The Image Revealed

Premières photographies sur papier en Grande-Bretagne (1840-1860)

From May 27th to September 07th, 2008
Benjamin Brecknell Turner
Crystal palace, Hyde Park, 1852, Transept
The Metroplolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gilman Collection
Don de la Fondation Horace W. Goldsmith par l'intermédiaire de Joyce et Robert Menschel
© The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York / DR

Fixing Reality

William Fox Talbot-The Haystack
William Fox Talbot
The Haystack, avril 1844
National Media Museum, Bradford, UK
© The RPS Collection at the National Media Museum, Bradford

Fixing Reality

The official announcement of Daguerre and Fox Talbot's inventions both came at the beginning of 1839. On 7 January, Arago presented the daguerreotype to the Académie des Sciences in Paris. The arrival of this news in England prompted Fox Talbot to abandon his reticence. Having been very discreet until then about the contents of his work, he exhibited his first photogenic drawings in London at the end of January 1839.
The two techniques were very different. Daguerre used a polished, silver-coated copper plate, made sensitive to light by iodine vapour. The resulting image was sometimes positive, sometimes negative, depending on the angle it was viewed. Each one was unique, and could not be reproduced.
On the other hand, Fox Talbot used paper sensitised to light through a chemical treatment based on sea salt and silver nitrate. After exposing it to light, he obtained a "negative" where the light and dark tones of the subject were reversed. This was then used to develop as many "positive" prints as were required. This principle laid down the foundations for photography for the next one hundred and fifty years.

William Collie-Two Fisher Girls
William Collie
Two Fisher Girls, 1874
Collection particulière
© DR

From an aesthetic point of view, the images produced by the two processes were also very different. In an article written in 1930, the art critic Waldemar-George described the daguerrian image in terms of: "the precise work of a calligrapher who emphasises details and strives to achieve a sharp image". On the other hand, the calotype played on the masses of shade and light, blurring the detail. The metallic, mirror-like brightness of the daguerreotype is contrasted with the graininess of the paper and the softness of its grey or brown tones.
After presenting his invention, Fox Talbot continued with his research. He discovered that a latent image formed on the photosensitive paper after it had been exposed to light, and that it was possible to make it visible through a "development". This method enabled him to reduce the exposure time considerably. In June 1841, he finally published the complete description of his process, and called it the "calotype", from the Greekkalos, meaning "beautiful".

The Founding Years

David Octavius Hill et Robert Adamson-The Pends, St. Andrews
David Octavius Hill et Robert Adamson
The Pends, St. Andrews
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
© The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Founding Years

A patent for the commercial application of the calotype was obtained in England. The invention was not protected in other countries. In Scotland, the process was hugely successful in the 1840s, mainly thanks to two painter-photographers who worked in partnership: David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson.
Assisted by Nicolaas Henneman, his assistant, FoxTalbot launched several promotional activities. In 1844, Henneman created a photographic "establishment" in Reading where he carried out all sorts of work: portraits, private commissions, images for print dealers, courses for beginners, etc. Fox Talbot used this establishment to enter the previously unexplored area of photographic publishing. Between June 1844 and April 1846, he published a six part series entitled The Pencil of Nature, and a book: Sun Pictures of Scotland.

William Fox Talbot, Nikolas Hennemann-The Reading establishment
Nikolas Hennemann William Fox Talbot
The Reading establishment, 1846
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
© The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

However, the calotype could not compete with the daguerreotype, which predominated in portrait studios until the end of the 1840s. It has to be said that its inventor was hardly prepared to deal with the competition. As a member of the English gentry anglaise, Fox Talbot lived in a world strictly defined by the conventions of his social class, and did not understand much about business. Fortunately, the characteristics of the images produced by the calotype won over the aesthetes and amateur artists, people who were sufficiently cultivated and wealthy to be able to take up photography as a leisure pursuit. It is thanks to them that this process was so popular in 1840s.

The calotype finds its place

Charles Clifford-Saint-Bruno, Portail principal du Monastère Cartuja, Burgos
Charles Clifford
Saint-Bruno, Portail principal du Monastère Cartuja, Burgos, 1853
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
© The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The 1851 Universal Exhibition in London brought photography into the public eye for the first time. The event galvanised English photographers, and the following year, a small group of amateurs organised the first real photographic exhibition. Showing almost eight hundred works, it provoked very favourable reactions in the press. The Times declared that Great Britain could now "recover the pre-eminence it should never have lost, in an art form genuinely created on its own soil". From 1853 to 1855, a selection of works travelled to more than fifty British towns. The views of the Universal Exhibition taken by Hugh Owen, and Roger Fenton's images from Russia contributed significantly in creating a wide audience for photography.
After having persuaded Fox Talbot to give up his patents, the same group of amateurs founded the Photographic Society in London in January 1853. Many other photographic societies then appeared in Great Britain. All wanted photography to be considered on a par with the other visual arts.

Thomas Sutton-Ruines d'une tour (ou Baie de Saint Ouen)
Thomas Sutton
Ruines d'une tour (ou Baie de Saint Ouen), vers 1855
Washington, National Gallery of Art
© National Gallery of Art, Washington

The close relationship between the directors of the Photographic Society and Queen Victoria and Prince Albert was a factor in obtaining royal patronage. Photography became a respectable and fashionable activity.
After 1851, a new process - wet collodion - became widely used. It was a technique using negatives on glass, and brought together the accuracy of the daguerreotype and the advantages of multiple prints. Once again, those who remained faithful to the paper negative put forward their artistic aspirations. They preferred the calotype whose effects were more similar to those in drawings and prints.

