Bringing the outside inside: studio photography

December 7, 2020

Over the past few months, we have adapted our homes to reflect our new lockdown lifestyles. As we returned indoors to protect the NHS and each other, I started to think about the photographs in the V&A’s collection (of over 800,000 works), that offer a window to the outdoors. Here, I take a look at some of the pictures that, through the magic of studio photography, create romantic, surreal or provocative armchair adventures.

Two decades after the invention of photography was announced to the world in 1839, cartes de visite became a nineteenth-century phenomenon. These small card-mounted portraits were particularly collectible, and were typically compiled into albums or traded among friends and family. Often taken in a studio, cartes de visite portraits could imitate faraway landscapes and offered a brief ‘virtual’ escape for sitters and viewers. This studio reconstruction of a snowy slope depicts two children in winterwear riding on a static sledge.

Carte de visite by J. Inglis, about 1865, Montreal. Museum no. RPS.4013-2018. The Royal Photographic Society Collection at the V&A, acquired with the generous assistance of the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Art Fund © The Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In the nineteenth century, Europeans became increasingly fascinated by what they considered to be ‘exotic’. The collectability of cartes de visite provided a systematic way for wealthy Europeans to collect photographs of countries they might not have visited, and the countries they wanted to show raise a number of questions. In the United Kingdom, collectors would often choose images of Indian people, then under British rule, and in France, cartes de visite showing Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, French colonies, were popular. These photographs were ideologically charged, and often illustrated an identity for the sitters, shown in props such as farming tools and vases, and painted backdrops. At this time, Algeria’s landscape was dramatically changing and city centres appeared more and more like a modernised nineteenth-century Paris. However, photographers frequently favoured an historic and idealised vision of Algeria – and employed painted backdrops of vast deserts or lush forests.

Carte de visite by Mr. and Mme. Prod’hom, about 1870, Annaba. Museum no. E.1164-1995 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In this same period in Great Britain, Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809 –1892), the Poet Laureate, invited Julia Margaret Cameron (1815 – 1879) to make photographic illustrations to his Idylls of the King, a series of narrative poems based on the legends of King Arthur. This photograph below was by far the most theatrical of Cameron’s illustrations to the Idylls – three women surround the wounded King Arthur as he is taken by boat from Camelot. Cameron was daring in her experiments with image making and often broke the rules: her images were intentionally out of focus and often included scratches, smudges and other traces of her process. Here, she used ruched fabric to create the illusion of mist and crashing waves, and even drew a moon on the photograph’s negative (shown upper left corner of the print) to further her imagined mystical landscape.

‘So like a shatter’d Column lay the King’ by Julia Margaret Cameron, about 1875. Museum no. 46-1939. Given by Mrs Ida S. Perrin in 1939.

The next photograph creates a different kind of fiction. Baron George Hoyningen-Huene (1900 – 1968) began his long career with Vogue on an exclusive contract to create backdrops for the magazine’s photographers and became the chief photographer for French Vogue by 1925. In this picture for a 1928 issue of British Vogue, Bettina Jones and a male model wear Schiaparelli beachwear. Hoyningen-Huene introduces a surreal note to the pool staircase by placing a half-seen mannequin at the top of the scene, mirroring Jones’ legs below and hinting at the artificial elements of studio photography.  

Fashion study with beachwear by Schiaparelli by Baron George Hoyningen-Huene, 1930. Museum no. PH.723-1987 © Image Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Cecil Beaton (1904 – 1980) was also known for his elaborately staged photographs. He was one of the leading British portrait and fashion photographers of the twentieth century and became the preferred court photographer for the British Royal family. Beaton meticulously planned each sitting and his most memorable pictures reference the splendour of historic royal portrait painting. It is therefore no surprise that Beaton favoured romantic backdrops of outdoor scenes that were based on well-known artworks. These included Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s Rococo painting The Swing (1767); Roman ruins from an engraving by Francis Vivares after Giovanni Paolo Panini and, as illustrated here, a winter ice rink by British painter Rex Whistler. Many of these bold backdrops were produced by a firm in Ealing, West London and set the scene for spectacular and intimate portraits of the royal family. Beaton handpicked flowers from his own garden to decorate the sitters’ surroundings. Cascading arrangements of roses, carnations, lilies and hydrangeas filled the space between the backdrop and the Queen and echoed her dazzling, sequined floral Norman Hartnell gown.

Hamidou Maiga’s (b.1932) photographs play with the formalities of traditional studio photography. Working primarily from his studio in Bamako, Mali, he captures intimate portraits of the local community with carefully chosen props, costumes and painted backdrops of cartoonish trees and quaint villages. These pictures were taken in a time of tumultuous transition for Malian society, as the country gained independence from France. For Maiga, ‘the studio became a site where people would meet and exchange ideas. All these different worlds would collide in one room through the people [he] met. It was a real melting pot.’ A young man poses with an acoustic guitar and faces the camera with confidence. Here, Maiga alludes to the illusion of studio portraiture – contrasting the rural backdrop with the carpeted floor and the subject’s clothes.

Untitled by Hamidou Maiga, 1973. Museum no. E.305-2012. Gift of Jack Bell Gallery, London. Copyright of the artist, courtesy of Jack Bell Gallery.

Likewise, Shadi Ghadirian (b.1974) signals the conventions of early studio portraiture. Her work is influenced by her experiences as a Muslim woman living in contemporary Tehran and challenges preconceptions of women’s roles within an Islamic state. Her Qajar series is based on a style of photograph made during Iran’s Qajar period (1786 – 1925). In those types of portraits, sitters would pose with props representing their aspirations, but in Ghadirian’s versions the objects the women hold are jarringly modern – a can of Pepsi, a stereo and a mountain bike. A painted backdrop of a drawing room illustrates a window with a view of a garden, further highlighting Ghadirian’s striking juxtapositions of time and place, tradition and modernity.

Qajar by Shadi Ghadirian, 1998. Museum no. E.352-2010. Art Fund Collection of Middle Eastern Photography at the V&A and the British Museum.

Conversely, Israeli artist Tal Shochat (b.1974) applied the conventions of studio portraiture to photographing nature and built studio settings around trees. Her work often plays with the viewer’s expectations and highlights the tensions in photography between illusion and reality. In this example from 2011, a grapefruit tree takes centre stage; it is artificially lit and isolated against a black cloth background, presenting a surreal view of nature that would never physically exist in a natural environment.

Eshkolit (Grapefruit) by Tal Shochat, 2011, Museum no. E.1128-2012. Art Fund Collection of Middle Eastern Photography at the V&A and the British Museum.

Studio photography has always offered a means of feigning the outdoors inside. Whether as Victorian cartes de visite, fashion shoots for Vogue or iconic royal portraits, these studio pictures reflect contemporary culture, social changes and shifts in photographic technology and allow us to travel with their imagined environments from the comfort of our own home.

About the author

December 7, 2020

I joined the V&A in September 2018 as an assistant curator working on fashion photography projects. My primary interests include dress history, portrait and fashion photography and late nineteenth century...

More from Lydia Caston
2 comments so far, view or add yours


What a wonderful explanation of something we see nearly everyday, The Author captures the mood of a time gone by that most people would like to see return, they capture it so perfectly that you can almost feel the snow beneath the sledge

Cecil Beaton is one of my favourite photographers and they pick my two favourite photographs of simply the best subject … Princess Elizabeth

I for one am glad of this blog and the authors who allow us a behind the scenes explanation of things we always take for granted

Such an informative insightful blog and enjoyed the examples, particularly the Ghardirian ones which in today’s context are particularly apt.

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