Victorian Photocollage

Posted by on Aug 5, 2013 in blog | 0 comments

Victorian Photocollage

I recently went on a family vacation to Chicago. While at the Art Institute, I learned about Victorian photocollage. It was a way for well-to-do Victorian ladies in the 1860s and 1870s to scrapbook photos. But it’s not to be confused with scrapbooking (at least in the Victorian sense of the word). Scrapbooking was when women would take manufactured colored prints and past them in a book along with their own drawings, paintings, and poems. They were separate, seemingly unrelated things pasted together in a book. They, no doubt, had meaning to the maker, but it’s often difficult for us now to determine what that meaning was. Photocollage, however, was when separate photos of people were pasted together into a scene which often told a story.

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In 1859 the carte-de-visite, a was all the rage. Cartes-de-visite were small photographs (about the size of a baseball card) that were printed on paper. They were relatively cheap and it was easy to get multiple prints. So people began handing them out to their friends and aquaintences, similarly to how we now give wallet-sized prints to friends and family.

Upper class ladies with more than a little time on their hands would combine these photos of their friends with watercolor painting into collages. It was a way for ladies to display their creativity and wit. It must have been a great creative outlet for those women who lived in a pretty stifling society. It was a way to preserve memories as well as amuse guests.

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There were several different types of photocollage. In some, the photographs were displayed more or less as photographs. Perhaps they were shown coming out of envelops which were painted on the page. Sometimes they were cut into shapes and put together with a pretty painted border. In another type of collage, faces could be used as objects, like on the faces on playing cards, or as balls being juggled by a jester. Heads were often cut out and placed on the bodies of animals. In a particularly humorous collage, a woman put the faces of her family members on the bodies of monkeys. Realistic scenes were often used like the setting of a dance or recreation in the countryside. Others were more surrealist in nature and placed the photos in fantasy worlds.

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They were using the most up to date technology and often featured current topics. Many reference croquet, a newly invented game. There are a large number of references to Darwin (like the collage of the monkeys) whose Origin of the Species was published in 1859. Another popular subject was the just published Alice in Wonderland (1865), placing photos of children into copies of the illustrations of the book.

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What’s suprising, is how modern they are for our time. They were created long before Photoshop and long before Surrealist art and look like they could have been created alongside them. They are charming and so humorous and not at all what you would think is being created in stuffy English Victorian society.

Inspired by these pieces of art (particularly the Alice in Wonderland themed collages), I decided to try it for myself. Below is a photo of my grandmother as a child that I placed on a watercolor painting. My only problem now is finding good photos of the rest of my grandparents so I can do more.

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To do a craft like this, you will need to have a copy of a photo (I can help you with that!), art supplies like watercolor paint or colored pencils, and a little artistic talent (or some images you like that you can trace).

Then be creative! Look at examples of photocollage online and get inspired. You can use a person’s full body placed in a scene, or just use the head and draw on the body yourself. Don’t worry too much about the scale or perspective of your photos, the Victorians didn’t. It only makes the finished product look more whimsical.

Here are a few ideas:

    Put photos of your family members in a situation that is meaningful to you, like at a special event or doing a favorite activity.
    Use some of those extra class pictures of your kids that never got handed out or se all the class pictures your kids received from their friends to create a fun memory for them (and a fun project for them to get involved).
    Change up the “bride and groom photos as children” so often featured at weddings by placing them in a collage together. Then the bride and groom can take home a special keepsake.

If you’d like to see more examples of Victorian Photocollage, there is more information on the websites of Art Institute of Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, including two very interesting lectures.

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