His Most Famous Photograph (Fading Away) – Henry Peach Robinson
English photographer Henry Peach Robinson or H.P. Robinson (1830-1901) was a pioneer of ‘Pictorialist Photography,’ especially ‘Combination Printing.’ Pictorialists believed that ‘Art Photography’ needed to emulate the paintings of everyday life in such a way to etch it in time and remove from it the mundane of the photograph. Among the methods used for the same were soft focus, special filters, lens coatings, heavy manipulation in the darkroom, and exotic printing processes. These processes together gave an eerie and an unreal feeling of being etched in space and time to the fluid and everyday ‘Modern Photography.’ Henry Robinson was called “the King of photographic picture making,” proving the pinnacle of his competence as a photographer. His “Fading Away” is an all time stunner.
Robinson began his career in 1850, working as a bookseller, while continuing to study art. In 1852, at the age of 21, he exhibited his oil painting “On the Teme near Ludlow” at the Royal Academy. Around this time, he also started taking photographs. After five years, he decided to make this new technique called ‘High Art’ or ‘Combination Photographs,’ his career. Robinson learnt the intricacies of photography from Hugh Welch Diamond, one of the earliest photographers in the world. In 1857, Robinson opened a studio at Leamington Spa. Along with making portraits, he started creating photographs, imitating the ‘genre paintings.’ These artworks showed ‘scenes from everyday life, of ordinary people in work or recreation, depicted in a generally realistic manner.’ Some of Robinson’s well-known photographs are ‘Juliet with the Poison Bottle’ (1857), ‘The Lady of Shallot’ (1861), ‘Autumn’ (1863), and ‘Seascape at Night’ (1870). His masterpiece however, is “Fading Away,” a ‘Combination Print’ that took him five negatives to create.
Generated in 1858, Henry’s “Fading Away” depicts the peaceful death of a young girl due to tuberculosis. Her grieving family, her sister, mother, and fiancé precisely, are shown surrounding her. Measuring 24.4 cm x 39.3 cm, the photograph is an ‘Albumen Print.’ In 1860, Henry explained the creation process of the negative to the Photographic Society of Scotland, which led to huge disapproval of such ‘realist manipulations.’ Although, the photograph was the product of Robinson’s imagination and the subjects are merely posing to create a touching albeit a realistic portrayal of a grieving family, many viewers felt that using a traditionally ‘truthful’ medium as photography to depict such a scene in falsity was too painful and shocking. One critic said that Robinson had cashed in on “the most painful sentiments which it is the lot of human beings to experience.”
It seemed that since a photograph is usually a recorded proof of an incident that in reality took place in life, to see an ‘untruthful’ or artistic photograph was shocking to the viewers of the time. The public felt that though it was all right for painters to paint pictures on the themes of death and grief, it was not natural for the photographers to falsify such a setting in the name of art. This controversy however, made him the most famous photographer in England and the leader of the ‘Pictorialist’ movement. The exhibitions of “Fading Away” were a huge success. H.P. Robinson’s work impressed Prince Albert too. He became a regular patron of the photographer’s works.