Photography: A Victorian Sensation at the National Museum of Scotland

'Meet the pioneers of photography and discover how the Victorian craze for the photograph transformed the way we capture images today and mirrors our own modern-day fascination for recording the world around us.'

This summary attached to Photography: A Victorian Sensation’s website says it all. The exhibition tackles several aspects of the photography’s development in the nineteenth century, from the scientific to the social, whilst holding true to this main theme. Its organisers have sought to penetrate what it sees as the falsely tranquil demeanour of the subjects of Victorian photography, to reveal what lies beneath: a near equivalent of today’s ‘selfie’ culture, and a Victorian public enthralled by this new way of looking at themselves. In the humble opinion of one who cavorted through its halls in a top hat, they have done it successfully. 

The exhibition winds its way through the second floor of the National Museum of Scotland, following the careers of British photography’s founding fathers, whilst also highlighting the commercial side of the sensational invention. As the daughter of impoverished inventor Frederick Scott Archer tells the visitor via video, it was not uncommon to fall victim to the so-called ‘Victorian Craze’. The walls are lined with case upon case of photographs, thousands of small insights into the personal worlds of their subjects. My favourite was one deliberately stained with colour: two small girls with striking blue dresses sitting on their mother’s lap. A particularly evocative comment on it all is a colour lithograph depicting the mania that ensued in Paris when a do-it-yourself camera first became available to buy, the aptly named ‘La Daguerréotypomanie’, created by Theodore Maurrisset in 1839. These were more than just pictures: they were art, cherished by those whom they were made for because the images were simply so miraculous. Tell that to those arguing today that selfie culture is vapid and inconsequential.

True to form, we are of course made aware of the Scottish context of photography’s development. Many early photographers went to Scotland to practice and refine their craft, and the city was a hub of photography studios, one of which appears in an engraving of a view across Edinburgh by artist Joseph Woodfall Ebsworth. Small figures can be seen shivering in front of a camera on the rooftop of photographer James Howie’s studio. Pale early photographs of well-known city sights are also shown across the exhibition, making sure to remind us exactly where we are and what delights Scotland has to offer. 

The exhibit also has plenty of interactive opportunities, which are equally as fascinating to adults as they must be for children. There is a chance to snap a photo in the crowds of the 1851 Great Exhibition, become Victorians in a photo studio, and experience the wonder of stereographic 3D images. Indeed, reaching the end of the exhibit, the selfie parallels are made explicit. After ending in 1889 with the Kodak slogan ‘you push the button, we do the rest’, you are met with interactive screens set up for you to snap your final moments in the exhibition.

Photography: A Victorian Sensation ran at the National Museum of Scotland from 19th June 2015 to 22nd November 2015.

Image: Paul Townsend