Robert Howlett – Isambard Kingdom Brunel

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Isambard Kingdom Brunel – Robert Howlett (1857)

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.

Howlett, R. (1857) Isambard Kingdom Brunel [Photograph]. Available at: (Accessed: 16 August 2016).
Isambard kingdom Brunel – scientist of the day – Linda Hall library (2015) Scientist of the Day, 15 September. Available at: (Accessed: 17 August 2016).
Jones, J. (2010) Isambard kingdom Brunel, Robert Howlett (1857). Available at: (Accessed: 16 August 2016).
White, D. (no date) The light shone and was spent: Robert Howlett and the power of photography. Available at: (Accessed: 16 August 2016).


Happy to start this course and excited of all the things I’m going to learn and places I’ll go! Welcome to my learning blog Documentary, a course that is part of a Bachelor degree in photography at the OCA. I hope that you will enjoy following my learning process and work that I’ll be publishing here in the coming months.

After having finished my first level courses I am eager to continue learning more about photography and its art and improving my technical and observational skills. I realize I need to go more in depth in my analysis of photographs and photographers and work on developing my own style and opinion. Even though I wish to work on this course at a good pace, I want to make an effort in taking the time to think things through, reflect and practice so that I will end up a more refined and knowledgeable photographer and student.

I live in New Delhi, India and there are so many interesting stories to document that it is going to be hard to select the ones that speak most to me and go beyond the beauty or exoticness of the place. I’m looking forward to the interaction with my tutor and other documentary students to reflect and bounce off ideas.