January 4, 2016

2015: A rediscovery of early photography

Leading on from my previous post, on reviewing the year past I thought I’d turn some attention towards another pastime of mine, visiting museum exhibitions. 2015 saw a wide range of topics taken on by various museums and galleries, ranging from the history of game design to the portraits of Goya and various ones in between. However for me, 2015 was really the year of the photograph, with museums across the country staging exhibitions of historic photography. As a subject that I particularly adore, I spent my year ensuring I got to see some of the main shows taking place.

First up in the year was Tate Britains Salt and Silver: Early Photography 1840-1860 in March, which showed a number of works from the collection of the Wilson Centre for Photography. The works ranged from William Henry Fox Talbots early experiments in his calotype process (including what my very well have been the world first exmaple of photocopying), Felice Beato’s images of India, Egypt and China and Roger Fenton's work from the Crimean War.

Salt and Silver exhibition at Tate Britain

What amazed me was the breathtaking quality of these prints; the rich tones that had hardly faded at all. A particularly fine example in the exhibition was a portrait of William Calder Marshall, one of the several captured by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson in the years of their wonderful yet tragically short partnership. 170 years after it was first taken, the image still possessed the richness of tone that caused critics to describe Hill & Adamsons work as “Rembrandt-ish”. Another image that sticks in my head is a portrait of a mother and son by Frènet, simply for the sheer expression in the subjects faces, captivating visitors to the show the second they walked into the room in which it was hanging. Although in the boys case, I think many were wondering if Richard Donner had stumbled across this work around the time he was directing The Omen.

During the summer, I was based at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, as part of my time working on NGS’s collections digitisation project. A major part of this was working through the holdings of photography by Adamson and Hill, imaging them for future use in research, display and publication.

Processing an Adamson Hill photograph of St Andrews Castle.

As an early photography enthusiast, this was a gift of a task; spending days studying and handling countless prints and paper negatives. It doesnt really count as an exhibition as such, but I was able to get a much better look than I ever could in a busy gallery (that is, without being thrown out).

At the same time, the National Museum of Scotland’s Photography: A Victorian Sensation, took a much broader look at the development of photography, with an additional focus on the technical developments throughout the 19th century and the consequential “explosion of photography” towards the end of it.

Outside the Victorian Photography Exhibition. Nope, I didn't get the green lines on those banners either.

NMS tends to cater towards a more interactive audience and this was no exception. It made use of a lot of interactive and audio-visual interpretation, including a number of video introductions to individual subjects, and the use of touch tables to view high resolution images of the photographs themselves. This was beneficial, mainly because of the sheer number of items that were on display, showcases filled with daguerrotypes and walls packed with cabinets of stereogram images and cases of viewers. It sometimes felt like a little bit of an overload and occasionally the interpretation relied a bit too much on the AV aspects, but overall it was a great overview and introduction to a complex topic. Hopefully it has inspired a whole new batch of enthusiasts.

Finally, 2015 also saw the bicentenery of the birth of Julia Margaret Cameron. One of the most important photographers of the Victorian period, her work was seminal in the establishment of photography as an art, rather than a simple technique of recording. It’s fitting that her work returns to the V&A 150 years after it was first exhibited in South Kensington.

Label from the Julia Margaret Cameron exhibition

Her portraits and allegorical genre scenes, which made use of strong directional lighting and soft focus for effect polarised opinion at the time, leading to a mixture of acclaim and criticism for her work. She was happy to experiment with new techniques, such as combination printing (although with less success than Gustave Le Gray) and to embrace what would have been considered to be irreparable errors, including stains and swirls, dust on the negative plates and the iconic “blurriness” which has come to symbolise her images. One such example of this that I particularly liked seeing up close was an image of one of her sons, “Hardinge Hay Cameron”, an early example of her profile portraits. The young man dominates the frame, his profile fading into view, accentuated by the shallow depth of field that when all put together gives the work a commanding, painterly presence that no technically “correct” image could match.

Hardinge Hay Cameron, photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron 1864. © Victoria and Albert Museum

Overall, its been a treat to experience so much 19th century photography this year. With any luck, more people have discovered and been inspired by these works which are so often hidden from view.