The first project of part one is looking at historic photographic portraiture and covers a potted history of the changes in what the portrait represented (from an “exclusive” trophy for the rich, to the increased democratisation of early photography with cheaper production methods through to the Photomaton; or photo booth). The key take-away is that photographic portraits do not tell us much about history as they provide a very limited window into the past.
The first exercise is to select a portrait and study it in depth, writing no more than 500 words of reflection on it. I went to Google and, I’ll be honest, end up picking the first portrait I saw as it was immediately striking. I found a page from 2010 of some rare images being shown by the British Library. In particular, it was an image by Lady Alice Mary Kerr or poet and writer Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, from c.1870.
What caught my attention here was that it seemed the kind of image that would look at home in a modern portfolio. I think of the work of David Bailey and it doesn’t feel a mile off that. Focusing on the image itself, the expression at first seemed fairly blank, but that quickly took on a kind of cold, defiant, intensity which is captured particularly in the darkness of Blunt’s eyes. The contrast in terms of darkness/light and sharp/blurred further draw the eye in to the intensity of the expression.
Looking for further work by Kerr drew a blank. Likewise finding much in the way of any historian’s perspective on her work. What I have found is that she was an amateur(*1), and there are few examples of her work. Going back once again to the “exclusivity” of early photography, it seems here we have an example of an hobby that few could have afforded combined with access to a social group that gave Kerr the opportunity to produce this work.
The Telegraph, talking about the British Library’s exhibition, references the similarity between Kerr’s portrait studies and the work of Julia Margaret Cameron (*2) , who’s work was included in the course text examples.
What is interesting is thinking about how much more work must have been lost from the time, deemed hobbyist or uninteresting at the time. Today so much work by hobbyists is put online – on Flickr or Instagram – but at a time when photography was fairly rare, rarer still are the surviving examples, which just further emphasises how little it can tell us about history.