and commonplace joys of life in England in the 1850s.

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Henry Peach Robinson. Fading Away (1858)

Comparing Rejlander and Robinson’s use of combination photography, which, upon examination, are revealed to be located in two very different traditions, makes it possible to distinguish the more “naturalistic” or to be more precise more contemporary work of Notman. In her 1996 book, Framing the Victorians: Photography and the Culture of Realism, Jennifer Green-Lewis made the point that from mid to late nineteenth century, “realism” and “romanticism” existed side by side and played significant roles in the construction of Victorian visual culture. As she noted, “Victorian literature echoes photography’s call to look and its promise of new vision in questioning perception, self-knowledge, and realism itself. In romance and melodrama of the middle to late century such questions are often confronted through the magical extremism of the camera, whose products are frequently capable of extraordinary feats. Photographers in such works are not sober agents of realism but artists of the fantastic, figures of wild and questionable science. Realism, on the other hand, tends not to figure the camera or photographers much at all but rather to sue the idea of photography as a structuring principle or standard of truth to which the the language itself aspires.”

Undoubtedly one of the most amazing examples of composite photography was a panorama of ice skating in Montreal, Skating Carnival (1870), a totally fabricated–that is recreated–scene put together by Notman at a time when documentary photography reigned supreme. This Scottish emigrant came to Montreal, fleeing possible charges of financial corruption, but reinvented himself as a successful and inventive professional photography, staging narrative scenes and mastering the art form that has traditionally challenged the greatest artists, group portraits. Skating Carnival was an artistic recreation of an actual historic event in Victorian Montreal, a fancy dress skating ball in honor of twenty year old Prince Arthur, who was stationed in the city with the Rifle Brigade. In the future, the Prince would be the Governor General of Canada from 1911 to 1916, but in Notman’s scene he is attending a costume ball on ice. The photographer advertised in the paper, inviting anyone who had attended the March affair to his studio where they put on their outfit and skates and struck a pose, as directed by Notman. One hundred and fifty people showed up in response to his request: “I have therefore selected this opportunity as one offering many advantages, to carry out what has long been my intention; To get up an effective PICTURE OF THE RINK, for which purpose I beg to request that you will give me an early sitting, before or as soon after the event as possible, in the Costume you intend to use on the occasion.”

The original photograph was a large one, measuring 20 x 27 1/2 inches, but Notman, who was served by a staff of more than thirty assistants, also produced a larger color image of 37 1/2 x 53 1/2 inches. The composite photograph was then projected onto a canvas coated with photo-emulsion for several hours and then fixed and washed. The developed photograph was then tacked like a painting onto a stretcher and hand painted by two artists, Henry Sandham and Edward Sharpe. What must have been the social event of the season, a novel costume ball at an ice rink, was then captured forever in living color. Remarkably, this composite photograph was Notman’s first venture into the art of combining images. Prince Arthur could have well known who Notman was, for in 186o, the photographer had gifted Queen Victoria with a photographic album with stereographic images of Canadian scenes. Because the leather album cover was set in a container made of maple wood, it was called the “Maple Box.” The Prince of Wales, visiting Montreal at the time, accepted the gift, which was sadly lost to time, although a duplicate has survived. We know that the Queen received the unique box for she named him “Photographer to the Queen,” a title he carried proudly.

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William Notham. Skating Carnival (1870)

The Skating Carnival was not a unique occurrence but an annual tradition in Montreal, a loyal colony of Great Britain, and a province of Canada with its own tradition of winter sports and hunting with equipment unique to their own culture, toboggons and snow shoes. Norman’s elaborate group portrait of a snow shoe club placed the club in its native habitat, snowy hills and winter trees, all recreated by a studio backdrop.

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William Notman. Red Cap Snow Shoe Club, Halifax, Nova Scotia
(1888)

Every year, Notman produced a complex composite of the Carnival which featured a Society Ball and the Masquerade and the famous Palace. In 1883 Notman captured the annual Winter Palace or Ice Palace of the Carnival, built entirely out of ice in a straightforward black and white image. The Carnival attracted visitors from all over the world and Notman had long participated in representing the unique culture of Canada when he developed a series of elaborately staged photographs of Caribu Hunting in 1866. In her 2014 book, William Notman Life & Work, Sarah Parsons recounted that

Notman was immensely proud of his innovations in genre photography and set aside a special room in the studio for the purpose of experimentation. He and his team of artists created the snowbanks around the hunters by fluffing lambswool and photographing it slightly out of focus. To approximate falling snow, they would spray glass negatives with white paint. One of Notman’s more celebrated and eventually patented innovations was a plate of zinc polished to such a degree that it could appear to be ice, ready for skaters. Another image from the Caribou Hunting series featured a campfire created by a magnesium flare—a lighting technique Notman used for many purposes, given they were operating without electricity. These were meant to be momentary deceptions, clever visual tricks that allowed viewers to feel a sense of reality. Edward L. Wilson, editor of the influential journal Philadelphia Photographer, featured this image on the cover of the May 1866 issue and raved, “Nature has been caught—not napping—but alive! Out of doors has been brought indoors with the elements…. We have never seen anything more successful and true to nature, without being nature itself. Oh! What a future there is for photography!

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William Notman. Caribou Hunting, The Chance Shot. Montreal (1866)

The nine scenes starred real life hunter, William Rhodes, a British military officer who settled in Canada and took off with a crew, also featured in this tale of a hunt, annually to track and kill an animal native to Canada. Contemporary viewers found the studied and staged melodrama silly but in his own time, Norman’s work won photographic awards and medals. In fact, Notman had an international reputation, but has been forgotten by history. Although Queen Victoria herself purchased Two Ways of Life, Rejlander died impoverished and Robinson expired from the chemicals he used in his photographic processes. According to Parsons, Notman advertised himself as an “artistic” photographer: “William Notman, Photographic Artist,” but he was never part of the European tradition art photography, nor did Notman attempt to make the case that a photograph could be a work of art. Instead one could define the Canadian as being a professional and quite successful photographer, who used artistic means to make a photograph look as real as possible. Had he lived one hundred years later, he would have been working in the magic of motion pictures.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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