English sensitivities<br>

Hugh Owen-Arbres avec enchevêtrement de racines
Hugh Owen
Arbres avec enchevêtrement de racines, 1853
National Gallery of Art, Washington
© National Gallery of Art, Washington

English sensitivities

As members of Victorian society, the calotypists of the first generation used photography to express the ideals of their class. Anxious about social and technological changes, they turned their lenses towards the past, avoiding anything that smacked of industrialisation. Thus, the countryside, seen as a place for sporting activities with fresh air and pure water, became an idealised refuge. The notion of the picturesque blended in with the putative benefits of nature. From the 1850s, the picturesque was no longer a simple aesthetic category, but a way of comprehending nature, determining the visual preferences of a whole generation. And when, Hugh Owen, for example, expressed the vulnerability that ran through Victorian society, he did so by photographing a tree with its roots exposed.
It was not until later, when attitudes had developed that photographers would begin to explore subjects with significant social content.

Echoes of journeys

Roger Fenton-Dômes du Kremlin
Roger Fenton
Dômes du Kremlin, automne 1852
National Gallery of Art, Washington
© National Gallery of Art, Washington

Once the Napoleonic wars had ended, many British aristocrats and gentlemen began to travel across Europe. Some were attracted by Alpine landscapes, the charm of Mediterranean civilisation or quite simply by the feeling of freedom that came with being far from home.
Like travellers in previous centuries, they drew and painted the sites they visited. But now, darkrooms and negatives accompanied them on their travels.

John Stewart-Col et pic d'Arrens, photographiés depuis le mont Soubé
John Stewart
Col et pic d'Arrens, photographiés depuis le mont Soubé, 1852
National Media Museum, Bradford, UK
© The RPS Collection at the National Media Museum, Bradford

In fact, equipment was the main constraint. The sensitivity of chemical products to variations, size and weight were essential factors in the choice of process. Paper could be sensitised in advance and developed long after it had been exposed. The glass plates were heavier and obviously very fragile. It was mainly for these reasons that the travellers continued to use the calotype in the 1860s, or the waxed paper process developed by Gustave Le Gray, even though the wet collodion process was established everywhere.
The annual Salon of the Photographic Society exhibited a significant number of views taken in countries throughout the world. Traveller photographers like Alfred Backhouse, John Stewart, Thomas Millville Raven and Edward Tenison regularly participated in it. Others moved abroad. Thus, in Madrid, Charles Clifford sold views of the main sites and monuments to visitors who wanted to take back a photographic souvenir.

Under an Indian sky<br>

Charles Moravia-Le trône de Cristal du Diwan-i-Khas, Delhi
Charles Moravia
Le trône de Cristal du Diwan-i-Khas, Delhi, 1858
Collection privée
© DR

Under an Indian sky

For the majority of English people, India was a distant place they knew little about. Moreover, for essentially commercial reasons, the East India Company promoted a distorted vision of a country full of riches, the jewel in the crown of the British Empire.
The British public did not notice that this distant country was at that time marked by deep changes and violent social tensions. When, in 1857 the Indian Mutiny broke out, which the British army took over a year to repress, public opinion in England was indignant, particularly because British women and children were murdered. Paradoxically, this reaction provoked a resurgence of interest in the Indian sub-continent, explaining the curiosity with which the public, in November 1857, welcomed the first photographs of India to be exhibited in London.

John Murray-Le Taj Mahal
John Murray
Le Taj Mahal, janvier-mars 1864
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
© The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

But were those admirers of John Murray's Taj-Mahal or Charles Moravia's views of Dehli, aware of the courage and determination that these photographers needed to bring back these images from a country where the climate and the difficulties of finding supplies were a hundred times more difficult than the difficulties encountered in Europe?

The decline of the calotype

Benjamin Brecknell Turner-Whitby Abbey, Yorkshire, Transept nord
Benjamin Brecknell Turner
Whitby Abbey, Yorkshire, Transept nord, 1852-54
Victoria and Albert Museum, Londres
© V&A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum, London

"Photography has become a household word, and a household want". These lines are taken from an article by Elizabeth Rigby Eastlake, the wife of the first president of the Photographic Society, published in 1857. At that time, photographic productions were already found everywhere. The windows of print dealers were full of them; "Sunday photographers" invaded London. They were on sale wherever there was a possible clientele. In fact, the public displayed an insatiable appetite for stereo photographs and portraits on visiting cards. Albumen prints, taken from finely detailed wet collodion negatives, were particularly sought after, to the detriment of paper negatives to which only the sophisticated amateurs remained faithful.

Thomas Sutton-Bâteaux de pêche, baie de St Brelade, Souvenir de Jersey
Thomas Sutton
Bâteaux de pêche, baie de St Brelade, Souvenir de Jersey, vers 1850-57
Collection particulière
© DR

In turn the Salons of photographic societies faded. They became simple exhibitions dominated by professional and commercial applications. The same went for the 1862 Universal Exhibition in London: photography, separated from the fine arts, was "relegated to the most inaccessible and disadvantageous places". For many, photographs could not achieve the status of works of art, while publishers mass-produced them, while expressions like "artistic photographer" were used for commercial ends.
From this point on, the wet collodion process would take over. In the summer of 1861, a small group from the Photographic Society founded the Amateur Photographic Association. Devoted entirely to amateur photography, it promoted the resources of wet collodion in its annual Salon. It did not take Amateur Photographic Association long to attract many members, and to receive the patronage of the Prince of Wales... One era came to an end, and another began.