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Few art forms captured the spirit of the Victorian age as photography did. Born in 1839 in the tradition of 19th-century scientific invention - with William Henry Fox Talbot's new calotype process - it went on to embody many other traditions of the age of engineering and empire-building. It was nurtured by a learned society (the Photographic Society, founded in 1853), promoted by a wealthy amateur polymath (Roger Fenton, the solicitor who founded the Society), and patronised by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert (the Society became Royal in 1894). International competition was involved: Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre's process was developed in Paris at the same time; only gradually did Fox Talbot's gain supremacy. And, as with so much else, its first golden age was brought to an end by World War I, whose demand for platinum (much used in printing) for munitions manufacture led many photographers to stop taking pictures. Above all, however, the first 75 years of British photography were characterised by a restless, excited, pioneering creativity - at odds with the cliched image of stilted Victorians but actually quite characteristic of the age. The medium was as experimental as the Internet is today. It was also expensive, dangerous (many chemicals used were poisonous) and staggeringly slow: Julia Margaret Cameron's entire output, over some 15 years, was no more than 3,000 negatives - the work of a few minutes today. Yet - as these images from the Royal Photographic Society's new exhibition, Early British Photography, 1839-1917, show - such constraints seem only to have stimulated photographers' imaginations. Pamela Roberts

Far left: Call, I follow, I follow, let me die! (Mary Hillier)

Carbon print, c1867

By Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879)

Julia Margaret Cameron was given a camera in 1863 when she was 48. She subsequently produced a style of portraiture, of large head close-ups, which is unique. Having mastered the complex technical aspects of 1860s photography, involving huge wooden and brass cameras and wet collodion negatives, she spent the next 15 years creating an astonishing body of over 3,000 large format negatives, photographing the great names of the Victorian art and literary worlds, like Tennyson, Carlyle and Holman Hunt. Many of them had homes on, or were regular visitors to, the Isle of Wight, where Cameron lived from 1860-1875 and where an RPS/Olympus Photographic Heritage Programme blue plaque has just been unveiled on her house and studio at Freshwater Bay.

This photograph of Mary Hillier, Cameron's maid, photographic assistant and favourite model, illustrates a suitably passionate line from Tennyson's "Lancelot and Elaine" from The Idylls of the King. Visually, it owes much to Rossetti's Beata Beatrix, a painting of his dead wife Elizabeth Siddall, and Call, I follow could be something of a homage to the artist whom Cameron always wanted to photograph but who always managed to elude her.

Left: Ceylon. A group of Kalutara peasants, the girl being twelve years of age, the old man saying he is her father and stating himself to be one hundred years of age

Albumen print from wet collodion negative, 1878

By Julia Margaret Cameron

In 1875, Cameron and her husband Charles Hay Cameron retired to the family coffee and rubber plantations in Ceylon for economic and health reasons. Cameron never made money out of her photography, as she had initially hoped to do. None the less, she continued to practise in Ceylon, producing a series of beautiful and lyrical studies of wary locals. While these photographs can hardly be described as documentary, they are probably as near as Cameron ever got to documentary photography, with the sitters allowed to be themselves rather than enacting lines of poetry or depicting virtuous sentiments.

Above: Poling the Marsh hay

Platinum print, 1886. Plate XVII from the album "Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads"

By Peter Henry Emerson (1856-1936)

By the 1880s, widespread use of the rapid dry plate negative and the proliferation of new printing papers, such as platinotype, which gave a soft grey impressionistic print, enabled photographers to capture the effects of light and weather on the landscape in an altogether more natural way than before. Emerson, born in Cuba but of British descent, was something of a born-again ruralist, much influenced by Millet and Corot. He immersed himself in the countryside of the Norfolk Broads, looking for naturalistic images.

A vociferous champion of the belief that photography could express artistic and impressionistic truth as easily as any other art form, Emerson was willing to engage in heated debate with anyone who disagreed and was influential in the acceptance of photography as a fine art form, even if he later recanted. This, one of his best known photographs of his favourite lyrical watery idyll, lit by a dull November sky, shows the harsh economic reality of life in this poor, almost feudal, area of England, where the hay had to be carried by hand over ground too marshy and sodden to use horsedrawn carts.

Right: The Relief Boat, with Bishop Rock Lighthouse. The day after the loss of the Arden Craig

Chlorobromide print, 1911

By Francis James Mortimer (1874-1944)

On 8 January 1911, the Arden Craig, 90 days out of Australia and bound for Glasgow with a cargo of grain, was wrecked off the Scillies. Mortimer, a high-octane mixture of art and action photographer from an old local family who considered the camera "the poor man's easel", happened to be on hand in the relief boat to document its destruction, using a reflex camera and glass negatives. The camera was well-equipped for photographing at sea, being waterproof and having a pneumatic shutter, the rubber release ball of which could be mouth-operated leaving both hands free to hold on to the camera. Mortimer later sold the photographs to the Daily Mirror.

