Early British photography imitating art

Early photography is a history of developing technology, both in terms of cameras and lenses (and use of the pinhole), and developing the final picture. Very quickly it sought to make itself as an art, and drew on rules of painting. This meant not simply arranging a picture, but constructing it through the developing process using the (calotype) negatives. The overall term for this movement is Pictoralism. Very often this meant constructing the picture for the camera, and then developing with art in mind. Painting itself was changing and Naturalism drew on this. Naturalism was more immediate in terms of the photograph, though it could still be arranged to look natural, but an opposition between Naturalism and Pictoralism is sometimes implied. In fact Naturalism can fall within the overall Pictoralist intent. Naturalism's art drew from the Impressionist painters, with their direct method, which meant in photography light and grain effects (which the medium then suggested) and using soft focus as well as sharp (not exclusive to Naturalism of course). Of course all photography had to be created and made in the early days (and this remains after the rise of the popular snapshot and mass developing). The question of photography as an art faced its most critical view in the contradictions of Philip Henry Emerson. His agonising reflected the actual limitations of the processes as well as the philosophical relationship between science, beauty and art. Painting itself used and tried to escape the inevitable accuracy and realism of the photograph, and photography at the turn of the century found its own genres. The end of Pictoralism is associated with the work of Malcolm Arbuthnot who came out of the Pictoralist movement because it was too restrictive for avante-garde work (where form triumphs over any subject, or perhaps design over picture, though it was still then pursuing beauty), and with the demise of the Brotherhood of the Linked Ring in 1908.


With the beginning of photography in the 1840's, some painters used its insights to alter the appearance of focus and use depth of field, and the contrast of light and shade. If they thought they were doing something new, they were not, as earlier European users of concave mirrors, optics and dark rooms had used the insight of projection of the three dimensional reality on to a two dimensional surface (an argument championed recently by David Hockney). Also, Thomas Wedgewood and Sir Humphrey Davy were able to make light impressions on paper and leather (1801-1802), but could not keep the image afterwards. But then artists could see a fixed chemical image, and even hold it in the hand, and mount it, and learn from it. Delacroix and Courbet used photographs of nudes to paint. Nevertheless, art critics disliked the use of photographs for reproductions, and depsite this use, sometimes for total paintings, or uses of photographs to gain accuracy, and using the photograph to do the work of converting from three dimensions to two, soon many serious painters wanted to find a distinctive imaginary and insightful place for painting, beyond that of simply providing colour, particularly because photography provided an alternative means of producing the perfect likeness and reproduced scenes relatively easily. Painting had to be obviously more than a skill of reproduction.

However, the converse happened with early photographers. The very earliest photographers were fully aware, because of the slowness of the process, that their pictures had to be constructed. Whether indoors or outdoors, photographs had to be framed, backgrounds used or viewpoints selected, models dressed or clothing and skin checked for effect and lighting arranged or the time of day chosen. They were arranged for perspective, for impact when three dimensions land upon two, and the golden mean was constructed. Photographs could describe, or tell a story. They could see that (as with painting) the medium affected the message. The tonal sepia images were given additional qualities to those already posessed, and so they borrowed what to do from art. The method with negatives allowed selective developing and some even composed an image through several negatives. So those that did not regard photography as just a means of picture taking (like war photographers and other photo journalism) and something new (emphasis on other photographic aspects) set out to produce art according to easily available and well known rules of painting. Its arguable too that even those who did not consciously aim to produce art still observed all the well absorbed if subconscious classical rules of composistion.

The earliest photography had problems with the outside, the contrast between light and sky. Later on creative processes became more possible and Naturalism became a strong movement seeking to produce the mood of the outdoor and rural scene. Someone like H. P. Robinson later had to decide to stay indoors in the construction of some pictures, whereas for a time studios were a necessity.

Artists and photographers both faced the problem of how to represent light on paper. The daguerreotype reflected light directly but obviously paper did not. We know that the impression of light is relative to the surrounds, and this is the case with television and computer screens and the like (the grey screen can show black because of the relative relationship to the white light around it, colours not only merge from primaries in the eye but relate to one another), and this is somewhat true, if not entirely, with painting and photography (painters who want to show a well lit day must paint heavy shadows!) Photographers who wanted sharp well lit images must go to their subjects in the morning or early evening. But, in thinking of their materials, J. W. M. Turner liked Whatman Turkey Paper and so did many British photographers. So this was one real practical and material sense in which painters and photographers did learn from each other.

