British Library Points of View: A Look at the 19th Century through Photographs

Posted on January 31st, 2010 by

Libraries have always been a presence in my life.  Because my mother is a librarian, I spent a lot of time at libraries as a child.  They became a comfortable and familiar place I could visit to read, listen to music or use the computer.  I thought the British Library would evoke similar feelings but I was mistaken.   To me, the library was a large, ugly building with vacuous rooms and an impersonal, unfriendly feel.  Although the library was not what I had expected, I recognized the amount of knowledge it held.  This was apparent once I entered the exhibit “History of Photography”.  I was very impressed with this exhibit and enjoyed it very much.   While teaching us the history of photography, our tour guide, Marco, made it easy to see how photography is a significant art form and a huge part of society today.  By analyzing photographs taken in the past, we can literally see the social issues of the time. 

As I approached the British library, I was puzzled by this massive building.  Its’ red brick was distasteful and the windows were awkwardly placed. There was a large modern clock placed on one of the outer walls.  Surrounding the building was pavement dotted with modern sculptures.  As I entered, I saw the same red bricks on the interior of the building.  I was greeted by a security guard busily checking back packs and purses as if to make sure no one had hidden weapons.  The large room I had entered was sparsely decorated.  It had a couple statues, posters advertizing exhibits and events held at the library, an information desk and some benches all under modern hanging light fixtures.  I noticed a gift shop to my left and straight ahead was flights of stairs.  Near me there was a large touch screen computer used to access the library’s catalogue.  The people in this building hustled about; I didn’t notice many senior citizens but all other age groups were present.  As I further explored the library I was surprised to find a fountain, cloak room, row of phone booths, locker room, mail box, bag check, and various artifacts and galleries.  This didn’t feel like a library, it felt like a small city.  This was not what I was used to.  What I liked about most of the libraries I visited was the intimate feeling I got when I walked through the aisles of books and the intellectual atmosphere.  The British library was so large I felt lost and overwhelmed. 

Despite my initial impression of The British Library, when my classmates and I began our tour I started to enjoy myself.  Photography has always been an interest of mine and I was glad to be learning more about its history.  I enjoyed our tour guide, an eccentric, ginger haired man with a plaid hat and pink pants.  He was a photographer himself and I could tell he was very passionate about the subject.  He started the tour by telling my group how photography began.  It was invented (or discovered as our tour guide liked to put it) in 1839 and quickly became a hobby of the rich and privileged.  Though owning a camera, and even being in a photograph showed extreme wealth and status, it wasn’t an easy hobby.  Initially cameras could only be used in the right light.  The lens needed to be specially adjusted to this lighting and if it changed, the lens had to be readjusted.  The process of taking a photo took roughly three minutes.  Primitive cameras could not capture movement so a subject had to be completely still to avoid blurring the picture.  It took a team of people to take and develop a photo and it often took several tries to get a picture that actually turned out.  Photographs were also limited in size.  If the camera was larger, the picture was larger but big cameras were inconvenient and required more light than smaller cameras.  Early photographers had to be very patient and dedicated to their hobby. 

Photographs from this time frame may have been taken purely as a leisure activity but these photographs clearly illustrate the social injustices of the time.  An example is a photo taken by an aristocrat living in Africa.  The picture shows two wealthy women dressed in white sitting in a rickshaw as a barefoot black man stands poised to pull them.  Sunlight is shining on the two white women, while the black man stands in the shade.  This use of light emphasizes the contrast between the skin color of the white women and the black man.   The fine dresses of the white women deeply juxtapose the clothing of the black man who doesn’t even have shoes.  While the women sit facing the camera, looking towards it, the black man stands consistent with the direction the rickshaw is facing and keeps his eyes forward, away from the camera.  The pose of this man cause him to look almost like he is part of the rickshaw; essentially, he is doing the job of an animal which reduces him to a beast like state.  The relaxed pose of the women show their dominance over this man.  This photograph is obviously humiliating for the black man, but it gives the chance for the photographer to be smug and feel superior.  Here is a picture of the “success” of British colonization created by oppressing the native race of the country.  It is unclear whether the photographer had any of this in mind when he took the picture.  Perhaps he had indeed intended to assert his dominance over black people or maybe he was simply taking a picture of his daughters.  Regardless of the individual photographer’s opinions this photograph gives us a chilling picture of the brutal injustices of the past.  This photograph was striking to me because it was such a clear depiction of oppression.  I was glad that our tour guide discussed the social context of each photograph.  It gave the tour a more personal feel, and helped me feel an emotional connection to these photographs.   

Though I didn’t like the initial looks and atmosphere of the British Library, I was impressed with the “History of Photography” exhibit.  I gained knowledge of photography’s historical background which I was excited to learn about.  The tour also taught me that by examining photographs I can learn the social context of the time that the picture was taken.  Our tour guide made it easy for me to see photography as an art form as well and explained to my class mates and I how prevalent photos are in today’s society.  This trip to the British Library helped me gain new appreciation for photography.


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