His career included the editorships of several photographic journals as well as presidencies of the RPS and the Camera Club. He was also a prolific inventor and broadcaster.

Above: Thebes, Interior of the Hall of Columns, Karnac

Albumen print from wet collodion negative, c1857/8. From the album "Lower Egypt, Thebes and the Pyramids"

By Francis Frith (1822-1898)

Victorian interest in the romance of archaeological explorations in Egypt was reaching a crescendo in the mid-19th century as the great museums were established. Egypt was a marketable commodity, and Frith the entrepreneur was never far behind Frith the photographic missionary. He made three photographic trips to the Middle East at the end of the 1850s.

Battling against temperatures of 130 degrees, dust, flies, robbers, wild dogs, using stone tombs as darkrooms and collodion that boiled as it hit the glass plate, he brought back stunning archaeological and architectural studies which were published in book format with informative text. He often used figures in his photographs to give a sense of scale. Of this amazing photograph he writes: "I am even ashamed of my view, it is so thoroughly inadequate to the subject."

Frith was totally bowled over by the scenery, the architecture and the people he met on his travels. He wrote in his diary, "I don't want to know whether men or angels or demons built those glowing Temples ... I am more tempted to worship a crocodile 30ft long and 500 or 1,000 years old, than to bow down to the God of Calvin."

Left: Fading away

Albumen print from five wet collodion negatives, 1858

By Henry Peach Robinson (1830-1901)

Painstakingly printed from five separate glass negatives because it was technically impossible to photograph an indoor scene like this on one negative, "Fading Away" hit a raw national nerve when it was first exhibited at the Crystal Palace in the autumn of 1858.

Death by consumption (TB) was an embarrassingly regular occurrence in a nation that prided itself on its advanced technology. Many critics saw the photograph as social documentary, depicting a subject too painful to be displayed in the average home, despite its being theatrically posed in a studio using models. Nevertheless, it sold 200 copies. Others saw it as a cheat, an attempt to use a medium which, in theory, could never lie, to do just that. Technically speaking, it could be seen as an early form of digital imaging using glass negatives instead of pixels. Robinson was an ardent proponent of photography as an art form.

Above: Prince Arthur in the undress uniform of the Grenadier Guards

Albumen print from wet collodion negative, c1854

By Roger Fenton (1819-1869)

Roger Fenton, a solicitor, was the prime mover in the founding of the Royal Photographic Society in 1853 and was its first Secretary. Victoria and Albert were the Society's first patrons; Albert being especially keen on photography. They commissioned Fenton, on several occasions, to photograph their children and the royal palaces. On these occasions, Victoria, already wise to photography's possible publicity value, kept tight hold on the negatives, and Fenton never exhibited any of his royal portraits. Fenton's negatives of the Royal Family were recently found in the cellars of Buckingham Place and are now in the Royal Archives in Windsor.

Prince Arthur was the third son of Victoria and Albert, later following a successful military career and already dressing the part. The setting is rather rough and ready, and the four-year-old prince does not look happy. The ghostly figure at the righthand side of the photograph is a maid, who at some point during the two minutes' exposure, worried that the prince was about to fall off his plinth, has leant in briefly, ready to catch him, and moved out of the frame again.

Left: Michio Ito, Japanese dancer

Gelatin silver, 1915

By Alvin Langdon Coburn (1888-1966)

Coburn's entree into British photography was via George Bernard Shaw in 1904. Shaw, himself a keen photographer, persuaded great British literary figures of the day to sit for their portraits by the then unknown young American, who later became a naturalised British citizen. The portraits Coburn produced over the next few years of Shaw, Yeats, Chesterton, Wells and others still seem astoundingly modern. Coburn was much influenced by Cameron's portraits. Like her, he dislocates his sitters from time and space, the portraits becoming sublimations of the subjects and their works.

This portrait of Michio Ito (1893-1961), a Japanese dancer who worked with Nijinsky and Duncan, was probably taken at Ito's London debut at the Coliseum in 1915. His dancing was a fusion of modern European and traditional Japanese styles. He collaborated closely with WB Yeats and Ezra Pound, moving in much the same circles as Coburn, who photographed him on several occasions.

Early British Photography is on show at the Royal Photographic Society, Octagon Galleries, Milsom Street, Bath BAl lDN (tel: 01225 462841), until 1 December. Pamela Roberts is the Curator of the Royal Photographic Society.