In ‘Salt and Silver: Early Photography 1840-1860’ Tate Britain combines a concise technical introduction to the development of the medium with thematic galleries that reveal the interest of its pioneers in documenting a particular age and its culture.
William Henry Fox Talbot invented a form of photography in 1839 using paper coated in silver salts, the light causing the chemicals to blacken and thus creating a negative impression of the scene; light was then projected through this ‘negative’ onto a similarly coated sheet of paper to create a positive image. Several of his early experimental studies of his home at Lacock Abbey and the surrounding landscape are displayed – such as ‘The Great Elm at Lacock’ (left, 1843-5) – showing remarkable precision yet with the soft sepia tinted glow of old paper lending an aged and atmospheric aspect.
Here we are also introduced to the one of the earliest photographic studios, set up by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson in Edinburgh in the mid-1840s. Beyond their portrait commissions, they used this new visual medium in the service of social documentary, capturing images of Newhaven fishermen and women (right, c.1845).
In the second gallery, several new methods are introduced: the waxed paper method and the glass plate method, which both achieved a print of greater precision and smoothness; in 1851, Louis-Desire Blanquart-Evrard invented the albumen print which would eventually replace the salt paper method. This development is illustrated by various photographs of buildings and townscapes, an exploration of ‘Modern Life’ that spread across Europe and beyond.
Talbot, Henri Le Secq and Charles Marville record the streets of Paris (Talbot, ‘Scene in a Paris Street’, above, 1843), while Edouard Denis Baldus takes pictures of the Abbey at Saint-Denis, and the port and stations on the route travelled by Queen Victoria in 1855 for the ‘Queen’s Album’ (‘Chemin de fer du nord’, below top, 1855).
Further afield Roger Fenton shows us supplies for the Crimean campaign arriving by ship at Cossack Bay, Balaklava (above), while Matthew Brady and George Kendall Warren capture images of life in the United States.
Gustave Le Gray’s waxed paper method also allowed larger scale prints to be produced, while still preserving the texture of the paper print that distinguishes early photography. The third gallery shows how this was used to great effect to document ancient ruins and relics (for example, John Wheeley Gotch’s ‘Abbey Ruins’, left, c.1858), many explorers and archaeologists taking up photography for this, rather than any purely artistic, purpose. Charles Clifford became official photographer for the Spanish royal family, and while resident there compiled albums of Spain’s historic monuments and great cathedrals. Linnaeus Tripe, a Captain in the East India Company, published ‘Photographic Views in Madurai’ (Madras) in the 1850s, such as this image of Puthu Mundapum (above centre). The archaeologist John Beasly Greene recorded sites in Egypt – including a huge portal at Thebes (below, 1854) – and in Constantine, Algeria; while another archaeologist, Auguste Salzmann, excavated many ancient statues and tombs in Jerusalem, Athens and Rhodes which he photographed close up, the rough texture of the stone complemented by the softly textured paper on which these images were printed (‘Cypriot Statue’, above right, 1858-65).
Perhaps the most popular theme of early photography was, not surprisingly, portraiture. Studios were set up to cater to public demand, with the sitter carefully posed in the manner of the traditional painted portrait accompanied by attributes to suggest aspects of their personality or profession. However, photography offered more than just a cheaper and quicker alternative to the painted portrait; it’s speed and portability meant that people could be presented informally, as in Jean-Baptiste Frenet’s outdoor scenes which capture spontaneous gestures of tenderness (left and below, 1855).
It could also be used in contexts that would not have allowed for painting, such as the army encampment in the Crimea, where Roger Fenton immortalises a hardy group of Croat supply carriers (below right, 1855), Captain Mottram Andrews resting in a camp chair (right, 1855), and Captain Lord Balgonie of the Grenadier Guards (below left, 1855) – not in gleaming uniform with a heroic stance but in ragged sheepskin and straggling beard within a bare canvas shelter. There is a stark immediacy to this image of a war-weary young man – an image that also bears witness to the difficult and unglamorous conditions in which the soldiers lived – which underscores the seismic change that the invention of photography brought about in terms of how humans and events were portrayed.