The portrait ‘Isambard Kingdom Brunel’ by Robert Howlett is considered to be one of the first environmental portraits in the history of photography. Brunel was the designer of the largest constructed steamship of that time and the ship was about to be launched. This ship was supposed to be an example of the industrial revolution that took place in the Victorian times and Brunel’s appearance breathes this power and action, accentuated by his high head and muddy shoes.
Robert Howlett had just developed a new way of photographing, with collodium plates and was groundbreaking in using new techniques that made it able to print negatives on paper. He was out and about, photographing and discovering new techniques and eager to use them to their maximum potential. Robert and Isambard had a lot in common and both turned out to be at the height of their careers.
The vessel that Brunel had designed turned out to be a financial disaster and while launching the ship the cables in the back, torpedoed two men to their deaths. Howlett died soon after, presumably of typhoid.
However, the image itself doesn’t show that. By placing Brunel in front of the cables, the size of the ship and grandeur of Brunel is being accentuated. If you compare this image with another one from the series, it becomes clearer.
Howlett lets the environment accentuate the personality of Brunel through his composition. The effect is one of awe, although all perspective of size is lost and you could also perceive Brunel as a midget if you would put him in place of a regular sized chain. Was Howlett aware of this effect? If so, it adds a cynical undertone to the image, or the message of how men have invented machines that are too powerful to control, the machines take over.