Salt and Silver: Early Photography 1840-1860

Art, Photography
Recommended
4 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Exhibition of intriguing images that charts the birth of photography

Another week, another photography show about death. It’s not officially about death, mind you; it’s officially about the years 1840 to 1860, when photographers made their images on paper sensitised with silver salts. The process was quickly superseded, but the pictures created this way have a beautiful artistic softness and subtlety of tone, quite apart from the fact that every single new photograph that succeeded represented a huge leap forward in the development of the medium. You see these early practitioners start to grasp the scope of what might be possible. Their subjects change, from ivy-covered walls and carefully posed family groups to more exotic landscapes and subjects: Egypt, India, the poor, war.

By the time you get to Roger Fenton’s portrait ‘Captain Lord Balgonie, Grenadier Guards’ of 1855 you have an inkling of how photography is changing how we understand life, for ever. Balgonie is 23. He looks 50. His face is harrowed by his service in the Crimean War, his eyes bagged with fatigue, fear and what the future may hold. He survived the conflict, but was broken by it, dying at home two years after this picture was taken. That is yet to come: for now, he is alive.

This sense of destiny bound within a picture created in a moment is what is new about photography, and you start to see it everywhere, not just in the images of war. It’s in William Henry Fox Talbot’s ‘The Great Elm at Lacock’: a huge tree against a mottled sky, battered by storms. It’s in John Beasly Greene’s near-abstract images of Egyptian statuary, chipped, cracked, alien. And it’s in the portraits of Newhaven fisherwomen by DO Hill and Robert Adamson (their cry was ‘It’s not fish, it’s men’s lives’). In a world where death is always imminent, photography arrives as the perfect way to preserve life, and the perfect way to leave your mark, however fleeting.

Chris Waywell 

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