‘We can’t make anything this good’ — rare, early photographs on view at YCBA
“I love to read the late 19th-century reviews of this earlier photography when it was already considered old,” said Hope Kingsley, curator of education and collections at the Wilson Centre for Photography. “They're starting to show these historical photographs at contemporary exhibitions, and the reviews declare, ‘This is amazing. These photographs — we can't make anything this good.’”
Kingsley is co-curator of “Salt and Silver: Early Photography, 1840-1860,” the new exhibition on view at the Yale Center for British Art. Now through Sep. 9, over 100 seldom-displayed early photographs — all salted paper prints on loan from the Wilson Centre — hang on the third floor of the center. Thereafter, the exhibition will move to the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery at Scripps College.
“It's wonderful that they recognized the quality of early photographs then,” said Kingsley about those late 19th-century reviewers, “and I'd like to think that people today can look at these pictures and think they are amazing too. Even with all we know today, and with all the technological possibilities we have, maybe we can't do any better. Maybe they did as well as we do.”
Debuted in 1839, the first of those technologies was the daguerreotype, named for its inventor, the French artist Louis Daguerre. Daguerre’s method exposed an image using a highly polished layer of silver on a copper plate, which worked well to capture a high-resolution, high-fidelity image, but for one small problem: daguerreotypes couldn’t be replicated, so they had no value for print reproduction. However, that same year, across the English Channel, the British scholar and scientist William Henry Fox Talbot announced an early version of the salted paper print, a simpler, cheaper, and reproducible photographic technology that would dominate photography until the albumen print process took over two decades later.
In 1841, Talbot innovated an important variation called the calotype, or paper negative. Both the calotype and the salted paper print involved sensitizing regular writing paper with a solution of salt water and silver nitrate, which in combination with sunlight would expose a negative image — in which light areas appear dark and dark areas light.
“You can go to the local food store right now and find probably 100 things that you can smear on paper and have them either darken or lighten,” said Mark Osterman, process historian at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York at the opening panel discussion for “Salt and Silver.” “The invention of photography is not really making an image but keeping an image —that’s the hard part.”
With this same salted paper treatment process, again printed in sunlight, Talbot was then able to make multiple paper positives — where dark areas become dark again and light areas light —from each negative. After printing, the images were fixed with other chemical solutions, and thus, Talbot gave the world analog photography as we know it: the capture and replication of an image by chemical reaction.
At the Yale Center for British Art, “Salt and Silver” is by no means the first photography-only exhibition. “The center’s collection of British photographs has its origin in the magnificent photographically illustrated publications, from the 19th century, that were acquired by the institution’s founder, Paul Mellon, and donated with his spectacular holdings of rare books and manuscripts,” said Amy Meyers, director of the Yale Center for British Art. “Since its opening, just over 40 years ago, the center also has organized many important photographic exhibitions, ranging across the history of the medium.”
“However, only in the last several years, with the hire of our first assistant curator of photography, Chitra Ramalingam, have we developed a strategic approach to the collecting of British photographs, which has resulted in a major influx of gifts and acquisitions,” explained Meyers. “With the rapid development of our holdings in this arena, we also have fostered an exciting new program of photographic exhibitions, of which ‘Salt and Silver’ is the first. We are indebted to the Wilson Centre for Photography for bringing to Yale such a significant project exploring the origins of the salted paper print with the very finest of examples. Our collaboration has been immensely satisfying, and we hope that our two study centers will continue to work together long into the future, bringing such valuable programs to the university.”
The shutter heard round the world
With the help of social networks, the salted paper print and calotype quickly circulated the globe among amateur and professional photographers alike, whose subjects were as varied as their own professional backgrounds and geographic origins. “Salt and Silver” includes photos from Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, India, Mexico, and even one special piece from New Haven, Connecticut, but it is in Britain, with Talbot’s own work, that the exhibition begins.
His wide-ranging subjects included landscapes, posed tableaux, his young daughter, the construction of Nelson’s Column at Trafalgar Square, and a printed page – which piqued the most interest from Talbot’s contemporaries. A frequent subject was a plaster cast of the famous British Museum bust of a Homeric hero, whom Talbot identified as Patroclus, Achilles’ good friend who perished in the Trojan War.
“Talbot’s work confounds some of our assumptions about what photographic genres are today,” said Ramalingam.
Talbot’s contemporary public audience first experienced many of these photos as plates in a limited serial publication of the photographer’s “The Pencil of Nature” (1844-1846). Talbot used this serial not only as a forum for showcasing the cheap printing power of salted paper and calotype technology but also as a means to explain photography, at the time a very new medium. In the introduction of the first issue, Talbot emphasizes that nature alone, rather than any human hand, should get the credit for producing these images.
“It may suffice, then, to say, that the plates of this work have been obtained by the mere action of Light upon sensitive paper. They have been formed or depicted by optical and chemical means alone, and without the aid of any one acquainted with the art of drawing.”
Though nature captured the images, their compositions and concepts were all very human. Unsurprisingly, many of the early practitioners highlighted in “Salt and Silver” had trained as artists in other media. Other art media inform most of the photographs in the exhibition, whether painting, architecture, or even sculpture, such as Talbot’s obsession with the plaster bust of Patroclus.
