Salt and Silver @ TATE BRITAIN

portrait by Frenet c.1855

portrait by Frenet c.1855 – the posing here is unlike anything found in more commercial galleries

The TATE Britain website says the following about this exhibition …
“This is the first exhibition in Britain devoted to salted paper prints, one of the earliest forms of photography. A uniquely British invention, unveiled by William Henry Fox Talbot in 1839, salt prints spread across the globe, creating a new visual language of the modern moment.This revolutionary technique transformed subjects from still lifes, portraits, landscapes and scenes of daily life into images with their own specific aesthetic: a soft, luxurious effect particular to this photographic process.The few salt prints that survive are seldom seen due to their fragility, and so this exhibition, a collaboration with the Wilson Centre for Photography, is a singular opportunity to see the rarest and best early photographs of this type in the world.”
There seems to be a lot about early photography at the moment with another exhibition called “Revelations” opening at The Science Museum and exhibitions due later in the year by Margaret Cameron and Linnaeus Tripe. The title “salt and silver” refers to the making of early photographic prints in particular the process discovered by Fox-Talbot who managed to record an image by using paper soaked with a chemical carrying silver (this had been done before) and then fixing that image by using a chemical containing salt which stopped the image darkening and fading beyond recognition. Fox-Talbot did not really invent photography but he did discover a process by which it was possible not only to capture and retain an image but also to reproduce that image ad infinitum.
Thre is an interesting discussion by those involved in the exhibition about the way in which salt prints had a certain quality; their inks seeped into the paper giving a tactile effect while albumen prints made from the same negative, would give a cleaner look more suited to the commercial market but with lesser aesthetic effect. Michael Wilson OBE responsible for James Bond films and owner of photographs on show remarks that “… Our memory’s vision is sometimes not pin-sharp, accurate. We remember in a fuzzy kind of way.” Hope Kingsley who works for The Wilson Centre of Photography replies “and the lower resolution of the salted print sometimes accommodates that. It does not give you everything. It gives you some space to complete the image partly in your mind’s eye.”
This argument about the scientific versus the aesthetic seems to appear in various forms in the discussion of photography. I find myself making images that I want to appear real particularly with nature photography yet am aware of making images that conform to a sense of beauty either a popular one or a more traditional artistic one.
This exhibition, (I have not seen it yet but looked through the catalogue which is printed on rougher more textured paper than the usual smooth coated paper of books), seems to celebrate the basic notion of photography, one that Talbot experimented with and one that photographers since his time have also explored. There is a sense of rediscovering the wonder of the original process which seems to have been lost in the current photographic climate.
My first viewing of the exhibition was a curator’s tour withy Carol Jacobi from which the following notes were made yet this initial observation is mine; there are obvious similarities between Darwin and Fox Talbot both gentlemen of leisure during the Victorian period who pondered over their discoveries being forced to make them public in the mid 19’th century!
The tour with exhibition curator Carol Jacobi starts by describing the presentation of salt prints with their own “lost look”; Daguerrotypes were on silver, salt prints on paper. Salt prints were popular for about 20 years being a technology that spread widely. The salt print was made on ordinary paper (the prints on show here are originals from the 19’th century). Made with use of camera Obscura; when paper soaked with silver salts was exposed a negative image would appear and from this a positive image could be made. Pigments within paper rather than coated on top like most photographs. Chiaroscuro effect that plays with light and darkness; Rembrandt like images.
Where was the camera pointed? Various subjects such as portraits and landscapes also cityscapes. Trees were also chosen.
Fox-Talbot had John Herschel, an eminent astronomer as an advisor. It was Herschel who coined the terms positive and negative.
Blue registered much more quickly than green – initial problem in making of salt prints.
Adamson and Hill, some of the first photographers who made salt prints.
Impressionistic feel to these prints! A good 20 years before Impressionism. They have a delicate softness yet the detail is there. Mystery to these prints and their Chiarusco.
Many photographs made in France. French took up this technique eagerly. Baldus was one photographer who made photographs of the Paris of that time. British art insular, atavistic? Not true of British photography from this time. Use of soft “aching” foregrounds with fine geometric in representation of buildings; effective contrast with symmetry to design of image within the frame.
Photography took on history painting such as with Roger Fenton who trained in Paris. Well known for Crimean photos of which several are in this show. One image shows a badly cared for Acropolis in Athens, the Parthenon.
Image of sugar refinery in Sri Lanka brought up questions of treatment of workers in the colonies.
Photographs of cathedral possible forerunner to Monet’s paintings of Rouen cathedral.
Linnaeus Tripe another photographer featured; an exhibition of his work to follow this year at the V&A
Augusta Sazmann photographs of sculptures shown. Interesting texture and handling of light.
Portraiture perhaps best known aspect of photography. Hill and Adamson going beyond the surface of things to observe the reality behind things. Newhaven Fisher women well known and much discussed work.
A lot of the work in this exhibition seems uncontrived! Simple construction to images which do not require a lot of thought to understand.
Fenton made portraits not just of heroes.
Communicating psychological complexity of subjects; not even painting was aware of this at the time.
Frenet who posed his subjects as if religious icons yet still they remain contemporary human beings relating to each other.
Nadar whose photograph of a nude, Mariette 1855, is one of the most important in the exhibition; famous at the time. Complex relationship between sitter, photographer and viewer.
The salt print was superseded by the albumen print which looked more realistic in regard to overall appearance. By the end of the 19’th century, a resurgence of more art based photography in the Pictorialist movement.
Ignaco Gavino Rocha wad a Mexican photographer who made incredibly detailed portraits which were reproduced as salted silver prints.
There was improvement in the lenses used to project these images as well as the use of paper and chemicals so that images became clearer and easier to produce owing largely to quicker exposure times.
It seems all the salt and silver prints here are made by contact printing. This begs the question, when was enlarging prints introduced by means of a projector !?
There is an example of a salted paper print and an albumen print seen alongside each other made from de Clerq’s waxed paper negative of the entrance to a Turkish building in Jerusalem in 1860. The salted print does seem to have a wider tonal range than the albumen, the latter making it’s subject stand out more which is no doubt why it became the commercial success it was. Yet aesthetically, the salt print is more appealing containing more albeit less obvious detail.
Talbot was evidently more than a scientist inventor for he saw the photographer being like the painter with their eye often “being arrested where ordinary people see nothing remarkable. A casual gleam of sunshine, or a shadow thrown across his path, a time-withered oak, or a moss-covered stone may awaken a train of thoughts and feelings.” (Pencil of Nature, 1845)
Thanks to Talbot, there was the salted silver print that was made from a paper negative. As the small booklet accompanying the exhibition States, ” despite the success of the daguerrotype’s small shiny pictures, the salt prints’ soft interplay of light and shade seemed to some more artistic. They could be reproduced and displayed like traditional  prints.” However, the technology developed and paper negatives started to be waxed as did the paper prints while later on glass negatives were introduced evident in the work of Fenton. The waxing quality made images more precise yet the salt prints tended to contain a wider tonal range which resulted in a more evocative image. The salt print however lasted only about 20 years before it was taken over by technological advances.
Statue by Auguste Salzmann 1858-65

