Friday, February 12, 2010

Women's Albums and Photography in Victorian England

4. Women's Albums and Photography in Victorian England: Ladies, Mothers and Flirts:, by Patrizia di Bello

I recently saw a fascinating exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago called Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage. The show displayed albums by several upper-class English women who combined the arts of photography, drawing and painting to create images that deconstruct the original meaning of the photographs in a way that precurses surrealism. Di Bello, who is a lecturer in the history and theory of photography at Birkbeck College, University of London, contributed an essay to the exhibition catalogue, and this book delves into many of the same themes of the exhibition.

Di Bello looks primarily at two specific albums: that of Anna Birkbeck (Lady Waterlow), created between 1825 and approximately 1847, and that of Lady Mary Filmer, compiled around the 1860s. Lady Waterlow collected in her album poetic and artistic contributions from friends, many of whom were well-known in their own time, such as Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and Robert Owen. Thus the album becomes evidence, through individual and personal connections, of the owner's participation in public, cultural spheres.

Between Lady Waterlow's and Lady Filmer's times, photography burgeoned. The phenomenon of the carte de visite, those postcard-sized photographs that were exchanged by friends and sold in the marketplace, allowed mass production of images that could then be used in a variety of ways. In Lady Filmer's album, we see images cut from cartes de visite placed in settings congruous and incongruous. She places images of men on painted parasols, just as other album makers placed images on teacups, luggage, sandwich boards and the like. Her access to images of the Prince of Wales, and her placement of a cutout of him in a prominent position on the page "Lady Filmer in her Drawing Room", is an indication of how a woman might use her albums to show her place in society.

Di Bello also looks at photography and albums in the context of the larger society. Such albums appeared in images in advertisements and in women's magazines. Photographs of aristocratic women, of the Queen and her family, were displayed in shops and reproduced widely.

It is di Bello's argument that the women who worked on these mixed media albums understood and were exploiting the way photography "sever[s] people from their original social context into another, created by the image-maker." She suggests that such albums are neither high art nor mass culture, but engaged with both. She notes that as photography lost its exclusivity, through mass marketing of images and easier-to-use photographic techniques, upper-class women began to use other means, such as photocollage, to personalize their albums and emphasize their status.

Having been much intrigued by the images I saw at the Art Institute, I was pleased to be able to read more about the subject. I would, however, caution that this is di Bello's doctoral dissertation. As such, it is written in an academic style that many may find difficult. Once the reader accommodates herself to the dense prose, however, she will be rewarded by interesting ideas and insights into a creative art that has too often been denigrated as nothing more than one of those lady-like domestic accomplishments expected of upper-class Victorian women.

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  1. I really liked the Art Institute exhibit, too! I found it fascinating though slightly repetitive. Some were a bit creepy as well, but overall really interesting. I would have enjoyed more time to walk around and look at them, but alas, the friends I were with are those very fast museum types.

  2. This sounds absolutely fascinating! I will definitely have to check that book out--and I wish I lived near Chicago so I could see the exhibit for myself. :)

  3. Heidenkind -

    Are you anywhere near New York or Toronto? Because it's at the Metropolitan Museum until May 9. Then it's going to Toronto, to the Art Gallery of Ontario, from June 4 - September 5.