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Isambard Kingdom Brunel
Albumen print, from collodion negative
Museum of Modern Art, New York
At the time of this portrait, Kingdom Brunel, the greatest British engineer of the Victorian era, was overseeing the construction of the iron-hulled SS Great Eastern, which was then the largest ship ever built. Brunel is standing before "checking chains" intended to ease the ship's launch. These are a backdrop that functions like the studio no-seam of a later day, providing a shallow, uniform space that throws the emphasis forward onto the subject. They also create a powerful image of industry for Brunel to be captain of.
If positioning Brunel before the chains was Howlett's contribution to the portrait, the pose was all Brunel's own. The portrait's drama lies in the subject's nonchalance before a machine of such Vulcan scale. We see him as exactly the figure his son-on-law said he was, "a little, businesslike man in seedy dress with a footrule in his hand." He was a new breed of man who didn't stand on ceremony: he just got things done.
And yet, numerous ironies attend on the portrait, one being that Howlett was, aside from this photograph, a relatively minor figure in photo history. Another is that the Great Eastern was the biggest fiasco of Brunel's career. It was beset by tragedies that began when the chains didn't work and ended in commercial failure. Within two years Brunel was to die of Bright's Disease at age 53, and in less than a year Howlett would die, too, at age 27, a victim, perhaps, of exposure to photographic chemicals.