Snapshot: "Blow Up" (2007) by Ori Gersht
The National Gallery was founded in 1824 and modern photography evolved just a decade or so later with the processes developed by Henry Fox Talbot in England and Louis Daguerre in France. Nevertheless, it has taken nearly that full 180-year span for the wranglings about photography's claim to be an independent art form to lose their heat before the gallery could hold its first major photographic exhibition.
Seduced by Art: Photography, Past and Present is not a survey of "art photography" (that is photography with aspirations rather than casual snaps) but an examination of how the traditions of painting affected photography from its inception and continue to do so today. It is a show comprising three elements: paintings from the National Gallery's collection, images by the Victorian photographic pioneers who were inspired by them, and photographs by a cluster of modern practitioners working in the same idiom.
That the first photographers should look to the example of painting was entirely logical. Theirs was a new medium through which to capture the visual appearance of the world and so they turned to its closest antecedent. They also wanted to raise photography's status above that of a merely reproductive technology. In 1786, Joshua Reynolds dismissed the camera obscura as producing only a "cold prosaic narration or description", without the elevating influence of the "poetical mind". Art offered a way of making photography poetical.
As a result Fox Talbot photographed a 15th-century drawing and included it in his publication The Pencil of Nature (1844-46) and Julia Margaret Cameron made consciously imitative subject photographs as well as portraits of the likes of Thomas Carlisle, Lord Tennyson and Ellen Terry. Light and Love (1865), for example, is a reimagining of a Madonna and Child painting in which she utilised her camera's shallow depth of field to give her subject a soft focus and gentle tonal gradation that, in the words of one early viewer, resembled "a sketch by Correggio". Oscar Gustav Rejlander was more direct, his Non Angeli sed Angli (1857) is a staging of the pair of slightly bored angels in Raphael's Sistine Madonna. Rejlander put two small children in identical poses (minus the wings) and photographed them both as an independent work and as though they were Raphael's own models.