The Post-Victorian Eye

In the influential Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art, written in 1889 by PH Emerson, the eminent Victorian photographer and writer is at pains to make the reader aware of the difficulties in trying to distinguish between the ‘professional’ and the ‘amateur’ in the field of photography:

‘ There is one obstacle that we must clear from the students path in this introduction, and that is the confusion of the terms ‘professional’ and ‘amateur’, as used in the photographic world, for in this world it must be understood that these terms exist as in no other world.

The point being made is, it was not necessarily those who earned their living from photography that were making advances the field, but more so, the free application of dedicated minds upon which the history of photography is built. Although when making these statements Emerson had in mind the polymath fraternity to which he belonged, I feel a similar caution may be exercised in the snapshot era – a visual culture that barely existed when Emerson was writing.

This album was compiled some 20 years after Emerson’s book was written, and many things were different. Victoria was dead, and the maudlin shadow that she had cast over the period had lifted, which, along with the growing movements for social justice, the arrival of the tabloid press, galloping consumer technology, automation, cinema and recorded sound, all added up to an air of change.

This is a family album, pure and simple. It shows the family on their holidays: at the beach, along the prom, having picnics, taking boating trips. Although this is all common amateur fare, this album could not be described as an ‘amateur’ effort. In the first half, all the photos are landscape orientation; in the second half, beginning exactly in the middle, they are all portrait format. Each shot is beautifully composed and all the photos are nicely rendered; it is rare to see photographs from this period with so little sepia tone in them, a varying hue resulting from chemicals added to protect the images from fading.

One may be able to see the influence of Emerson’s teaching in this album, in the shots of yachts and seascapes, perhaps. Yet the formal gaze is constantly interrupted by candid photos of people in unusual or ungainly poses: perhaps people reduced to dotted rhythms across the sand, or people simply there to frame space – their humanity temporally sidelined to preserve the beauty of the composition. The album is curated to juxtapose moods and atmosphere. There is an action shot of the little girl, turning around, joyous and playful. In the shot next to it, she sits stock still on a bench, deep in thought, pensive and vulnerable. In many of the images, no one is looking directly into the camera – a circumstance guaranteed to encourage sentimental detachment. There are several tableaux with the idyllic iconography of a proto-Norman Rockwell painting, a look seen in Kodak advertisements of the day.

In the 21st century, the distinction between the amateur and professional in photography is far easier to discern than in Emerson’s day; the dedicated colleges to the teaching of photography that he so longed for in his book now exist. And yet, arguably, the selfie is the first form of new photographic portraiture for 160 years. It can still take the amateur to switch up the game.

Nigel Martin Shephard

Published by The Family Museum

We are an archival project about amateur family photography, based in London and set up by filmmaker Nigel Shephard and editor Rachael Moloney.

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