Poses, purposes in this new medium
Ramalingam sees sculpture as “a really fascinating route through the exhibition,” and she thus charted a potential course for exhibition visitors that highlights Talbot’s Patroclus, Roger Fenton's photographs of sculpture for the British Museum archive, Auguste Mestral's photograph of a 19th-century sculpture by Victor Geoffroy-Dechaume before it was placed atop a cathedral, and three Auguste Salzmann photographs of archaic sculpture from Kameiros, in Rhodes.
“I’m really interested in the idea, both just after this period and also in these early years, that photography might enable a new kind of history, that it could be a way of documenting and creating a conversation around the past that's not necessarily about words but is about photographing objects and then assembling them in archive,” Ramalingam said.
The hang devoted to the works of Roger Fenton — the first professional photographer in the exhibition and founding secretary of the Photographic Society of London — includes several from his series documenting the sculpture holdings of the British Museum. Among these is a photograph of the genuine marble bust from which Talbot’s Patroclus was cast. Given the low sensitivity of the calotype process, subjects had to be photographed in full daylight, so Fenton had a special studio assembled on the roof of the British Museum, where pieces from the collection were hauled up one by one to be photographed with proper light exposure against a dark backdrop, according to Ramalingam.
Also featured in the exhibition are works by engineer Robert Adamson and painter and lithographer David Octavius Hill, who collaborated from 1843-1847, producing more than 1,500 photographs together. This was a feat in an age when photography was a slow and cumbersome process, emphasized Kingsley.
“People then thought long and hard before they took a picture,” she said. “They were very sophisticated about photography, even in these very earliest years.”
With the exposure times of as long as a minute, composing a scene ahead of time was done as much out of necessity as it was of thoughtfulness. Candid photographs weren’t so much unpopular as impossible, for movement of any kind during an exposure resulted in blurs in the photographs. Hill brought his painter’s eye to staging compositions, such as the series that he and Adamson did with the St. Andrews and Newhaven (Scotland) fishing communities.
Unlike staging and composing, however, some conventions of painting did not carry so seamlessly into the new medium of photography. According to Kingsley, one of those were figure studies of artists’ models, which had been a part of the painting process for centuries.
In fact, in the 1850s, the Parisian government ruled nude photographs as obscene and prosecuted models for posing. Several salted paper prints of naked models appear in “Salt and Silver,” challenging viewers to question for themselves whether the naked body becomes suddenly lewd in photographs where it had been beautiful in paintings, as the Parisian government seemed to believe.
The exhibition also showcases the rising popularity of architectural photography in those early years, especially as it applied to documenting European colonialism and imperial might. Among the works of this type is a photo of an Egyptian temple — paired with its negative — by Félix Teynard, a trained civil engineer whose self-appointed mission was to create a “photographic atlas” of the Nile Valley. The sequence of monuments he documented followed the route of Napoleon’s military campaign in Egypt half a century before – a failed invasion that nonetheless set off decades of intense fascination with Egyptian antiquities, not only for scholars but for the wider public, upon which Teynard sought to capitalize, said Ramalingam.
The curators draw visitors’ attention to Teynard’s original crop marks, visible on both the negative and unpublished proof print — reminding viewers that the first iteration of the photo is almost never the version the photographer presents to the public.
In today’s era of digital photography and Photoshop, a work’s authenticity might be debatable, but photography’s complicated relationship with “truth” is as old as the photographic process itself, said Kingsley.
“There are different kinds of truths. There's truth to material reality and truth to the moment. But there is also artistic truth, which, yes, has formal characteristics, but produces a picture that affects viewers as if it is a truth that's understood and recognizable,” she said.
“They were well-aware that the photographer was constantly making choices. The time of day to take the picture, the framing, choosing to point your camera in this direction or that; you get a little low, so that the building rises up monumentally, or you look down on a street scene from above. These are all choices that produce an effect, and that effect has truth because it's expressing what the photographer perceives. It's communicating that truth to the viewer in a way that's understandable and resonant — that connects with people.”
Ours in truth
“Salt and Silver” closes with a piece that has special resonance on Yale’s campus — the annotated yearbook of A.G. Wilkinson, a Yale College graduate from the class of 1856.
In the display case, the genuine article lays open to Wilkinson’s own portrait, but additionally, the curators have included an iPad, where curious visitors may flip through the digitized yearbook to appreciate each young man, frozen in silver by the sunlight of some late spring day, 162 years ago.
Beneath the photos, Wilkinson scrawled updates on his classmates — whom they married, what they dishonored, on which Civil War battlefield they died. Opposite every portrait, there’s a blank page reserved for a signature and note from each classmate back to Wilkinson, inscribed before they ever launched into the world. While today’s yearbooks typically bear messages like “have a great summer” or “I’ll never forget when…,” Wilkinson’s has signatures that almost all begin “Yours in ‘Truth…’” in looping cursive.
Although each photograph in the exhibition has its own momentary, material, and artistic truths to tell – in sum – “Salt and Silver” wants visitors to come away with one important message: Both in frame and behind the camera, the people who made these photographs were really, in Kingsley’s words, “just like us.”
More information about the exhibition, including a video of the opening panel with Kingsley, Ramalingam, and Osterman, is available online. The Yale Center for British Art (1080 Chapel St.) is free and open to the public Tuesday - Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. It is closed Mondays and major holidays. For more information, visit the center’s website or call (203) 432-2800.