Salt and Silver @ Tate Britain

Running concurrently with the Sculpture Victorious exhibition at Tate Britain is a smaller show of four rooms hung with the earliest photographs from Britain, France and America. Co-curated with the Wilson Centre for Photography, it is obvious that time and thought have gone into preparing the show and it is certainly informative about the precise dates and the technical developments in early image-making – but the images themselves are of mostly academic interest; only a handful of the 80 or so on display made me stop and look harder.

Room 1 Paper photography

I hadn’t realised photography was quite so old. Henry Fox Talbot discovered the chemical capacity to fix a shadow on light-sensitive paper coated in silver salts around the time Victoria came to the throne (1837) and presented his first salt prints to the world in 1839. He took many images of family and servants at his Lacock Abbey home along with the countryside nearby.

At the same time the Frenchman Louis Daguerre was perfecting the technique of recording an image on a silver plate, the so-called daguerrotype.

So photography was invented in Britain and France in the years just before 1840, just as the ‘Victorian era’ began. The new technology spread quickly: by the mid-1840s a notable studio was established in Edinburgh by Robert Adamson and David Octavius Hill, whose name echoes in the history books as a pioneer.

Nelson's Column under construction by Henry Fox Talbot

Nelson’s Column under construction by Henry Fox Talbot

Historic/academic interest aside, only a few of these pics rang my bell, one in particular – ‘Nelson’s Column under Construction, Trafalgar Square, London’, first week of April 1844 William Henry Fox Talbot. If there had been more images genuinely throwing light on Victorian life and achievements I’d have been riveted.

Also standing out from the run-of-the-mill portraits of Victorian families and servants were three photos from a series by David Octavius Hill showing Newhaven fishermen, their wives, and children, captured in varying poses.

Newhaven fishermand and boys by David Octavius Hill

Newhaven fishermand and boys by David Octavius Hill

Room 2 Modern life

Lots of photos of buildings, mainly in France. Louise-Désiré Blanquart-Evrard developed Talbot’s process in order to mass produce prints and launched the first successful photographically-illustrated publications. In 1851 he invented a new process, the albumen print, which quickly replaced salt prints.

This image of an ‘abandoned’ cart is by far the most striking pic in the room: mysterious and atmospheric, an effect doubled when you learn that the white crosses on the wall indicate disease and are warning passersby to keep clear.

Ox Cart, Brittany by Paul Marès (c.1857 )

Ox Cart, Brittany by Paul Marès (c.1857 )

Room 3 Epic

‘People in the nineteenth century saw their present as part of a much longer sweep of history’ says the commentary. a) Haven’t most intelligent people at most times had similar thoughts? b) What this means in practice is almost as soon as photography had been invented people were travelling abroad with bulky cameras to take holiday snaps of cultural sites, especially, for some reason, ancient Egyptian ruins.

In 1851 the painter-photographer Gustave Le Gray introduced his waxed paper negative process which captured greater detail and allowed much larger compositions, very suitable for historical sites and ruins.

I’ve been round the Egyptian ruins several times myself over the years and have my own holiday snaps of them. It’s sort of interesting that Egypt was such a popular destination but the photos on display added little or nothing to my knowledge.

Auguste Salzmann, Statuette en Calcaire; Type Chypriot 1858-1865 © Wilson Centre for Photography

Auguste Salzmann, Statuette en Calcaire; Type Chypriot 1858-1865 © Wilson Centre for Photography

My favourite photo was of an old temple by Linnaeus Tripe, solely because of his name.

Room 4 Presence

Photography allowed the capturing of a person, their face and body and stance and expression, with more precision than ever before in human history.

Roger Fenton made his name by lugging the heavy equipment all across Europe to the Crimea where he recorded soldiers and support personnel engaged in the war there (1853-56), rather static awkward images, such as of this cantiniére. Yes it has historic interest: to see so clearly the faces of people involved in such a thing, yes it’s quite interesting to see the outfits they wore; but you can say that about almost any semi-official photograph taken anytime in the last 170 years.

Roger Fenton, Cantiniére 1855 © Wilson Centre for Photography

Roger Fenton, Cantiniére 1855 © Wilson Centre for Photography

In Paris Félix Nadar emerged as one of the best portrait photographers, making portraits of the Paris literary and art world which remain atmospheric to this day. He also persuaded a number of lithe young women to strip off for the camera, not the last time that was to happen.

Mariette, by Félix Nadar (c. 1855)

Mariette, by Félix Nadar (c. 1855)

It made me laugh out loud to compare French useage of the camera – quickly persuading girls to strip off – with the Englishmen Talbot and Hill a decade earlier, whose very respectable subjects in Lacock or Newhaven could hardly be wearing more clothes if they tried.

Also, Mariette’s pose is meant to be copying the attitude of a classical heroine, for the purposes of a painting she was modelling for at the time – but it reminded me of the tens of thousand of photos of movie stars and rock stars and politicians and everyone else who has instinctively flung their hands up over their faces in a futile attempt to conceal their features from the intrusive lenses of the paparazzi.

Photography pries.

The uneasy nature of photography

Photography is always treated in art galleries as if it is a rare and precious art form, as fragile as a Leonardo cartoon, whereas it is, of course, a technology for the exploitation of people and places for an extraordinary diversity of commercial reasons, in newspapers, in magazines devoted to every subject under the sun, and now in the limitless playground of the internet.

I worked in television for 15 years and have plenty of experience asking people we’d interviewed, or who just appear in background sequences, to sign ‘release’ forms’ giving us permission to use their images however we wanted, in any medium, existing or not yet invented, in perpetuity.

This is the basis for my feeling that photography is not an ‘innocent’ art. I sympathise with the native Americans who, according to urban legend, refused to have their photos taken because the machine would steal their souls. Oh, how we laughed. But I think they were right. I think every photograph is taken with a purpose or aim, more often than not to control and shape and define a narrative about the scene or person or thing being ‘captured’ on film.

Photography puts the power to control a scene and the people in it, into your hands. ‘Stand here. Can you just move over there. Everyone smile. Take your clothes off. Point that gun at him. Can we just raise that flag at a better angle for the camera. Smile for the folks back home.’

I think the proliferation of digital cameras and the arrival of the internet as a medium to publish and distribute an overwhelming number of photographic images has brought many of these issues of control and ownership and exploitation right out into the open and is giving us a new understanding of the risks and dangers involved in taking part in the power plays inherent in photography.

And I think this new knowledge sheds a cautionary light back over the small, precious images collected together in this interesting and informative exhibition.

Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

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