Britain in focus – A Photographic History (part 1)

Documentary series, BBC4. In three parts, commencing 6 March 2017.

I thought it would be helpful to my learning to take notes as I watched this program, and to record my learning in my blog.

Part 1 of the series  looks at the history of photography from Fox Talbot’s (and Britain’s)first-ever photograph in 1835, to the rise in photography as documentary, art, commercial venture and social record of events through the 19th century.

I have read about Talbot’s ‘mouse-traps’ but seeing images of his cameras and the miniature photographs he produced after a 2 hours exposure was fascinating. That he then went on to create a process that created detailed pictures after only 20 minute exposures was, by standards in the 1840’s, unheard of. Frederick Scott Archer’s ‘wet plate’ colodium process reduced exposure times to just 20 seconds. I was interested in the fact that the negative actually developed on the glass – I am not sure what I had imagined in the past, but this program made the process more understandable. I do not know how the negative is then turned into a positive and reproduced, and although I am not likely to develop my own film images, I can’t help but be curious about how it is done. Further research needed.

I was particularly interested in Robert Howlett’s images (1857) of the engineer Brunell and his Great Eastern Steam Ship. Howlett was commissioned to photograph the ship and his images appeared in the press. It is hard to believe that in order for an image to be printed in the newspaper, it first had to be copied by an engraver who would make a woodblock version of the image.

Image 1

Howlett, Robert (1857) Brunell standing against the launching chains of the Great Eastern at Millwall in 1857

This image was discussed on this program. The presenter, Eamonn McCabe (photographer and picture editor) thought that Brunell, in this picture, looked smug and self satisfied. Brunell’s biographer, Rose Teanby, disagreed. She said his venture at first had been unsuccessful, and this was a photograph of a man under stress. She said he always smoked a cigar, always wore a top hat, he was wearing dock workers’ trousers, and contrary to McCabe’s interpretation of the image, she felt that this image represented the ‘real’ Brunell.

In terms of the conventions of photography of the wealthy and successful, this image ‘broke all the rules’. Teanby explained that the tradition would be to produce an image of a wealthy man, dressed in his best, posing in his estate with his horse behind. Here we have industrial chains as a backdrop instead of the country seat and horses, and a consequent challenge to the conventions of portraiture.

Roger Fenton’s (1819-1865) image , taken at The Strid at Bolton Abbey was considered a masterpiece. He was ‘a founder member of the Photographic Society’ and was ‘dedicated to making photography into fine art’. His image challenged the traditional landscape conventions – he photographed directly into the light to create atmosphere and, in doing so, created something different and new.

Fenton’s images of the Crimean War show how he was committed to producing art through photography.

Image 2

Fenton, R (1855) Valley of the shadow of death

McCabe explained that there existed a second version of this image, without the littering of cannon balls, and that this suggested that either Fenton had added the cannon balls, or he had removed them, but proved that the photograph was ‘staged’. Fenton wanted to produce art, and if the truth got in the way, then so be it.

The documentary said that by the 1860’s, photography was becoming a commercial venture and the wet plate process enabled photographers to take and sell portraits to the public. Negatives could be manipulated to flatter the sitters and therefore, a profit was to be made. Queen Victoria collected ‘Cartes de Visites’ (visiting cards depicting tiny images of the hosts), as a fashionable hobby and put them in albums made specifically for the purpose. In 1860, the queen gave her consent to a photograph of herself, in mourning, gazing at an image of her beloved husband, to be released to the public. This was the beginning of deliberately influencing and manipulating the viewer, albeit in a controlled and respectable way, and was perhaps the beginning of a ‘celebrity’ culture.

JULIA MARGARET CAMERON challenged the Victorian ‘correctness’ and respectability captured in the photographs of the traditional portraits of the day. She created images that included close-up portraits, and soft focus ‘blurred’ images. She said:

‘Other photographers focus until it looks sharp. I focus until it looks beautiful’.

Cameron consciously produced photographs as works of art, she enlisted the help of models to pose as characters in her images and created versions of traditional paintings that she felt captured ‘beauty’. Other photographers hated Cameron’s work, seeing the imperfections and evidence of her process ‘as faults and slovenly work’. She was described as ‘incompetent’ and ‘careless’. McCabe suggests that there could well have been a sexist element to their criticisms, since male photographers of the time may have found it difficult to accept a woman as skilful in her craft.

In 1892, processes made exposure times shorter. There was therefore a need to control light further, and the shutter was introduced to photography. Cameras became smaller, and there was no need to use a tripod. The ‘snap shot’ appeared. Photography could be more spontaneous; the photographer could wait and then capture just the right shot at the right moment, without having to worry about lengthy exposure times. Cartier-Bresson coined the phrase ‘The Decisive Moment’ to describe that moment when all the elements of an image come together to produce the perfect shot. I was interested to learn how the processes of photography have developed since 1835, and how developments have led to changes in the way in which images can be captured, and have influenced what type of images can be captured.

McCabe described the photography journey over the last 60 years as ‘just the beginning’. I will report on episode two soon.

List of illustrations

1           Howlett, Robert (1857) Brunell standing against the launching chains of the Great Eastern at Millwall in 1857. (Photograph), At: (Accessed 14 March 2017)

2         Fenton, Roger (1855) Valley of the shadow of death. Photograph. At: (Accessed 14 March 2017)


Britain in focus (2017) (TV Programme)


For more on Rose Teanby and her work on Howlett and Brunell, see:




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