Feature

Exhibition of the week

Impressed by Light: British Photographs From Paper Negatives, 1840–1860

Impressed by Light: British Photographs From Paper Negatives, 1840–1860
National Gallery, Washington, D.C.
Through May 4

“No one really knows the exact date when photography was invented,” said Allison Eckardt Ledes in The Magazine Antiques. But two men made key contributions. In 1839, Frenchman Louis Jacques Daguerre discovered how light could be used to chemically etch images directly onto metal plates. Such images, known as daguerreotypes, quickly became the most popular form of early photography. But they had one big drawback: Only a single copy could be made of each. Fortunately, Englishman William Henry Fox Talbot nearly simultaneously developed a method called “calotype,” which used a paper “negative” from which innumerable “positive” prints could be made. “Talbot’s discovery became the basis of all photography until our own digital age,” pointing the way toward more portable and durable images. The National Gallery’s new exhibition shows off prints from some of the earliest photographic negatives ever made.

These photographs are very pretty, and very British, said Deborah K. Dietsch in The Washington Times. The first thing these early photographers did with their brand-new technology was to capture images that meant to reflect a bucolic past. “Picturesque images of castles, cathedrals, woodlands,” and haystacks abound, as well as close studies of plants and trees. The effects these untrained amateurs created can be ethereally beautiful, often imitating “the appearance of a painting or etching.” Welsh photographer Charles Clifford’s photograph of a statue in a monastery doorway “makes the wooden saint appear more alive than the people” in most other photographs of the time. One of Fox Talbot’s earliest calotypes, a faint outline of a sprig of fennel, uncannily calls to mind abstract photographic experiments created by surrealist Man Ray 80 years later.

In these primitive images “you immediately see the artistic potential” of photography as a form, said Martha Schwendener in The New York Times. But can they really be considered art? “Though early photography’s images are fascinating and beautiful to behold, calling their makers artists is a bit of a stretch.” These photographers were usually rich males playing with a new (and quite expensive) toy. That these Victorian gentlemen took so many photographs of old buildings in India and Egypt indicates their imperialist mind-set. But the Industrial Revolution that made them wealthy would soon sweep away their old order. Perhaps the “wistful sense of time passing” evident in their photographs reflects fear of the future as much as nostalgia for the past.

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