Victorian Ladies Playing Photocollage

02/02/2010 1:30 PM |

Long before Hannah Höch and members of the avant-garde made famous the subversive quality of the photocollage, the medium existed solely as a hobby, a way for aristocratic Victorian women to pass the time. They snipped the faces and figures of friends and family from silver albumen prints and pasted them into handmade scenes that ran the gamut from somber parlor rooms to forests populated with giant mushrooms and talking animals. The Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibition Playing with Pictures (through May 9th) showcases the fruit of their labors, a charming and important alternative to the typical exhibition centered on photography√Ę€™s early years. Absent are any mention of world fairs and international awards, as are the usual names like Louis Daguerre and Henri-Cartier Bresson. In fact, men are almost completely absent. It's the wives and daughters forgotten by history who take center stage in the exhibition.

Once photographs became less expensive and, therefore, more ubiquitous, the upper class attempted to restore the medium's former exclusivity. By the mid-1860s, it wasn't enough to possess a mere photograph; an expensive album in which to hold it was necessary too. But it was the English women of the late 19th century who imbued this shamelessly classist trend with personality and playfulness through photocollage, making these albums worth a close second look. While many of the compositions are opulent and staid, the majority are clever, fanciful, and, surprisingly, defiant. English aristocrat Lady Filmer, a woman known for her flirtatious hold over the Prince of Wales, crafted a parlor scene (above) in which she looms large in the foreground, casting a glance back at the dapper figure of the prince leaning haughtily on a table. The much smaller figure of poor Lord Filmer slouches in a chair in the lower right hand corner, next to the family dog.

Charlotte Milles, the English wife of a Parliament official, represents the most accomplished painter of the exhibition group. She integrated her figures virtually seamlessly into intricate and expertly crafted watercolor settings like moonlit beaches, opulent drawing rooms, and sun-suffused landscapes, each shining with jewel-like color. In her single monochromatic work on display, Milles matched the silvery taupe of the albumen prints so closely that where the photograph ends and the paint begins is nearly imperceptible. The work of Georgina Berkeley, a woman who occupied "the lower echelons of aristocratic society," appears less refined when compared to that of the technically flawless Milles. However, Berkeley's works represent the most imaginative, and frankly, delightful, in the exhibition. Her dreamlike scenes (above) are the perfect amalgamation of the corporeal and the fantastical; gray, solemn faces are caught in the most playful predicaments. Two young women sit atop a giant bird and tortoise on a beach, a bearded, leotard-clad man flies through a flaming hula-hoop, and a boy blows bright blue bubbles through a long pipe, a photographed face peeking cheekily out of each orb that floats through the air.

Playing with Pictures is unique in two very important ways. Not only is it a large-scale exhibition that gives recognition to women who would have otherwise been forgotten, but it represents a major step in the democratization of photography. It is an honest illustration of one of the major ways in which the medium permeated society that is too often dismissed. It was not merely the work of a few men, but popular use that brought the medium to the forefront of artistic thought.

(photo credit: Metropolitan Museum)