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The Black Arts — Magic and Chemistry — of Early Photography

25 August 2018

From The National Review:

[The new show at The Yale Center for British Art] Salt and Silver: Early Photography, 1840–1860, takes some of the best holdings of a private London collection so exquisite and so focused that it can generate, with the BAC’s scholars, the definitive take on the technique that drove photography’s young years.

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Salt and Silver: Early Photography, 1840–1860, takes some of the best holdings of a private London collection so exquisite and so focused that it can generate, with the BAC’s scholars, the definitive take on the technique that drove photography’s young years.

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The salted-paper process, using compounds of salt and silver, was invented by the British scientist and scholar William Fox Talbot (1800–1877) in 1839. On one level, the show is about science and invention, but labels are kind to those who never belonged to a high-school camera club. Bathing a piece of paper in a salt solution, then a silver solution, and then exposing it to light created a negative of the image on which the lens focused. Another round of simple processing on a separate sheet produced a positive image. A daguerreotype, a process also pioneered in the late 1830s, was more complicated, took longer, made outdoor shooting more difficult, and created a glassy, toneless, deeply, almost unnaturally, focused, pickled image.

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(click for larger image)

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Nelson’s Column Under Construction, Trafalgar Square, April 1844 William Henry Fox Talbot salted paper print from paper negative

 

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Newhaven Fishermen (Alexander Rutherford, William Ramsay & John Liston), ca. 1845
David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson
salted paper print from paper negative

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There’s plenty of color in these photographs, too. The early artists were competing with drawings and engravings, usually monochromatic, as the good catalogue tells us, but the photographs still stunned early audiences with their subtle tones of rose or sepia or lavender.

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Roger Fenton’s gorgeous portrait of Captain Lord Balgonie from 1855 has an entrancing aubergine color derived from gold-toning, a substitution of silver chloride with gold chloride during the finishing process. This deepens the density and intensity of shadows, which create a mood of extremes as his white face grows whiter, the darkness under his eyes more pronounced. Balgonie fought in the Crimean War and suffered from shell shock, the 19th century’s term for post-traumatic-stress disorder. He looks exhausted, has seen too much, and now seems to see strange things in the distance. It’s psychological portraiture at its best.

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Where are the Americans? Using Talbot’s technology required a costly license, a disincentive for early American photographers. Gradually, by the 1850s, newer technologies displaced salt-and-silver prints. Collodion glass-plate negatives produced sharper, more detailed images. The goals of American photographic surveys of the West, for instance, didn’t depict the colored atmosphere or mist so effectively evoked by the tonalists. Mathew Brady and other war photographers looked less for the mysterious, the equivocal, and the speculative and more for plain, matter-of-fact, in-your-face truth.

Link to the rest at The National Review

Photography/Images

4 Comments to “The Black Arts — Magic and Chemistry — of Early Photography”

  1. The most amazing thing about the dancing bear wasn’t in how well it danced – but in that you could get one to dance at all.

  2. Love the cocky Newhaven Fishermen.

  3. Shorpy.com got their hands on, among other things, a lot of glass plate negatives from the mid-1800s. My favorite of the whole site is a trainyard scene shot on December 15, 1864, during the Battle of Nashville.

    The glass plate negatives had a fine detail, and Shorpy scanned them at very high resolution; click the “original” button to pan around on the image.

    http://www.shorpy.com/Battle-of-Nashville-1864

    WARNING: TIME SUCK WEB SITE

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