New York Photo Review
NYPR Archives - 2010

Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage
R. Wayne Parsons

This show is revelatory. It reveals not masterworks of Western art, but lesser works that are nevertheless witty, entertaining, and informative of a little-know aspect of artistic and social life in Victorian England. In the 1860s and ‘70s upper class families in the British Isles kept photo albums, a practice that was furthered by the dramatic growth in the practice of photography in the mid-nineteenth century. Portraits were especially popular, as the mania for exchanging photographic visiting cards ensured a steady demand for them in large numbers, and enterprising photographers were quick with technical advances that allowed as many as eight negatives of a portrait to be made from one exposure.

Women had the job of mounting these images, along with photos of landscapes, architecture, domestic scenes, family group portraits, etc. in albums. While attractive decorative borders and artful arrangements of photographs are common, they are the less interesting part of the story. Some more imaginative and artistically ambitious women created watercolor backdrops and inserted photographs, or more frequently, parts of photographs, usually portrait heads, into them. They were limited mainly by their imaginations (though propriety also played a part, as these albums were for domestic use in proper Victorian homes). We see people placed in a wide variety of contexts, such as on the tail feathers of a turkey and the wings of a butterfly, in the gondola of a hot air balloon, and on the backs of turtles and frogs. Domestic scenes were also common; for example, photographs of family members were glued onto a watercolor drawing of a parlor. Apparently the creation of fanciful and counterfactual collages was encouraged in part by the publication in 1865 of Alice in Wonderland with its appealing illustrations by Tenniel.

The level of skill in these albums is high. Excellent draftsmanship and imagination went into the creation of the watercolor drawings, and the melding of drawing and photography is usually convincing.

One thing missing from this exhibition is any sense of how common the level of artistic excellence presented in the show was in this milieu. We see marvelous work by the dozen or so women included in the exhibition, but we don’t know whether it is the exception proving the prevalence of mediocrity or whether it signifies a widespread golden age of collage art.

It should be mentioned that these collages, while frequently fantastical and sometimes satirical, lacked the bitingly caustic social and political commentary that often came with the territory of twentieth-century photocollage.

This is a fun show; you can spend a good deal of time studying and enjoying the collages from a handful of albums mounted on the walls. But be sure to allow time to view the eleven albums that are presented in their entirety on three video monitors in the gallery –- and it’s advisable to go at an off time when demand for these terminals will be light.

Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage

Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Ave.
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212 535 7710

Tuesday, February 2 to
Sunday, May 9, 2010
Hours: Tues - Sun 9:30 - 5:30; Fri, Sat to 9 pm.