There's a good review in the NY Times of a current show “Impressed by Light: British Photographs From Paper Negatives, 1840-1860”
"Forget the starving 19th-century artist living in a garret. The exhibition “Impressed by Light: British Photographs From Paper Negatives, 1840-1860” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art introduces a very different artistic type: the Victorian gentleman, the eminent academic, the curious scientist, the successful businessman. Someone like Robert Henry Cheney, described on a wall label as “an accomplished artist, watercolorist and landscape gardener of his own estate (with a staff of 14).”
Photographs are the main attraction, but sociology intrudes. How many shows include art produced by someone “with extensive commercial interests in coal mines and banking”; or by a man “known as ‘the wealthiest commoner’ in Britain”; or “one of the finest lawyers in Edinburgh”; or “an army officer with the East India Company”?
Even though early photography’s images are fascinating and beautiful to behold, calling their makers artists is a bit of a stretch. Many were hobbyists trying out a new invention, one involving chemicals, hardware and skill that only the well-to-do could afford. Often the photographs were made for private albums, not public exhibition...
Daguerreotypes were detailed and precise; calotypes were softer and prone to massing light and shadows. Daguerreotypes quickly became the professional medium — they worked well for portrait-making — but even after 1851, when glass negatives, which produced a sharper image more quickly, became available, many British photographers preferred the paper negatives.
You immediately see the artistic potential of calotypes and how they served as precursors to movements like Pictorialism. The show’s first image, a salted-paper print by Talbot from 1841-42, is simply a photographic trace — a solid white image against a black background — of a sprig of wild fennel. But it calls to mind later cameraless photography experiments by Man Ray and others, just as the pair of Talbot prints next to it, negative and positive images of a haystack, taken in 1844, create a diptych that resembles a postmodernist installation: Bernd and Hilla Becher meet Monet..."