Dreams and Nightmares in Black and White: Victorian Artistic Photography and the Gothic Vision

Posted by Maria Giakaniki on June 03, 2011 in Blog tagged with , , , , , , , ,

After its official beginnings in the nineteenth century, photography was often considered by the Victorians as the ”technology of the uncanny”, because of its unique ability to give form to the immaterial reflection of the material world and transform momentous impressions and ”instantanées” into everlasting images (Chapman, 109-14). Moreover, all this, for the Victorians, happened in an almost wizardry manner: this illusory capturing of ”time” itself had made a great sensation and people of the Victorian era often drew a parallel between photography and magic. This close linkage between the miraculous new science – which was a technological invention no matter its ”occult” appeal – and the notions of the disembodied and the immaterial, prompted photographers not just to represent reality but also deal with parts of the ”unseen” and the spiritual. The famous spirit photographs as well as Victorian post-mortem pictures, denote not only the Victorian era’ s preoccupation with death and afterlife, but also the desire to ”grasp” the immaterial world, take a glimpse of what lies beyond, and an attempt to ”freeze” time, the relentless force that sweeps real life images away.

In this cultural context, where metaphysical, if not supernatural, qualities were attributed to the new technology, the realm of artistic photography would also deal with death and the ”unseen” but in a much more sophisticated manner. Photographers of the Victorian era like Margaret Julia Cameron (1815-1869), Henry Peach Robinson (1830-1901) and Clementina, Lady Hawarden (1822-1865), whose works were the offspring of the most imaginative and dark aspects of Victorian mentality and culture, started to develop certain Gothic sensibilities that were to be thoroughly expressed in their shadowy works of art, while being inspired by theorists like John Ruskin and artistically interacting with the pre-Raphaelites.

The Victorian culture was distinguished by a preoccupation with the past, and the revival of certain romantic sensibilities. The pre-Raphaelite movement in particular embraced the sphere of dreams,  myths, the invisible and the transcendental through medieval imagery and literary themes; moreover, the fascination of the Victorians with the past was expressed with medievalism and buildings of the neo-Gothic style. In studying Gothic architecture, John Ruskin laid strong emphasis on such qualities as obscurity, indeterminacy and unreality, as well as the significance of symbolic interpretation. He also developed the notion of the artistic ”grotesque”, which reveals a meaning that is invisible and arguably marginal (Smith, 53-68). Likewise, certain Victorian art photographers, influenced by Ruskin’ s theories, started to resort to vagueness, obscurity, dreaminess, and symbolism, in order to express that which is invisible or veiled, blending in their art elements of the uncanny.

Julia Margaret Cameron’ s works were greatly inspired by English literature and myth. She was firmly connected in theme and style with the pre-Raphaelites as she made photographic illustrations sometimes of the same subjects, like the Arthurian legends in Tennyson’ s poetry, or portrayed famous Shakespearean heroines like Ophelia.

Ophelia, Study No.2, 1867

Yet, while the pre-Raphaelites express symbolism often through vividness, and even clarity of forms, Victorian photographers like Cameron aimed  more to obscure and illusory qualities: blurry focus, shadowy backgrounds and hazy figures – it seems that the black and white photography is by its nature endowed with such ”crepuscular” qualities. In this respect, the outcome is the creation of a shadowy atmosphere that, in its turn, initiates the viewer to the psychic realm and the obscure emotional undercurrents of the portrayed figure. Cameron’ s ”women in distress” like Ophelia, Beatrice and Elaine (from Shakespeare’ s Hamlet, Percy Shelley’ s Cenci and Tennyson’ s Idylls of the King respectively) are all Gothic heroines ”caught in moments of grim passion or dark despair” (Wynne-Davies, 131), plunged into madness, death and desire, while Cameron attempted to grasp their inner mental and emotional state; they are in a transitory as well as transcendental state, on the borders of this and a world beyond.

Beatrice, 1866

This impression is particularly reinforced by the special casting of light that results in the sharp contrast between shadowy and lighted parts of the picture. In general, Cameron’ s works emanate an unreal, imaginative atmosphere, distinguished by melancholy, mournfulness, sorrow and ethereality, while evoking dark, misty moods.

These qualities are also demonstrated in her depiction of dead children and infant angels, a theme that reflects the prominent issue of infant mortality of the Victorian era, but in a transgressive, poetic manner. By portraying figures that sometimes seemed airy or even insubstantial, Cameron developed a concern about the boundaries between reality and dream, life and death, materiality and immateriality, mortality and immortality.

