Tuesday 24 March 2015

Salt and Silver

Yesterday I went to see Salt and Silver, an exhibition of early photography (1840-1860) at Tate Britain. Most of the pictures on display are salt prints, the oldest photographs on paper that have survived. They are rare and precious, fascinating in themselves - and often in their subject matter -and many of them are very beautiful. There are four rooms of photographs: one of early, pioneering images, then a room of pictures recording Modern Life, a room of archaeological and historical images titled Epic, and a final room - Presence - of portraits (with a couple of nudes).
 The wonderful thing about salt prints (especially from paper negatives) - the thing that can't be reproduced but has to be seen in the original - is the softness of tone, the richness of texture, the extraordinarily delicate interplay of light and shade (Hill and Adamson's portraits were even likened to Rembrandts). In these early images, light emerges from darkness, and the borderline between the two is soft and porous - rather like the sfumato effect of the Italian painters. The famous image above - William Fox Talbot's The Great Elm at Lacock - is a case in point. In reproduction, it just looks like a rather crude image of a tree against the sky, but the original is a marvel of subtle tonality, especially where the branches end in a haze of twigs against the sky, the one merging into the other. Fox Talbot achieved this effect - whether intentionally or not - by not masking off the sky (as became common practice later, the development of the sky posing problems that could compromise the main image).
 This exhibition is light on the technicalities, with only an outline explanation of the processes involved. The focus, quite rightly, is on the pictures - this is, after all, an art gallery, and many of these photographs, including the documentary ones, were conceived as works of art. Often they echo pictorial modes of the past - most noticeably in the posing of portraits - but even by the 1850s, the art of photography was breaking free from the painted past into a new informality, into exploring the things that only photography could do.
 There are many memorable images here - of the last of Georgian England and the birth of the Victorian age, of survivals from mediaeval and ancient times (the Egyptian photographs of John Beasly Greene and Auguste Salzmann are worth a small exhibition of their own), architectural studies, images from the Crimean and American Civil War, and some startlingly vivid and intimate portraits: a particularly poignant one is of Captain Lord Balgonie, photographed by Roger Fenton at Crimea, shellshocked and already a broken man at 23. A strikingly beautiful one is of the photographer Gustave le Grey standing in elegant profile against a rough-textured sunlit wall - it could almost be a Manet. All these portraits pack an extra punch because these are the first images of 'ordinary' people to survive their subjects' death. In an age when death was likely to be just around the corner (Lord Balgonie was dead at 25, John Beasly Greene at 24), that was quite something.
 If you're interested in seeing Salt and Silver, there's plenty of time - it's on till June. And there are many more images from the exhibition online - though, as I say, this is a case where you really do have to see the real thing.

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