So last Wednesday Padraig and I attended the first of six lectures on a Short History of Photography at the Lewis Glucksman Gallery. The first weeks lecture was presented by Fiona Kearney, Director of the Glucksman gallery. Miriam didn’t make the first night, so this post could be titled “Notes for Miriam”!
The first slide that Fiona presented was of the first photograph ever made (or at least the earliest surviving), which was made by French inventor Niépce in 1827. This image was fixed on a metal plate, and showed a scene from a window of a house. The exposure would have taken many hours, and so the necessity of finding a place to keep the box still for that length of time probably dictated the scene produced as much as anything else.
Niépce collaborated with Louis Daguerre who went on, some 12 years later to patent a process known as the daguerreotype.
A daguerreotype is essentially a negative image, exposed directly onto a plate bearing silver halide. It is a single negative process, and prints cannot be made from the plate. Although the end result is a negative, the mirrored surface appeared as a positive when a dark background was reflected onto it.
Henry Fox Talbot, an English inventor, perfected his own process, and in 1839 invented the negative process. With his process, the calotype, many prints could be made from a single negative. Although the daguerreotype was more popular at the time (possibly because it was a free to use patent, unlike the calotype which was licensed), the fact that Fox Talbot’s calotype was a double negative process meant that it became the precursor to most late 19th and 20th century photographic processes.
Although the early photographers were essentially expert inventors and chemists, Fiona impressed upon us during her lecture that an artistic eye guided the creation of the image from the begining. The second photograph above, Boulevard du Temple, Paris, 1838, by Daguerre, is a wonderful example of this in my eyes. This is a technically interesting photograph, because the Boulevard appears to be empty, despite the fact that this should have been a busy street, full of life. The only apparent sign of life is the two figures towards the bottom left of the scene – a man standing still to have his shoes shined, and the shoe shiner. What has happened is that the exposure took so long that the only people that stayed still long enough to be recorded were the shoe shiner and his customer. I wonder if Daguerre and this man were in cahoots, as quite apart from the technical aspect, the two figures add enormously to the beauty of the scene.
From the begining, photographers were very influenced by painters, and painting, in turn, was influenced and changed by photography. One of the things that photography did was change the way that we see. Eadweard Muybridge was commissioned by Leland Stanford to scientifically prove whether or not all four hooves left the ground during a gallop (possibly so that Stanford could win a bet!). Muybridge achieved this with his “The Horse In Motion” series of photographs, and in so doing changed the way we see, and the way artists paint. No longer would paintings such as Epsom Derby by Théodore Géricault appear realistic. Indeed to modern eyes the horses in this painting appear to be flying rather than galloping, with all four hooves off the ground!
And so some artists began to paint in such a way that now appears more realistic, since the invention of photography. Below is “Race Horses” by Degas. As you look at the painting, your eye is drawn to the startled horse in the center of the frame, and to modern eyes, this looks “more correct”, again due to photography.
Marcus Sparling seated on Roger Fenton’s photographic van, Crimea, 1855.
Roger Fenton was the first photographer to go to war, commissioned in 1855 to the Crimean War to photograph the troops. Although he had to carry wagon loads of glass plates and chemicals, the photographs that were produced immediately changed the way foreign wars were reported on. Seeing the devastating impact of foreign war in images, rather than reading about them, had enormous impact – the written word could not compete.
The technology of the time meant that the photographer could not actually photograph the action as it happened, so early war photographs tended to be of scenes and landscapes – cannonballs on a road, dead bodies on the fields. And, long before photoshop, accusations of image manipulation were ripe. Did the photographer move the bodies to increase the impact of the horror of the scene. Were the cannon balls moved onto the road? And if so, was he morally right to do this?
An image that was certainly manipulated, if that’s the right word, was “Fading Away” by Henry Peach Robinson in 1858.
This photograph was made from five different plates, or negatives. At the time, this was a shocking image to its audience. It depicts a dying woman being attended to by two nurses or family members, with her husband staring mournfully out a window in the background. It was a shocking image, considered too real, despite the fact that paintings of such a scene were commonplace. It was the apparent realism of the photograph that shocked his audience, who considered it a step too far.
Fiona’s lecture also looked at the impact that photography made on the environment right from the early days. The formation of Yosmite as a National Park came about partly because of the photographs that were taken there. As people travelled there to make photographs of the natural beauty, so it was recognised that tourism was a new factor, and steps were made to preserve such places.
Photography moved away from trying to emulate painting, and the fashion for pictorialism was replaced by a search for “truthfulness” in photography by photographers such as Weston and Ansel Adams. But still the artistic eye led the way, composition improved, and the idea of photography as an art form was fought for and grew stronger.
We can see the path from where photography began gives us a clue to where we are now. The world is aware that images can be and are often manipulated. A photograph is not always truthful. But an artist can use photography to make a statement about the world he lives in now.