I wait, 1872

Henry Peach Robinson, another famous photographer of the Victorian period, also attempted to deal with obscure, symbolic themes in certain of his works. He belonged to the Pictorialist movement and one of the most prominent features of the latter was the emphasis on aesthetics, atmosphere and the emotional impact of the picture rather than the actual representation of the subject. In this respect, Pictorialist photography was often characterized by hazy transcendental qualities that created a dreamy atmosphere through the use of the soft focus technique; the general purpose was to make photos look like paintings. Moreover, Robinson as well was influenced by the pre-Raphaelites and their symbolic mythical imagery, anticipating Cameron.

In his ”Lady of Shalott” (1860-61), which was a photographic illustration of Tennyson’ s poem that came after Dante Gabriel Rossetti’ s painted illustration, he attempted to reproduce the feelings of sorrow, unreality and mourning that the poem itself is distinguished by. In general, most of Robinson’ s photos, hazy and poetic, often stir uncanny feelings and are plunged into Gothic atmosphere, while some of his pictures definitely share similarities with Cameron’ s work.

Lady of Shalott (1860-61)

His famous ”Fading Away” (1858), which pictures a young woman dying, was considered morbid by his contemporaries who, despite the photo’ s dreamy atmosphere, actually found it was too real and disconcerting.

Fading Away 1858

Another of his photos, ”Sleep” (1867), which is again full of illusory and poetic qualities, also inspires a sense of melancholy, strangely evoking post mortem pictures where dead people are put into natural poses of sleeping – there are actually post mortem photos where the deceased person seems to be asleep.

Sleep, 1867

This example once more illustrates Victorian notions concerning the (dim) borders between life and death.

Clementina, Lady Hawarden has also depicted this closeness between sleep and death in one of her pictures, in which she made symbolic use of mirrors as well. The device of mirrors is repeated in several of her photos, posing questions of identity and the nature of reality, and enabling her to develop her unique imagery of the uncanny. The latter consists of ghost-like figures with inscrutable faces, while being in enigmatic poses with obscure half empty rooms for backgrounds; these devices create an unsettling feeling of ambiguity, a strong element of unreality and uncertainty where something significant remains elusive and invisible. Moreover, the photographer’ s peculiar use of shadow and light puts into question human subjectivity and its connection to space, as the borders and the relationship between the figures and the background are never defined (Chapman, 116-20)

Study from life, 1863-4

Hawarden created images that suggest a riddle which refuses to be deciphered, with the identities of persons and spaces maintaining their uncertainty in the artistic realm.

Girl at Mirror, 1862

Her pictures emanate a disconcerting feeling of haunting, that remains incomprehensible, while the uncanniness is expressed through the impression of a concealed meaning, something that exists in the borders of the viewer’ s consciousness. What is notable is that all these vague, obscure sensations were provoked mainly through using familial ”ingredients” – in most of the cases, Howarden’ s sitters with the puzzling poses and inscrutable expressions were her own daughters and the strangely lit, half empty of furniture rooms, belonged to contemporary buildings of the Victorian era.

Grace Maude and Clementina Maude, 1863-4

All aforementioned artists, whose work is characterized by a distinct personal style, did not aim to represent external reality, but to allude to what is beyond it, by depicting the inner spiritual human state. Likewise, this kind of Victorian art photography is intertwined with the Gothic in both content and style, by promoting themes that were contained, to a considerable degree, by the grim context of death and mortality of the Victorian era; yet these themes were sometimes depicted through motifs and imagery that evoked a mythical and literary past. Moreover, all these romantic in their nature tendencies, from the most intellectual artistic expressions to the naïve nineteenth century ghost pictures and the raw morbidity of post-mortem photos, were a cultural antithesis to the coming of a new era, which Victorian artists often thought would be characterized by materialism, rationality and the prosaic domination of technology. In this respect, Cameron, Howarden and Robinson attempted to create an imaginative world of the invisible and the ”unseen”, which is alluded rather than directly expressed or seen, at the same time reflecting their era’ s fascination with themes that were dark and transgressive, thus sharing a common vision.


Chapman, Alison, ”Mary Elizabeth Coleridge, Literary Influence and Technologies of the Uncanny” in Victorian Gothic: Literary and Cultural Manifestations in the Nineteenth Century, eds. Ruth Robbins, Julian Wolfreys, Palgrave, 2000.

Smith, Lindsay, Victorian Photography, Painting and Poetry: the enigma of visibility in Ruskin, Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites, Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Thomas, Julia, Pictorial Victorians: the Inscription of Values in Word and Image, Ohio University Press, 2004.

Wynne-Davies, Marion, ”’The Anxious Dream”: Julia Margaret Cameron’ s Gothic Perspective” in Victorian Gothic: Literary and Cultural Manifestations in the Nineteenth Century, eds. Ruth Robbins, Julian Wolfreys, Palgrave, 2000.

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