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"The Beautiful and the Damned: The Creation of Identity in 19th Century Photography"
2001-06-06 until 2001-10-07
National Portrait Gallery
London, , UK United Kingdom

This exhibition examines the rise of social and celebrity portrait photography in the 19th century. It brings together over 100 works from public and private collections, discussing the role of the portrait image as a form of social classification and examining concepts of criminality and celebrity.

Highlights of the exhibition include rarely seen surveillance images of suffragettes issued to art galleries to help them identify possible vandals, an intriguing series of portraits of murderers and their victims, fascinating photographic composites which present an average likeness of a family and alarming records of how the face responds to electric shocks. The exhibition features works by many of the most celebrated photographers of the period including Julia Margaret Cameron, Lewis Carroll, Oscar Rejlander, Atget, and Roger Fenton.

19th century society was fascinated with the notion of character, believing that it could be best understood through close scrutiny of the human face. Photography provided the most powerful tool for analysis and was readily applied to the collecting, ordering and comparing of images of the face. The exhibition is divided into sections which survey the use of portrait photography in different fields during the 19th century and show that the systems used to classify the face in the 19th century are still in use, and instantly recognisable, today.

The Family focuses on the great interest in genetics and inheritance, particularly the passing down of facial features through generations of the family. Sir Francis Galton, cousin of Darwin, invented a form of composite for which he took photographs of several members of a family and then produced a single likeness which presented an average resemblance of that family.

Schooling Society looks at institutional portraiture and includes rarely-seen pictures from the early Barnardos schools. It examines the concept of a celebrity as an anonymous figure in an old school photograph, as often seen in biographies, and the idea of the individual conforming to the uniformity of the group.

Mind and Body puts the portrait in a medical context, displaying portraits of the mentally ill by Henry Herring. Physiognomy and phrenology perpetuated the belief that mental illness expressed itself physically and these portraits were used for diagnosis and to record treatment. The patients are posed in a very similar way to the academics and physicians photographed by Hill and Adamson in 1845. Their early calotypes of doctors working with the Free Church of Scotland were studies for The Disruption Picture, a painting by David Octavius Hill. Also on display are photographs by Dr Duchenne Boulogne who attached electric probes to the face to record its reaction to the electric pulses.

The Museum and Collecting focuses on the National Portrait Gallery itself and the concept of collecting likenesses. While the Gallery did not have a photographic department until 1974, its first Director, George Scharf, had an extensive private collection of celebrity carte-de-visites and many of these are included in the exhibition. Also included are photographs of prominent suffragettes which were circulated to Gallery staff following an attack on a portrait of Thomas Carlyle in 1912. Publications such as Men of Mark and Our Celebrities, where portraits of current celebrities could be collected monthly and then bound into volumes, responded to the great national interest in collecting and celebrity.

Crime and Punishment charts the rise of the professional police force and the development by Alphonse Bertillon of the photographic identification records for criminals which present a full view and profile of the face. The exhibition juxtaposes portraits of murderers alongside their victims in a way still seen in newspapers today and includes some fascinating forensic photographs of the scenes of crimes.


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