Victorian Photography in Edinburgh
Today I visited the press preview of Photography: A Victorian Sensation at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. It’s a major exhibition which actually goes beyond the wonderful huge collection of mint condition Daguerreotypes and other early examples, ending with a Nikon D5500 as an example of today’s tech.
You can visit this entirely free if you are member of National Museums of Scotland. For non-members, it’s £10 (adults) £8 (concession), or £6.50 (children 12-15) and free for under 12s, until November 22nd. The museum itself is free entry, and if only one person in your family wants to see this (Exhibition Gallery 1, Level 3) there’s plenty for others to see and do.
I wanted to see the Nikon – I had helped the curator with this, putting her directly in touch with the right individual at Nikon, after a mutual friend in Edinburgh asked for assistance. Why not Sony? Well, the museum acquires representative technology for the permanent collection, and specifically wanted a DSLR not a DSLT or mirrorless – and the Nikon fitted well with a 1990 first generation digital camera displayed close to it, another Nikon. No doubt at some future date, mirrorless will be so much the flavour of the era that they acquire a Sony.
It’s a superb show, with wall-high prints blown up from unexpectedly early originals. Although it is not a huge exhibition area, I would recommend sparing half an hour for the casually disinterested family member, an hour to two hours for this who actually look at the exhibits, and half a day for anyone who wants to access the touch screens, study the work and really learn something. The good thing about the museum is that if you DO have family members who want to do something else, there’s plenty to see and much of it is rather fun, whether Dolly the Sheep or the kids’ painting and crafts corner. It also has a café which is not overpriced and Edinburgh’s Old Town tourist attractions are a five minute walk from the door. Parking cost me £2.60 for one hour on a nearby meter, paid by mobile phone, and there are cheaper options.
One of the best bits must be the use of touch screens (above) which replicate a cabinet (as below) of small original works. Tap the corresponding thumbnail, and it fills the screen. Do an ‘expand’ gesture with two fingers (or hands) and the super-high-res copy of the Victorian work – often only a few centimetres wide – expands to show microscopic resolution. Daguerreotypes, in particular, are almost grain-free and reveal as much detail as Sony A7R II… who needs 42 megapixels when you have countless megamolecules?
The exhibition includes National Museums Scotland’s extensive early photographic collections, including Hill and Adamson’s images of Victorian Edinburgh, and the Howarth-Loomes collection, much of which has never been publicly displayed. The cartes-de-visite and cabinet photographs below emphasise the huge volume of these portraits produced 150 years ago.
Highlights include an early daguerreotype camera once owned by William Henry Fox Talbot; an 1869 photograph of Alfred, Lord Tennyson by Julia Margaret Cameron; a carte-de-visite depicting Queen Victoria and Prince Albert as a middle-class couple and an early daguerreotype of the Niagara Falls. There’s a special niche for Eastman and his Kodak.
You are also be able to visit a ‘stylised recreation of a Victorian photographer’s studio’ – er, not exactly a re-creation, as stylised is certainly the word! Victorian props and costume details can be used, and you can take a photograph, which will be displayed in a photomontage at the end of the exhibition. The lighting, however, appears to be Godox Witstro or a similar battery flash mounted into a big Elinchrom Octa.
At the press day, model Bronwyn Mackay was dressed in Victorian costume. My photo of her (top), not in the studio setting but holding a stereoscope with part of the display behind her, was taken using my Sony A6000 with 16-50mm OSS lens. Bronwyn is lit by the new ICE Light 2, which I’m holding in my left hand. The camera is at ISO 3200 and the lens at f/5.6, but it’s still a marginal 1/13th exposure, as the lights are low in the room and the ICE light is at minimum power to balance the shot and prevent distress to the model.
I am told there is a book and a smaller catalogue (neither available when I visited) and we’ll be looking at the book, for certain, in Cameracraft magazine.
For further information on the exhibition please visit www.nms.ac.ukphotography
– David Kilpatrick