Perhaps some painters felt threatened, because both painting and photography are both about perception. More often painters felt that they needed to find new insights and so left the photographers to indulge in pastiche and copying their art form, if in black (sepia) and white. Painting, free of its realist yoke, could go on its own journey into modernism. However, this is where photography went too.

To this artistic end there were supportative associations, the most significant for creating photography as art being the Brotherhood of the Linked Ring (1892-1908). The members selected new members and so carefully maintained it as Pictoralist, following art concepts in order to make photography an art form. It had exhibitions or Salons to this effect. It was democratic, with a Central Link chairing meetings for a month only, and each member was a Link with a descriptive society name. It was a breakaway from the more formal Photographic Society of London (formed 1853) and then Royal Photographic Society (1894). This also promoted photography as art and included Pictoralists, but had a broader brief. As well as research, a large collection has been built up which have been held in Bath since 1980.

In claiming to be an art form, photography took the methods of painting composition and forms to itself. Naturalistic photography, which would bend rules like the Impressionists did (e.g., George Davison) was also artistic, though obviously without the rigidity and prepared formal composition. This method became used to give a more direct window on to largely rural life and landscapes. With the further development of photography, painting and photography diverged in their interpretations of modernism, although both went that way.

Nowadays digital work on photographs is bringing back art into photography. Some effects are deliberately painting derived, as with some of the tools of the computer program. For example, a photograph can be made to look something like an oil painting or a pastel, though actually these are their own techniques with their own impact and hardly like appearances in painting at all. The use though of painting as an inspiration or resource for these effects has its origins in the way photography first used artistic principles.

Those in Britain who considered photography like art...

