Missing Persons: First Moves

The ‘Missing Persons’ series has provided me with a little amusement although I think the point is basically serious – publicity from Tate Britain suggests that How We Are: Photographing Britain is “The unique story of British photography” when it is just one of many possible stories about British photography.

To adequately tell the story of British photography would need a larger space and a larger budget than the Tate provided. (Budget problems may also explain the rather unusual choice of images for some photographers.) As well as the particular viewpoint of the curators, these factors also helped to shape the show that we see.

This first section, entitled ‘First Moves’, and dealing with the nineteenth century is certainly the most comprehensive and inclusive of all six of the chronological sections of the exhibition. As a history it lacks some major figures, but also fails almost completely to deal with the technical, aesthetic, political and even largely the social changes that helped to change the nature of photography in Britain over the sixty years concerned.

There are of course many others apart from those already mentioned in ‘Missing Persons’ who might well be included in a proper overview of British nineteenth century photography, far too many to devote a whole feature to each one of them. So here are just a few more from the nineteenth century who I would have expected to see in any show claiming it was the story of British photography.

One of the best of the daguerreotypists was Antoine Claudet, and Calvert Richard Jones and John Dillwyn Llewelyn produced some fine work with the calotype and later wet plate process. It is hard to believe that there were no portraits by Lady Clemintina Haywarden in the show (perhaps by some error they left her out of the credits?), but she is not on the list. David Wilkie Wynfield was another of those to whom Julia Margaret Cameron turned for advice, and on who she perhaps based her approach.

A man very much after my own tastes, Henry Dixon produced some splendid records of London streets, showing both the buildings and the people. He also took some early candid street pictures, using a camera obscured by tarpaulin on the back of a cart.

Of course there are so many other interesting photographers of the period who I’ve not mentioned who are an important part of the early history of photographing Britain. What we do get – and is certainly of some interest – is a number of relatively anonymous works by rather ordinary photographers, including the work of commercial studios (some good, some bad) and others.

Viewed on its own, and for what it is – a kind of cross section of Victorian photography, seasoned with a number of choice tidbits from some of the finest photographers of the era – this section has much to recommend it. The coverage of some of the later eras – as I’ll show in later posts – is much less complete and more biased.

Peter Marshall

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