Wednesday, October 17, 2007

A Hobby for Gentlemen (and Ladies)

There's a good review in the NY Times of a current show “Impressed by Light: British Photographs From Paper Negatives, 1840-1860”

I must say that as a child, historic photographs fascinated me. Our local library was actually in a huge old that also had a gallery in it sometimes featured old photographs from the archives - heavy industry, wool barons, tenement houses, the Crimean War, Egypt & Palestine etc and after selecting my latest Biggles or Bobby Brewster book I would wander these exhibits captivated.

Then, as I "grew up", for the longest time such historic photographs - whether vernacular or Roger Fenton and Julia Margaret Cameron - bored me to tears. But in recent years I seem to have come full circle and thoroughly enjoy all sorts of historic photography and photographers from the earliest days of the medium.

So a show such is definitely a draw for me now.

"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..."

1 comment:

Unknown said...

That last picture of the tree is a real stunner!