Charles Clifford(n/a - 1863) In the Meditterranean he made his work sellable to the art lover and tourist, concentrating on landscapes, monuments and other historic locations.
William Henry Fox Talbot(1800-1877) This was the man who combined his knowledge of optics and chemistry to create the calotype process at the time when Daguerre created a different photographic method. For a long time artists had projected images through first concave mirrors, then lenses and then both to generate images in a camera obscura. What Fox did, in his camera lucida (which he was drawing in 1833 in Italy), was fix the image chemically. Fox's method was superior to Daguerre's because it used (paper) negatives from which prints could be taken, and he went on to develop other methods too. He arranged pictures out of doors, got the people to freeze their movements for a time, and created images of the gentry of which he was a part and of classes below, creating social narratives. He also photographed objects with added meaning. He wanted his photographs to make people think. He would not have known about postmodernism, but his knowledge of myth and being an etymologist means he was relating his images to the meanings of words in association in the human imagination, but also he generated meanings from what we call archetypes. Nevertheless he was a realist (Weaver, 1989, 16) and mythology had a real insight into the nature of things (17-18) as did objects did generate imaginative associations. The calotypes that he and others made have lasted well, and produced high quality work. From his first silver salts experiments in 1835 he opened a print workshop in Reading in 1843, and later one in London, and his first album was The Pencil of Nature in 1844. Altogether his photographs were the construction rather than simple representation of the world, and so the beginnings of photography shared much with art.
David Octavius Hill(1802-1870) He was commissioned in 1843 to paint in one composition the hundreds of ministers who had set up the Free Kirk from the Church of Scotland. He approached the portrait painter-photographer Robert Adamson to do this and used photographic models to prepare the portraits. Doing the calotype portraits had its own interest and momentum, so he carried on advertising for models even when the painting was prepared. Hill was essentially a landscape and genre painter but with the commission and developed interest and Adamson's own portraiture motivation (this made money for artists at the time, but Hill lost hundreds of pounds through his over-enthusiasm for photography), portraiture was where they concentrated. Portraits accounted for three quarters of their output, landscapes and local scenes until 1847. Hill could think in abstract terms and in light and shade (Weaver, 1989, 45) and this was used to effect in subject and background to bring out character. It was said his pictures resembled those drawings of Sir Joshua Reynolds, Rembrandt and others (Weaver, 1989, 40). He liked the imprecision of the medium as was, because it was suggestive and even slightly mystical. He knew that a certain fuzziness could suggest movement and a sense of time. Inserted nature and certain shapes had potential symbolic meanings and suggested idealism. People, including the working class, were shown in a positive light and heroically (Weaver, 1989, 50-51). He used space and focus, and less of the frippery of background adornments which were to become popular. When it came to landscapes, Hill followed Turner in trying to suggest the interplay of light in his paintings, although this was not really possible with early photography (green became black and sky over white, distance and light effects were lost at any distance). So he showed his inventiveness by making near refelctive land and items look like the play of more distant light. He was never shy of creativity and invention whether in his art or photography, for these were always constructions. Hill was secretary of the Royal Scottish Academy for nearly forty years.
Hill and Johnston
Hill and Johnston by Hill and Adamson, about 1843 to 1847 (part of original in Royal Photographic Society archive, sepia but coloured here by me, Adrian).
Calvert Richard Jones(1804-1877) A cousin of Henry Fox Talbot (with whom he corresponded) introduced him to photography. He was a delicate watercolour painter, often excelling at marine harbour scenes, a draughtsman, a mathematician, musician and a rather inactive clergyman. He photographed architecture in Malta and Italy, and would add watercolour to some photographs. His marine photographs follow in the style of his watercolours - being close and intimate rather than dramatic but giving the full sense of scale of a ship. These were his best works. He was inventive by creating a two lens in one camera as a device not for stereoscopic vision but panoramic vision, to avoid the difficulty of matching pictures when two shots arced side by side are taken with a one lens camera.
John Dillwyn Llewelyn(1810-1944) An amateur concerned with scientific (mainly chemistry and also astronomy, botany, electricity and geology) and art issues he began his skillful and technical approach to photography in 1839. He was interested in capturing the moment and sought ways with the improving chemistry and technology to capture scenes quickly in daylight. His photographs in their subject matter represent his interest in geology which further demonstrated his pessimism regarding the lack of supremacy of the human as had been guaranteed by biblical texts, and this he tried to represent in some pictures as transcience, particularly using Caswell Bay near Abertawe/ Swansea, the family retreat (Titterington in Weaver, 1989). He was married to a cousin of Henry Fox Talbot.
Oscar Gustav Rejlander(1813-1875) Influenced by Henry Peach Robinson he was part of the movement to Pictoralism. He had serious art training in Rome. He also influenced genre photography through his studio compositions. First he rejected photography but then saw it as an scientific aid to art, and as a way of accurately catching instant fleeting emotions (also useful to support artists). The studio was used to retain control especially when producing intimate emotions, using composition too. Some of his scenes though were like our snapshots (very naturalistic). He occasionally used the controversial and for some "untruthful" technique of using several negatives together which in turn influenced Henry Peach Robinson.
Julia Margaret Cameron(1815-1879) Born in Calcutta (East India Company) she moved to the Isle of Wight in 1860, three years after which she started photography with her family in severe financially difficulties. She had connections with G. F. Watts (the painter, of great influence over her scene making), Tennyson (with whom she met Oscar Gustav Rejlander and gave books containing his photographs to others), Carlyle, Browning, Darwin, Longfellow and Herschel. D. W. Wynfield, a painter and photographer, who photographed people in Renaissance dress, influenced her. She exhibited and sold like a painter, with pre-Raphaelite looks in a number, and enacted scenes of literature, trying rather unsuccessfully to earn money, and used long exposure, soft (or even out of) focus, careful lighting, and did all this without full control. It is the poses that mark out her work. As well as portraits she created biblical and mediaeval scenes. She stands ahead of Pictoralism.
Benjamin Brecknell Turner(1815-1894) He carried on using Fox's paper nagatives technique even after glass negatives were used (yet experimenting and keeping up with modern developments), producing often large, artistic and classically composed pieces of ruins, trees and country images.
Roger Fenton(1819-1869) He was a student of the painter Delaroche between 1841 and 1843. He did not pursue painting, however, and having dropped it discovered photography, going on in 1852 to photograph Russian and Ukrainian cities, royalty, the crimean war (officially, in 1855) and then landscape and gothic architecture. Fenton helped the painter Ford Madox Brown to establish the Norht London School of Drawing and Modelling as part of the movement to develop a public appreciation of design and in some contrast (reflecting the division between applied design and fine art) a number of his pictures have Christian symbolic meaning, being a congregationalist with a respect for Roman Catholicism.
Robert Adamson (1821-1848)(1821-1889) He was principally interested in portraits as they were the way both painters and photographers could maximise their income. He used his knowledge of chemistry to bring out the best in portraitures, woking with David Octavius Hill, the quieter of the two. Adamson provided Hill with the means to carry out his artistic intentions within prhotography as well as having creative ideas of his own.
Philip Henry Delamotte(1821-1889) He was the son of a painter and Professor of Drawing at Kings College, Cambridge. He taught early photography from the late 1840's. His photographs included the reconstruction of Crystal Palace at Sydenham in 1854 and book illustrations.
George Washington Wilson(1823-1893) He was a royal photographer in Scotland, producing landscapes and seascapes, architectural and cultural photographs informed by his landscape painting developed in Edinburgh.
Thomas Annan
James Craig Annan

