tue 02/06/2020

Points of View: Capturing the 19th century in photographs, British Library | reviews, news & interviews

Points of View: Capturing the 19th century in photographs, British Library

Points of View: Capturing the 19th century in photographs, British Library

Photographic treasures exposed to the light

“Photography is a refuge for failed painters,” declared the French poet, Charles Baudelaire around 1862. Yet photography took over a century to become a genuine family member of the art world. The British Library was slow to capitalise on the visitor value and historical significance of the vast photo-archive that it accumulated over the birth-period of this new artform. But its spectacular debut exhibition has burst open the vaults containing over 300,000 images, and now presents a magnificent production leading visitors on a journey back through time as the new art form was gradually building momentum.

7_etienne-carjat-baudelaireVanity - or was it the need to be part of the new photographic era? - overcame Baudelaire's disgust: he posed several times for his portrait, including one by Étienne Carjat (left) which appears in this remarkable display. Baudelaire’s glowering expression and the set of his mouth suggests he’s just repeated his tirade. But I wonder if, secretly, he appreciated the marvellous likeness, clarity and assuredness of Carjat’s print.

Libraries are synonymous with books, of course, but Points of View brings into the (dimmed) light, the visual carriers of narrative and historical detail. Carefully detailed captions provide the facts but the rest is left to our imaginations. John Falconer, Head of Visual Materials and Curator of Photographs, selected over 250 photographs and runs them alongside the milestone optical inventions which created them, and the results of those processes. His curation recreates the story in a 19th-century salon-like atmosphere, dividing it into compartments representing portraiture, science, technology, travel, exploration, tourism, lifestyles, construction, architecture and portraits.

Categories, of course, overlap. Single framed prints, photo-albums and illustrated books represent the means of spreading the excitement of the magical new medium – and that now fills the rooms. New inventions in equipment, chemical processes and printing methods accelerated; methods of reproduction moved from paper to glass and included the sometimes cumbersome, glass-plate cameras. Popular with travel documenters, the plates could reach vast sizes and their beautifully detailed images they carried were often reproduced in equally large illustrated books. Francis Frith’s study of Egypt and the Holy Land used 20x16 cumbersome plates and preserve magnificent ancient scenes.

Falconer explains that the exhibition represents “how quickly it (photography) became a common part of daily life and a major commercial industry… and opened up a new world of visual communication and personal expression.”  It arcs from Fox Talbot’s pioneering inventions to Eadweard Muybridge’s flicker book-like multiple image experiments in motion (Baboon walking on All fours, 1870s) which paved the way for moving images and another era.

William_Henry_Fox_Talbot_-_Photogenic_drawing_of_botanical_sThe collection begins pre-photography, with architectural drawings and cityscapes made with an 1830s camera lucida where scenes (buildings, cityscapes) are reflected onto paper from which the artist then traced and hand-coloured them. We enter the true realm of photography (as printed on light-sensitive paper) through the pioneering Henry Fox Talbot’s glowing image of vetch-like flowers, Photogenic Drawing of Flower Specimens, 1839 (picture right). It was produced without a camera, but as a photographic negative, by laying the specimen on light-sensitive paper. Representing the next giant leap, his beautifully crafted wooden box camera and his invention of positive and negative Calotype printing which endured through to the digital age. As negatives, Calotypes could be repeated, and lay the trail for much later mass production. An Oak Tree in Winter, c 1842-3 depicts two trees – in negative and positive – to illustrate the revolution. They coincided with the invention in France, of the eponymous Daguerrotype, and in an ironic twist, Fox Talbot is portrayed through that method in the early 1840s, by Antoine Jean Francois Claudet, who chose it, he said, for its stronger detailing over calotypes.

1_Anna_Atkins_Dictyola_dichotoma_1843-53_British_LibraryScientific curiosity runs through the exhibition, constantly reminding us of the need for knowledge of chemistry and optical physics. In the 1840s and 50s, the amateur photographer, Anna Atkins produced around 450 colour prints of algae (seaweed), without using a camera but following Fox Talbot’s early imprinting on light-sensitive paper, then printing them with a new German Cyanotype process which floats the specimen, Dictyola dichotoma, in an ethereal sea-blue background. This effect is popular with digital photographers today. The 1890s invention of X-rays, saw two German photographers harness the dangerous process to photography, showing here a modernist image of two transparent, glowing frogs floating against stark blackness.

