There is no one who showed more passion and commitment to role of photography in art than Henry Robinson. From an early age he championed Pictorialist photography; the term Pictorialist probably arose from one of his many books on art and photography, Pictorial Effect in Photography (1869). He is particularly remember for creating prints from many negatives, an early example of photomontage.
At a young age Robinson showed his artistic skills, in 1845 he had a sketch of Ludlow Castle published in the Illustrated London News and in 1852 the Royal Academy Exhibition included his painting View of the Teme near Ludlow. However art offered little financial return and he began his career not as an artist but working for various printers and booksellers in Ludlow, London and Leamington Spa.
He was first taught the daguerreotype process from a visiting photographer in 1851 and he went onto experiment with photogenic drawings and calotypes, and the collodion process. He was greatly encouraged in his photography by Dr Hugh Diamond and in 1857 he opened a photography studio in Leamington Spa. Apart from time away due to illness, Robinson dedicated the rest of his life to photography and, in particular, it as a medium for fine art.
It is difficult to imagine the controversy that Robinson’s combination printing had. He clearly borrowed directly from the well-established practice in other art forms of building a picture up of different elements, but is was seen as ‘dishonest’ by critics who saw photography as a means of direct capturing of images.
Probably his most famous print Fading Away (1858), an intense image of a young woman dying of consumption, was a combination of five separate negatives. This montage and the subject matter, which was considered to be too painful, raised considerable criticism. Though it also brought many admirers including Prince Albert, who “purchased a print of Fading Away and issued a standing order for every major composite photograph Robinson would make” TheMet Collection
Another of Robinson’s controversial prints was The Lady of Shalott (1861) based on the character of Alfred, Lord Tennyson. This was not only a montage it also used photography to depict as scene from that poem, where once again a young woman lay dying. Robinson in his response to his critics comes across not only as passionate but irascible. There was a famous spat in 1899 between him and Peter Henry Emerson that became both public and quite heated.
It is possible that this irascibility led Robinson to resigning his position as Vice-President of The Photographic Society of Great Britain in 1892 during the preparation of the annual exhibition. Though the driver was the increasing tension between the art of photography and its science. However, the plus-side of this resignation was that it led directly to him co-founding the secessionist group, The Linked Ring with Alfred Maskell and others.
Robinson continued to write about art through photography and exhibit until his death in 1901, though his last years were marked by periods of ill health and infirmity. He did leave a valuable legacy of publishing nine books and over 150 articles in various photographic journals, as well as his contribution to photographic art that is felt through to today.
An insight into his approach comes from this quotation “Photography, it has been said, can but produce the aspects of nature as they are ; and " nature does not compose : her beautiful arrangements are but accidental combinations." But it may be answered, that it is only the educated eye of one familiar with the laws upon which pictorial effect depends who can discover in nature these accidental beauties, and ascertain in what they consist.” Pictorial Effect in Photography (1869)
I cannot study the life and work of Henry Peach Robinson without being immensely impressed by his passion, skill and vision. He was deeply dedicated to establishing photography as a medium for fine art. I use photomontage, or at least some form of manipulation, in almost all the photographs I go onto print, but I use Adobe Photoshop: Robinson stitched together glass collodion negatives with albumen prints with great adeptness. His vision as an artist and photographer was tremendous: one cannot create a photomontage or combination prints such as Fading Away without starting with the clear vision of the end product. It is that eye and determination that brings me back to his work repeatedly.
Pictorial Effect in Photography: Being Hints on Composition and Chiaroscuro for Photographers , Piper and Carter, London 1869 Download a pdf version here
The Art and Practice of Silver Printing with William de Wiveleslie Abney NY: E. & H.T. Anthony & Co., 1881.
Picture-Making By Photography. London: Hazell, Watson, & Viney, 1889.
Art photography in short chapters. London: Hazell Watson & Viney. 1890
The elements of a pictorial photograph. Bradford : Percy Lund & Co. 1896.
Catalogue of pictorial photographs. Ralph W. Robinson. Redhill, Surrey. 1901