Art that recycles Victorian snapshots

Charlotte Cory'exhibition at the Bronte Parsonage Museum.
Charlotte Cory'exhibition at the Bronte Parsonage Museum.
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A surreal portrait of the 19th Century is the focus of Charlotte Cory’s latest exhibition at the Brontë Parsonage museum. Jon Cronshaw met her.

ARTIST and novelist Charlotte Cory’s latest exhibition creates a surreal world where Victorian men and women become anthropomorphic animals.

But rather than being drawn or painted from the artist’s imagination, the images are made by using computer technology to seamlessly merge early photographs with images of taxidermied animals.

“There’s a parallel between taxidermy and photography – they’re both about preserving a likeness – so there seems to be something very natural about merging the two together,” says Cory.

“Victorians would go into a studio and almost be clamped into a position for a photograph. I think the idea of a person having to stand still for three minutes for these early photos almost makes them look like stuffed animals. There’s always been something quite disturbing about photographs. It’s weird when you look at old photographs, it’s even weird when you take a photograph and see what you look like.”

She also sees the whole world of photography as something almost disturbing.

“The language of photography is violent and vicious – ‘snapshot’, ‘capturing’, ‘seizing’, ‘shooting’. There’s a violence about grabbing an image.”

Images are taken from some of the earliest photographic portraits whose sitters’ identities have been lost.

“There’s nothing sadder than an old photograph that’s lost its provenance,” says Cory.

“These are discarded photos that I’m giving a new life to – it’s creative recycling. I always felt sorry for discarded old photographs. They’re all of somebody – somebody who went to a studio and posed for these images.

“One day I started messing around with old photos, and just merging other things into Victorian photographs, and that completely took over my art practice.

“When you take away the face from an old photograph, you’re forced to look at the body language and the other objects in the picture that the sitter chose to be photographed with.”

There’s no doubt that the bizarre images garner a respsonse from their audience. “People tend to laugh at them initially, but then they start to think about what the images mean, and about what they leave behind, and suddenly they find them quite sad and rather profound.”

The original photographs are around half the size of a modern postcard and were known as Carte de Visite – a name given to them in 1854 by their French inventor André Adolphe Eugène Disdéri. As the price of having a photograph taken became affordable, by 1859, a craze dubbed ‘Cartomania’ swept Britain, and saw families lining up to have their portraits taken.

“When you think about what it must have been like – for the first time ordinary people could leave a picture of themselves that will exist after they died. That must have been very strange,” says Cory.

Cory read Jane Eyre as a 10-year-old and has been fascinated by the Brontës since. “It took me 18 months of bullying my parents to take me to the Brontë Parsonage,” says Charlotte.

“We went on the way to the Lake District from London, and I’ve never forgotten it .

“It’s lodged in my mind. I went back years later and realised it had informed so many of my tastes and interests. I’d never quite got over the experience.”

Capturing the Brontës, Brontë Parsonage Museum to Dec 31.

Career of art and writing

CHARLOTTE Cory (born 1956) is a London-based artist and writer.

She has a PhD in Medieval Literature from the University of York.

During her studies she sold illustrations and woodcuts in order to fund her studies.

She held her first exhibition at the now defunct York Arts Centre 
in 1981.

As a writer, Charlotte has had three novels published by Faber and Faber: The Unforgiving, The Laughter of Fools and The Guest.

She has written comedy series for Radio 4 including The Day I Finished Off Charlotte Brontë and Mangosteen Mania.