Statue by Auguste Salzmann 1858-65

The next day, I saw the exhibition again, this time with fellow students from the Open College of the Arts and accompanied by tutor Rob Broomfield who acted as catalyst for our observations, encouraging us to look with a critical eye – what are the curators up to !?
The very fact that the photographs are being presented in a museum, framed and mounted, with soft lighting is encouraging a predictable response. Might there not be a statement being made about their cultural significance? One might question this presentation! Is this really what defines these objects or is it just a certain point of view being put across by the curators.
As viewers, we do not have to criticise the works on show in terms of their quality, the fact that a group of experts has gathered to select them, more or less affirms their excellence but one can question the labels that a certain group of people are attaching. They are likely to resonate differently according to the individual observing.
For instance, I am struck by two photos that show the China and Glass collections owned by Talbot and photographed by him. He wrote, “… however complicated the arrangement – the Camera depicts them all at once” while “Glass articles impress the sensitive paper with a very peculiar touch, which is quite different from that of the China …” (From The Pencil of Nature 1844)
Soft or hard? It depends on the body of work! The harder appeals to the commercial world where results are often predetermined while in art based photography in which the viewer may have expectations but is not laying down the rules, a more rounded softer approach is possible. As a photographer making prints, the result might depend on client expectations or be a response to the body of work being presented. Tutor Rob Broomfield mentions that during the 1970’s there was something of a vogue for soft focus prints; I can not help but wonder if these might have been in part a response to technological limitations at a time when colour photography was only just begining to emerge.
For me, this exhibition is about the dialectic that exists in photography between science and art, between the delineation of subjects and their aesthetic.
For the curators, the exhibition seems to be about the value of these early prints both as art objects and historical artefacts. Obviously, they are aware of other implications in this work such as the one that struck me concerning a dialectic that is still at work in photography.
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder!” Yet I think most people would find these images beautiful even if some of the subjects are banal.
Even early photographers responding to composition and traditional motifs such as The Golden Mean. Not so contrived as more concerned with the technology? Rob questions this!
The introduction of glass plate negatives changed the look if photographs even though the prints were still silver and salt based.
Was Impressionism a response to the apparent realism of photography? Apparently so as was it’s focus on the everyday with framing that on occasion would only reveal part rather than the whole of an object.
This exhibition evokes a more innocent era in which people were not so generally nervous about photography or aware of the many ways it could be used to bear a false rather than a true testament.
Looking at Hill and Adamson’s photograph of two girls called The Gowan, one would expect a photographer these days to find the photograph extremely low in contrast and in need of manipulation via a Curve!? This image is lighter than others probably as a result of wanting to retain shadow detail; in those days with the techniques of the time, contrast was much more difficult to apply. Nowadays it is much easier and so overdone.
Portrait of a Man made by Fenton in about 1854, shows a rather robust posture which makes the individual look like he might be disabled. This is almost certainly a result of the long exposure which required the pose to be held motionless for a considerable period.
Frenet’s posed portraits are however “a long way from the posed studio portrait.”
Similar motifs such as the after the flood photograph
Roger Fenton c. 1855

