Photography: A Victorian Sensation

National Museum of Scotland

Until November 22

Reviewed by Alan Morrison

The first item we see on entry is an iPhone 3G from 2008. The last words we read before exit is a reminder that "more photographs are taken in two minutes today than were taken in the whole of the 19th century". In between these modern brackets is a magnificent exhibition that comprehensively charts the birth and early explosion of photography. It truly feels like one of those one-in-a-lifetime gatherings of private and public treasures.

It's immediately apparent that this is a museum, not gallery, show. There are framed pictures on the walls, of course, but far more objects in glass cabinets and yet these display items are aesthetically beautiful in themselves: the sturdy polished wood of the first cameras; photo albums that look like volumes lifted from the shelves of Hogwarts' Library; portrait faces and landscape scenes, arranged in rows, the plush velvet of their little pocket cases adding deep splashes of colour to the monochrome images.

All of this is extremely well supported by explanatory videos, on-screen slideshows and touchscreen displays that reveal tiny details of the miniature images. There's an educational drive behind everything, too, that sets out photography's roots in science by giving due credit to its pioneers (many from Scotland) and its social expansion from a prestigious luxury for the elite to the democratic medium it has become today.

Ultimately, though, it's the content of the images that takes the modern visitor's breath away. For me these included an 1840s salt print called The Old Game Keeper which sat beside the Fox Talbot home-made camera that created it; a 140-year-old stereoscopic image of the Museum's great hall, only a few steps but several lifetimes away from where I was standing; an actual photograph of Isabella Begg, the sister of Robert Burns. Hours could be spent here, being absorbed by the past.