Posted by: Marisca Pichette | September 26, 2018

Victorian Photography in the Modern Imagination

One of the fallacies about historical “progress” and changes in technology is that, once a more sophisticated medium is created, all use of the method that preceded it ceases, and society moves forward. We know that this is false. The introduction of typing did not stop people from writing by hand, nor did photography obliterate painting.

In a recent visit to the Mount Holyoke Art Museum, I came across a set of ambrotypes. Ambrotype is a method of photography invented in the 1850s, following the daguerreotype and preceding the tintype. Plates of glass were coated in iodised collodion and silver nitrate before being exposed in a camera, then developed from a negative. This delicate process required the subject to sit anywhere from several seconds to a minute, and was very fragile when completed.

The photographs above depict two individuals, posed in the style of sitting and reclining nudes. When I first saw them, I thought they were both women, but soon adjusted my assessment. To me, they looked voyeuristic and Orientalist, highlighting the Otherness of the subjects. At first, I observed the medium, and assumed these were ambrotypes from the nineteenth century. But I was wrong.

The artist of these pieces is Rowan Renee, born 1985. They took these photographs in 2015, of two gender-nonconforming individuals. Their goal was to have them posed in the style of classical nudes, but at the same time, to challenge the traditional purpose of such works–that is, a freezing of the female form reserved for the male gaze. Renee confronts the history of nude painting and photography with their series Z, of which these two ambrotypes are a part. The ambrotypes serve to remind us of the voyeurism and objectification inherent in nude posing, both in the past and present–while simultaneously drawing our attention to our own prejudices and issues with body and image in the 21st century.

Renee’s work caused me to consider how times have changed since the Victorian era, and how they have stayed very much the same. Photography today still forms a powerful dialogue about the self, and how we use gaze to make a statement. I would highly recommend that people check out Renee’s website, which has the rest of the series, as well as a slew of imagery reflecting transgression and selfhood:




Information on ambrotype:

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