Pleasant fictions: Henry Peach Robinson's composition photography

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Coleman, David Lawrence

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Henry Peach Robinson (1830-1901) was one of the most prolific and vocal advocates of photography’s possible status as a fine art in nineteenth-century Great Britain. While previous scholarship has asserted that Robinson applied painting theory to photographic practice and fostered a pictorial idealism, this dissertation looks at the strategies photographic techniques Robinson used to fulfill this artistic potential. It then examines the implications and limitations his theory of photographic imitation imposed upon his imagery. Robinson’s manual for artistic photography, Pictorial Effect in Photography (1869), blended elements from Sir Joshua Reynolds’ Discourses (1769-1790), picturesque theory and John Burnet’s Treatise on Painting (1837) to encourage photographers to create more aesthetic imagery by conforming to academic pictorial standards. Robinson advocated a hybrid of fact and artifice to achieve this goal, and he produced a variety of photographic compositions by combining multiple negatives and by using painted backgrounds, dressed models and artificial props. Robinson’s deliberate manipulations were significantly controversial for those within the photographic and artistic communities who viewed photography as an unmediated record of the visible world. Robinson’s strategies of pairing his images with poetry and employing genre subjects encouraged his audience to judge his photographs by their conformity to pictorial standards rather than by their fidelity to nature. Painters had used poetry to elevate the estimation of their works, and Robinson imitated this practice to promote photography as an expressive medium. Rustic genre subjects turned his photographs away from their temporal specificity and toward typologies of industry, frugality and piety. In examining these seemingly simple images of pretty maids and content cottagers, we find deeply imbedded social values regarding differences between levels of franchisement, wealth and property rights. Although poetic associations and genre subjects were common in British painting, this dissertation demonstrates that Robinson nonetheless had difficulty negotiating the balance between painting’s conventionality and photography’s link to external reality—evidence that he was unable to counteract completely photography’s intractable documentation of its time and place.