Thomas started a photographic workshop in 1855 having training as an engraver. In the Glasgow family firm, Thomas Annan Calotype Printers, he photographed works of art, landscapes, interiors. The firm later became T and R Annan and Sons Ltd. His major and foundation work followed a commission from the City Council which became The Old Closes and Streets of Glasgow, showing the slums. James learnt photography from his father, Thomas. he studied photogravure in Vienna in 1883 and built the family firm. He created photogravures from David Octavious Hill and Robert Adamson's calotype negatives and regenerated interest in their creations. He argued that photography should be considered alongside other arts and was a member of the Brotherhood of the Linked Ring, a largely Pictoralist movement.
Henry Peach Robinson(1830-1901)
drawing plan of Henry Peach Robinson
Henry Peach Robinson was the Pictoralist or Pictoralists, and here is his planning for a photograph just as a painter would do a preliminary sketch.
Resultant photograph
He started with photography in 1852 and opened a studio in 1857, drawing on his background of being a painter, draughtsman and dabbling in engraving. His techniques crossed over with Oscar Gustav Rejlander and was a main promotor of Pictoralism which expressed mainstream Victorian values. Informed about the arts (eg Ruskin and Burnet) through working in bookshops, and through visiting the National Gallery, and meeting with the accurate work of the Pre-Raphaelites (his pictures took on their look), he said the difference between photography and other arts is only one of degree, and he demonstrated this by the construction of photographs as emotional and meaningful pictures in their own right, and challenged the use of photography as simply an aid to painting more accurately. Pictures could tell a story, and represent the picture in the mind, and indeed he was interested to represent words, or that image we remember, and do this through composition, light and shade, perspective and focus with detail and use of several negatives. So the photograph could suggest the ideal as well as snap the real and tell some tale. This idealisation included domestic and rural scenes and the portrayal of children. He also achieved his effect through body language and facial expression. He used models and known families (especially his) to act out his scenes. Composing pictures was practical (given the restrictions on long exposure times and wide apertures) but allowed the art to come through, including printing sections of negatives on to the one paper. He co-formed the Brotherhood of the Linked Ring in 1892. He produced mainly rural landscapes.
Frederick Hollyer(1837-1858) He was influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites and was a pictorialist and member of the Brotherhood of the Linked Ring from 1893. He reproduced works of arts and photographed artists and writers.
Frank Meadow Sutcliffe(1853-1941) He formed his style from 1871 with Francis Frith (1822-1898) who had been around the Middle East in the later 1850's and used his travels to illustrate books including a bible. In 1875 he opened a studio in Whitby which became his base for the rest of his life, staging outdoor naturalistic poses of the fishing village's life. He was a member of the Brotherhood of the Linked Ring.
Frederick Henry Evans(1853-1943) His own background was progressive religious ideas and God as nature and extended this to organic forms reproduced in architecture. And there were spirals produced by pendulums. He saw a parallel between the bland output of the pianola (he tried to make its reproductions less monotonous) and the camera in unskilled hands. He was interested in lighting and perspective in cathedrals of England and France. He never retouched his photographs.
George Davison(1854-1930) A founding director in Britain of the Eastman Photographic Materials Company (later Kodak), he argued for focussing pictures to guide the viewer against the "f64 man" who aimed for all round sharpness. He would even use a pinhole for softness. He favoured the beauty within Naturalism, and opposed rigid composition in Pictoralism in favour of impressionism as a guide. He was an admirer of Peter Henry Emerson, but then ended up in vitriolic disputes as Emerson changed his stance, the result being a warming towards H. P. Robinson and both being in on the formation of the Brotherhood of the Linked Ring which promoted photography as art.
Peter Henry Emerson(1856-1936) Emerson was a very contradictory person, whose commentaries showed reversals and seemed to continue with what he rejected. In 1889 he proposed art photography (not Pictoralism a such) in Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art, an absolute position where art and optical science were in unison of support, and he was critical of photography prizes where judges were not themselves artists, yet he regretfully contradicted and reversed his general position a year later, calling photography the "lowest of all arts", because the creative use of tonal development materials was limited absolutely by exposure times (thus he could not be his artist with the materials). He critcised old friends in the New English Art Club; he denounced H. P. Robinson's strong "photography as art" sentiments. He did pursue the photographic image as a science, though contradicted himself again by saying art must have a scientific root yet art is a divergence from being scientific (it is possible to reconcile these two stances - true artistic beauty has its place in science - rather like quantum or cosmological scientists say today, whilst being artistic is being additionally creative). He also had a reversal where text that once explained a photograph seemed to become divorced from the actual image to general commentary (he was something of a writer too). Science and art were separate, he thought, yet his naturalistic photographs of people in mainly East Anglican rural scenes and landscapes were obviously artistic (and he wanted to keep beauty) and he did see that science needs the art of clear selection and arrangement and Art needs truthful nature. Incidentally, Emerson was not the only person to show this dilemma between the scientific and artistic, or the basis of truth in art. H. P. Robinson himself was open to using every trick possible in the studio, and yet despite the artificiality of art spoke of its "perfect truth". Emerson's last work Marsh Leaves (1895) shows similarity to Whistler, Turner, Japanese woodcuts, Cuyp and Rembrandt (Pearson, 1989) where the pictures show a moody, misty quality emphasising natural atmospheric elements made into art. Whilst Impressionism and Whistler came in for special praise and influence, thus in effect reversing again from his anti-art position, Emerson remained fascinated by the science of photography, particularly stereoscopic results and the moving image with sound (a fascination with combining these elements). Emerson shows photography, which after all takes pictures, struggling in its yoke alongside painting, and its slow movement towards identifying its own artistic basis, about which he was too early in photography to grasp.
Alexander Keighley(1861-1947) Influenced by Henry Peach Robinson, he produced landscapes in an Impressionist style. He was a founding member of Brotherhood of the Linked Ring.
Alfred Horsley Hinton(1863-1908) With an art education background, he worked on the Photographic Art Journal and contributed to The Amateur Photographer and was English Correspondent of the Photo Club de Paris. He co-founded the art-photography circle the Brotherhood of the Linked Ring in 1892. He had an impressionist type approach.
J. Dudley Johnston(1868-1955) Privately interested in photography, he took a Pictoralist stance and having been a company director moved all the way to becoming President of the Royal Photographic Society from 1923 to 1931 where he oversaw the building of collections.
Francis J. Mortimer(1874-1944) He joined the Brotherhood of the Linked Ring from 1892 but contributed to its demise because he was broader and advocated breadth beyond its Pictoralism. He was an illustrator. He photographed the shapes of the storms of the sea. He was editor of The Amateur Photographer and Photograms of the Year.