From the beginning, portraiture was a dominant subject, following the historical Fine Art search for the "essence" in a subject. Lady Alice Mary Kerr’s close-up of the infamous poet and diplomat, Wilfrid Scawen Blunt (picture left), was described by portrait photographer Jane Bown, as “a jackpot picture”. 2_Wilfrid_Scawen_Blunt__c_1870._Lady_Alice_Mary_Kerr, pShe praises its intensity, the direct eye contact and lack of pretension, and Kerr’s technical prowess. Another passionate photographer and occasional writer on the subject, George Bernard Shaw rejected the literalism and comparing photography to painting, remarked perceptively, “The camera, with one sitter, will give you authentic portraits of at least six apparently different persons and characters.”  He illustrated his statement through an amusingly unconvincingly multi-personality tryptich by the playwright Frederick Henry Evans in 1900.

Towards the close of the 19th century, some portrait photographers in England and the US used it as a tool to depict social reality, visual equivalents of the then populist writer, Dickens. John Thomson published collections of his documentaries as Street Life in London, illustrating the working city’s poor in dignified but never sentimental portraits. Outstanding are the boatmen working the Thames (The Silent Highway, pictured below left) and workers constructing the London underground’s Central Line, a wonderfully composed scene resembling a stage-set.

xJohn_Thomson_Silent_HighwayIn a section marking the early days of travel photography and voyages of exploration and trade around the British Empire, studios were packed inside wooden boxes, and the returning collections greeted with excitement and curiosity for foreign lands and people, landscapes, geological details, ethnographic studies. They include an elegant Arab Woman of the Sudan, 1879, who stares blankly, not realizing her image is being slowly immortalised; the stunningly poetic Village near Yokohama, Japan, c. 1869 and marking the Grand Tour, the Coliseum is composed in stark outline against a clear sky, close in style to the 1930s Italian Modernists.

Representing the new fascination with mountains, Samuel Bourne left his commercial practice in England for tours of India. His 1860s landscapes are unrivalled, magnificent, heroic and painterly – particularly From the Top of the Manirung Pass, India, 1864, taken during a trek in the high Himalayas. The taste for foreign exotica is marked humorously by theportrait of London Zoo’s first hippo, in 1852.

The explosion of tourism in the UK became synonymous with Francis Frith, who documented scenes of work and leisure at still leading resorts. But he is also present for his priceless collections from Egypt and the Holy Land. And it is domestic scenes like Hastings from the Beach, 1864, which mark the beginnings of middle-class tourism and from there, mass-produced photographs.

"You press the button, we do the Rest,” shouts the posters hanging on Kodak’s headquarters in Clerkenwell Road around 1902. Their motto represents the company’s part in photography’s democratisation through their cheap cameras and the mass-produced prints made in the Harrow factory. Printing Kodak, 1890 (main picture), shows female staff in outfits appropriate to waitressing, producing albumen prints made using eggwhites from the 100 chickens in the yard. A perfectly composed documentary photograph, it is also a reminder of women’s skilled work away from home, prior to World War I.

Almost two centuries since the first photographic experiments which open this collection, many emerging photographers are today investigating the original chemical processes, light-sensitized papers, and camera-less image-making. It is as if the digital age’s methods are creatively unsatisfying: the fingers-on-keys, eyes-on-screens are turning some back to the slower, hands-on techniques and the unpredictable results they yield. It is as if the moment of seeing an image rise from a blank page, has bought back the lure of magic which fills the rooms of this timely exhibition.

Points of View: Capturing the 19th Century in Photographs - a free exhibition - continues at the British Library until 7 March 2010. Information here. The accompanying book by John Falconer and Louise Hide can be purchased here.

A larger selection of photographs from the exhibition can be seen in full view in theartsdesk gallery here.

Share this article

Add comment


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters