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Queen Victoria's private family photos on display in new Getty exhibit

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Queen Victoria Diamond Jubilee Portrait, July 1893.
W&D Downey/Royal Collection Trust /Queen Elizabeth II
Queen Victoria Diamond Jubilee Portrait, July 1893.

We have our iPhones. Queen Victoria never learned to use a camera, but she had every important photographer in the realm on-call. Same result, though: a whole lot of pictures.

A Royal Passion: Queen Victoria and Photography is on display at the Getty Center through June 8, 2014.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert sat before the camera for many photographers. The royal portrait was realized in different mediums ranging from daguerreotype to calotype to albumen silver print, but they all had one thing in common: the photographs were private and not for public distribution. In these intimate views of Victoria as loving wife and caring mother, her vitality and youthful appearance is in contrast to the later, imperial portraits.  -- From "A Royal Passion: Queen Victoria and Photography," at the Getty Center

We have our iPhones. Queen Victoria never learned to use a camera, but she had every important photographer in the realm on-call. The result in both cases was the same: a whole lot of pictures. Now we can see Victoria’s family album in an intriguing new show at the Getty Center.

It’s hard now to imagine just how startling photography was when it was introduced in 1839. For 17,000 years, creating an image of something had required a human artist. Now, light and the object (or landscape, or person) could passively create a picture more accurate than the world’s greatest artist could paint.

Spectators marveled at the precise likenesses of their loved ones. Photos became a key part of western civilization’s personal connection: To say back then that you had someone’s tintype on your mantelpiece meant that this someone had won your heart.

The only tintype on Queen Victoria’s mantel was that of her beloved consort, Prince Albert, father of her nine children. Pictures of her and her Beloved center the Getty Center’s worthwhile “Royal Passion: Queen Victoria and Photography” show.

(Portrait of Queen Victoria Holding Portrait of Prince Albert, negative July 1854; print 1889, Bryan Edward Duppa and Gustav William Henry Mullins, carbon print. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2013)

She’d been fascinated early by the new invention, and had Albert’s first picture taken about 1842.  Then the floodgates opened. By the time she died in 1901, she had collected 20,000 photographs, many of her husband, herself, and her nine children, resembling, in their group portraits, a small, well-behaved crowd waiting for a bus.

The Victorian Royals became the most photographed rulers of the 19th Century. Their pictures show a surprising and pleasing informality. Yet for more than a decade, the collection was kept in the family; a private matter. Finally, the Royals realized that broadcasting portraits of the Queen and her family was a perfect means of humanizing and promoting a monarchy that was rapidly becoming irrelevant in the Age of Steam and Electricity.

Photography also kept the queen informed about her global empire. The great new steamships, the mighty imperial exhibitions, the explorations of Africa and Asia, the dark, satanic mines and factories that produced the wealth, and the workers they oppressed -- all are on show here.   

And so are some of the era’s ugliest manifestations. Mid-19th-century cameras were too slow to capture the action of battle, but could record the bleak aftermath: mutilated soldiers; devastated landscapes, and pure colonial genocide — as with a courtyard in India, thickly strewn with the bones of massacred rebels from the 1858 Indian uprising.

No, the pictures aren’t all pretty, but the Victoria show gives an age in full, with all the warts and wonderment.

(Roofline of Lacock Abbey, circa 1835-1839, 2008, Hiroshi Sugimoto, toned gelatin silver print. The J. Paul Getty Museum, gift of the artist. © Hiroshi Sugimoto)

The Getty’s also displaying the work of modern Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, which frames past representations of reality with discrete modern techniques that make them seem even older. 

Like museum dioramas of ancient landscapes, and, for that matter, a life-size picture of a formidable waxwork of Victoria herself that glowers like an ancient Chinese potentate. Sugimoto provides an eerie, resonating comment on the 19th century show his work accompanies.

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