From Glass Plate Negative by Roger Fenton c. 1855

After the exhibition, we meet in the cafe, a group of about 10, to discuss the exhibition and try and determine what it is actually about.
We discuss the prints which are of everyday life with their own soft aesthetic. Wilson mentions their rich velvety look and tonal range which has been lost.
Luxurious! The effect of the prints is somewhat rarified. That they are black and white is a misconception of this work.
The connoisseur approach which looks at these photographs as art objects yet they are also a historical record. This method has been  “improved” upon !? Possible to see prints from a historical perspective or solely as art objects even though this might be the obvious response. Were not photographers of this era “upper class” and this resulted in photographswith a certain way of looking at the world. A privileged view. One can also view this exhibition from a connoisseurship perspective!
Archaeological approach in work of Salzmann and Linaeus Tripe among others.
Two ways of seeing the exhibition, as art and as document. One might see the exhibition in terms of technological development though the curators give us little understanding of this. There is not much if any mention of the significance of Talbot’s technique by which a captured image could be preserved and then duplicated. No mention or example of the “rival” Daguerrotype!
About British photography rather than French photography except French photography did use this British invention; we are in Tate Britain!
This show does not really challenge anything except perhaps our knowledge of what early photographic prints were like!? An example of early photography with the selection being made by curators and the owner of the archive. Perhaps exhibition does challenge our misconception of early photography as being composed of prints that do not have aesthetic value, being the products of an archaic process that needed improving. These photographs are perfectly acceptable representations of reality.
This exhibition seems to fly in the face of Walter Benjamin and John Berger who said the photograph has no aura since it can be reproduced infinitely; here, the photographs seem possessed of much aura but is it just that created by their museum and critics or do the images themselves have something remarkable about them? One would need to see the photographs free of all their trappings but these are as much in the mind as in physical objects hence not easy to separate the fiction around these photographs from the reality.
Alternative processes can become over-indulgent, a leisurely pursuit rather than an objective view. Gratuitous perhaps! However, understanding the process of alternative technologies (using film is one of them now!) might be helpful in developing one’s knowledge of photography.
There are examples of lost photographic processes being revived such as with platinum printing, an old process of photography that has not been surpassed and hence is being used to show an exhibition of Salgado’s Genesis.
Digital technology has roared ahead but can it produce work of the quality seen in the Silver and Salt exhibition? Digital has so much further to go; it is the Stone Age for digital at present. Camera sensors that can accommodate a much wider dynamic range is one possible area of development.
This exhibition a reminder perhaps that progress does not always produce better quality objects rather it tends to be more pragmatic in it’s approach.
This exhibition is about aesthetically produced prints that might be said to have aura either real or artificially produced by the art environment in which they circulate; however, unlike the early days of photography when these photographs were being made, photography is no longer concerned with the aesthetics of the print as much work will never be printed but distributed digitally or in reproduced in books where the printing process is not so easy to control. What Benjamin and Berger say about the photograph not having an aura whereas the painting does, is more an ideological statement than a factual one. However, the aura of a photograph hardly features in discussions of photography these days since it is no longer of much importance.
The Open College of the Arts itself has moved away from practical considerations of photography to more cultural ones.
It has been a good discussion with fellow students and tutors and I come away feeling that I have a better understanding of what this exhibition is actually about rather than merely what the curators want us to see.
Perhaps it is a rediscovery of the wonder that photography can bring that makes this such a rewarding exhibition!

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