Photography: A Victorian Sensation Exhibiton Review

Last weekend I went off to Edinburgh to FINALLY visit the Victorian Photography exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland.  It’s one of their big yins, and it is held upstairs in their temporary exhibition space.  I do adore the Victorians, they are totally insane and so I was very much looking forward to what these zany séance loving, hair jewellery making, crinoline wearing loons were doing with photography.  It turns out what they were doing was inventing it, who knew?!  The exhibition is laid-out in chronological order, with large interpretation boards leading the way though the space and through the decades.  Cameras and their related paraphernalia are dotted around in display cases, but the stars of this show are of course the photographs, and by golly there’s a lot of them. I mean really, there’s loads.  And because they were taken by Victorians, many of them are totally bonkers.  There are hundreds of the usual ‘sitting-in-a-chair-not-smiling’ portraits, and there is something incredibly spooky about many of these, like the camera has captured a ghost.  There are hilarious seaside pictures, and surreal images full of giant beetles, plenty of creepy kids, and a huge array of styles and modes of dress.

So many photos!

The thing I found most interesting was finding out the ways in which photographs were stored, presented and treasured.  There were some typical lockets, chokers and bracelets, some of which were made from braided hair, here photographs were being used as a modern version of the painted miniature, and the objects had a romantic and deeply personal feel.  Mother of pearl and inlaid celluloid cases, designed to look like books, protected the early chemically unstable images within, padded out with green and crimson velvet.  There were bronze and inlaid turquoise photo albums, and there were 3D stereoescopes a plenty, really beautiful compositions which captured the Victorian urge to record, understand and travel.  Carte-de-vistes and sea-side photographs were also on display, they were cheap, great fun, and made photography more accessible to the masses, we have a fair few in our family, unfortunately no one is doing or wearing anything ridiculous in them.  Finally the exhibition closed with a film exploring Kodak and the $1 Brownie camera, making photographic film and photography itself so easy even children could enjoy it.

Look! It’s me at the Great Exhibition! How delightful.

I really enjoyed the exhibition, and whilst the sheer volume of photographs was more than a little overwhelming, the images were broken up by objects and interactive displays.  I was a particular fan of the large touch screens which allowed you to select any of the images on display, read a description, and zoom in.  I highly recommend the zooming in, it may seem like a faffy gimmick, but it really enables you to see just how much detail the cameras were able to capture, it gave me a little shiver to be able to look so clearly into the sitters eyes.  I could almost hear the rustle of their dresses and the intakes of breath as they held still for the camera.  Unsettling but completely fascinating.

For more information about the exhibition click here, it’s around until November 22nd and is well worth the visit.




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