Interpreting the Lives of Great Photographers

This exhibition considers the lives of photographers as much as their work.  But to what extent do their photographs reflect the lives, thoughts, feelings or beliefs of the person behind the camera?

William Henry Fox Talbot was 44 years old when he took, The Ladder, which became an illustration in his groundbreaking photographically illustrated publication, The Pencil of Nature.[1] In the photograph a young man stands at the top of a ladder and faces the viewer, while two men at the foot of the ladder have their backs to us.  Ladders are symbolic of many things, from human endeavour to the life after death, or humanity striving for perfection.  Does the figure at the top of the ladder look out towards us because he has reached spiritual perfection,[2] while the two men below have still to make the journey to self-realisation?  If so, how does such a neo-Platonic interpretation relate to Talbot’s life story or personal beliefs?

The Ladder is an intriguing image, but Talbot’s accompanying text for the image in The Pencil of Nature refers only to the fact that, ‘[Photographs of] Groups of figures take no longer time to obtain than single figures would require since the Camera depicts them all at once, however numerous they may be.’  So, whether Talbot intended to convey a transcendental message with The Ladder we will probably never know.

The Ladder, April 1844 William Henry Fox Talbot (1819-1894) Salt print from calotype negative National Media Museum

As well as a respected photographer, Lady Clementina Hawarden (1822-1865) was a married woman who had ten children. Her photographs, when exhibited during her lifetime, were well received.  Her work never found its way into any collections outside of her family, and so, after her death her photography was forgotten.  This changed in the 1970s when her entire oeuvre was gifted to the Victoria & Albert Museum by her descendants and her work became critically acclaimed once more.[3]

Self-portrait, c.1855 Lady Clementina Hawarden (1822-1865) Albumen print National Media Museum

Hawarden’s refined figure studies still intrigue as to what hidden messages they may contain.  In the 1990s the rise in gender studies led to people looking deeper into Hawarden’s photographs and there they found an element of languor, even though the works being assessed were photographs of Hawarden’s adolescent daughters.  This speculation was reinforced when combined with the physical description of Hawarden as a tall woman who was ‘fair, straightforward, nay manly, with a feminine grace’[4] tended to support the view that she may have been a lesbian or bisexual.  But there are no personal writings from Hawarden herself, or accounts by her contemporaries to state that this was the case.  Views on sexuality and gender have changed greatly since the nineteenth century.  Nowadays we would never infer someone’s sexuality from their physical appearance, but even so, without evidence we will never know the facts surrounding the private life of Lady Hawarden.

Isabella Grace and Clementine Maude Hawarden, c.1863 Lady Clementina Hawarden (1822-1865) Albumen print National Media Museum

Occasionally a photographer’s life and work do seem to relate directly to one another.   George Davison flouted social conventions when he divorced his wife so that he could live with another woman.  By all accounts his marriage to Louisa Davison was not a happy one, whereas his relationship with Joan Jones was.  A comparison of the portraits he took of the two women seems to bear this out.  But even so caution is advisable.  Just think of the times you have been photographed but your face hasn’t mirrored your true feelings.

Portrait of Mrs Louisa Davison (1858- 1955), March 1906 George Davison (1855-1930) Early snapshot photograph National Media Museum

Joan Jones (1897?-1955) with baby Doreen (b. 1921), 1921 George Davison (1855-1930) Photogravure National Media Museum

As I was selecting the images for this exhibition I was aware that the work of each photographer might reflect or illustrate some aspect of their life story.  A contact sheet of portraits of the photographer Tony Ray-Jones made it to the final selection because it showed the photographer in a variety of poses and perhaps, even if only on a superficial level, implied different aspects of his personality. I also decided to include his photograph of a motor show in Daytona because it struck me as a poignant image in which the empty driver’s seat reminded me of that sadness of his death at an early age.  And yet this photograph was taken seven years before Ray-Jones’ death, at a time when he was travelling across America, working with and learning from photographers he admired.  I’d like to think he was content at that time in his life when the promise of a long life and successful career lay before him.

Multiple portrait of Tony Ray-Jones (1941-1972), May 1970 Ainslie Ellis (1920-1997) Gelatin silver contact sheet National Media Museum

Auto Show, Daytona, 1965 Tony Ray-Jones (1941-1972) C-type print National Media Museum

In conclusion, context is all.  To understanding the life and times of a photographer can inform and help us understand their work.  And that is one of the main aims of this exhibition: to put the photographs in context of the lives of the photographers.  But it is important not to read too much into a photograph without considering when, and under what situation it was taken.  Otherwise we run the risk of misunderstanding the photographer and their work.  It is tempting to look at the lives and work of these great photographers and make connections between the two.  It is also interesting to interpret their work in light of what we know of their life and times, but cautioun has to be exerted because we can never really know what the photographer was thinking, or feeling when they took the photograph.  The danger is that we read something into the image that perhaps doesn’t really exist, except in our own minds.

[1] William Henry Fox Talbot, The Pencil of Nature

[2] Consider the story of
Jacob’s ladder in the Bible (reference?)

[3] All except for a small cache of her work which has found its way into the National Photography Collection here at the National Media Museum.

[4] From Lady Hawarden’s obituary by Oscar Gustav Rejlander, ‘In Memoriam’, British Journal of Photography, 27 January 1865


About Brian Liddy

Brian Liddy is Curator of Collections Access at the National Media Museum. He curated The Lives of Great Photographers.

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