|Adelaide Passingham, by Eveleen Myers|
This one-room exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery presents a small selection of images from its quarter-of-a-million strong collection, supplemented by loans from New York-based dealer and collector Stephan Loewentheil. The explanatory panel states that they were ‘chosen to illustrate photography’s expressive power’, a rather vague remit which allowed the curators plenty of latitude.
There are photographers famous and not so famous, including Julia Margaret Cameron, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, Hill and Adamson, Frederick Evans, Alvin Langdon Coburn, George Washington Wilson, Man Ray, Edward Weston, Cecil Beaton and Lucia Moholy. In a display case is the recently acquired album, containing 70 prints, compiled by Oscar Rejlander. He is best known for his composites made from multiple negatives but he was an accomplished portraitist and an influence on Cameron and Dodgson.
One of the most striking photographs, from the early 1890s, is of Adelaide Passingham by Eveleen Myers (née Tennant), wife of psychical researcher Frederic Myers. It is done in a style similar to Cameron’s but Passingham looks very modern with her blouse half-unbuttoned and hair loose. Olive Edis, who recently had a major exhibition at Norwich Castle devoted to her, is represented by one of her delicate autochromes. In a room that is mostly mono it stands out, but not as much as Madame Yevonde’s remarkable 1932 portrait, employing the Vivex colour process, of redhead Joan Maude wearing a red blouse and red lipstick, photographed against a red backdrop.
Some of those depicted are famous: D H Lawrence, Edward Carpenter, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and his outsize chains (perhaps a slightly obvious inclusion), Hallam Tennyson (Rejlander also photographed him but the one on display is by Dodgson), Aubrey Beardsley, Aldous Huxley, Sir Leslie Stephen and his 20-year old daughter Virginia, later Woolf (Cameron’s great-niece), Walter de la Mare, Margot Asquith; while others are less eminent, such as Wilson’s 1854 ‘The Old Gardener Simpson … and his wife’, a title suggesting the wife was a bit of an afterthought and old Simpson did not require a first name.
The exhibition’s introductory panel asserts:
‘The photographs in this room have been chosen to illustrate photography's expressive power. The best photographs show us not just what a person looked like, but also provide a window on their character, giving us a sense of what it might have been like to be in their presence. This is one of the great paradoxes of photographic portraiture – that something of a person's spirit, thought, and feeling might be glimpsed in one, carefully chosen moment in time.’
I doubt they provide a window on character, unless we already have an idea of it from other sources, because the persona an individual projects might be a misleading one and is influenced by the degree of artfulness employed by the photographer. But even if we cannot gauge their personalities we can imagine what it would have been like to be in the subjects’ presence. Further, the artefacts themselves possess an aura not available with reproductions, making these photographs worth a visit to the NPG. I just wish it had been a larger selection.
The free exhibition, in room 29, runs from 17 October 2016 to 1 October 2017.