Centre Nationale de la Photgraphie (1991), The Origins of British Photography, Photofile, introduction by Mark Haworth-Booth, biographical translations by Ruth Sharman, London: Thames and Hudson, originally published by Centre Nationale de la Photgraphie (1988).

Buckman, R. (1989), Calvert Richard Jones of Swansea, in Weaver (1989), 55-64.

Handy, E. (1989), Art and Science in P. H. Emerson's Naturalistic Vision, in Weaver (1989), 181-195.

Harker, S. (1989), Henry Peach Robinson: the Grammar of Art, in Weaver (1989), 133-140.

Jeffrey, I. (1989), Emerson Overturned: On English Lagoons and Marsh Leaves, in Weaver (1989), 205-214.

Hammond, A. K. (1989), Frederick Evans: the Spiritual harmonies of Architecture, in Weaver (1989), 243-259.

Haworth-Booth, R. (1989), Benjamin Brecknell Turner: Photographic Views from Nature, in Weaver (1989), 79-94.

MacMillan, D. (1989), "Born like Minerva": D. O. Hill and the Origins of Photography, in Weaver (1989), 25-36.

Newhall, B. (1997), The History of Photography: From 1839 to the Present, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 73-83

Pearson, F. (1989), The Correspondence between P. H. Emerson and J. Harvard Thomas, in Weaver (1989), 197-204.

Spencer, S. (1989), O. G. Rejlander: Art Studies, in Weaver (1989), 121-131.

Stevenson, S. (1989), David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, in Weaver (1989), 37-53.

Titterington, C. (1989), John Dillwyn Llewelyn: Instantaneity and Transcience, in Weaver (1989), 65-78).

Weaver, M. (1989), Roger Fenton: Landscape and Still Life in Weaver (1989), 151-161.

Weaver, M. (1989), Julia Margaret Cameron: the Stamp of Divinity in Weaver (1989), 103-120.

Weaver, M. (ed.) (1989), British Photography in the Nineteenth Century: The Fine Art Tradition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.