19th Century British Photography at the Art Gallery of Alberta

19th Century British Photographs from the National Gallery of Canada
On exhibit at the Art Gallery of Alberta
June 29 to October 6, 2013

Reviewed by Tim McLaughlin

But when he saw himself and his whole family fastened onto a sheet of iridescent metal for all eternity he was mute with stupefaction. That was the date of the oxidized daguerreotype in which José Arcadio Buendía appeared with his bristly and graying hair, his cardboard collar attached to his shirt by a copper button, and an expression of startled solemnity, whom Úrsula described, dying with laughter, as a “frightened general.” José Arcadio Buendía was, in fact, frightened on that clear December morning when the daguerreotype was made, for he was thinking that people were slowly wearing away while his image would endure on a metallic plaque.

One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez

For the past several months I have been reading Beaumont Newall’s History of Photography. It does what any good history text should do – it locates the developments of photographic technology, personality, and style within a grand arching narrative that progresses through time. Innovation is tied to personality and the zeitgeist of the era. It is well illustrated with plates depicting what have become the essential hallmarks in the canon of photography.

The Haystack - Henry Fox Talbot

The Haystack – Henry Fox Talbot

If you wanted to see these very photographs, you could do no better than the current exhibit at the Art Gallery of Alberta: 19th Century British Photographs. The exhibition is selected from the collected photographic prints held by the National Gallery of Canada. Fox Talbot’s salted paper prints are here as are works by Julia Margaret Cameron, David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, and many others. The draw of the show is not just the opportunity to see some of the first photographs ever made, but to see them in context and beside early examples that clearly demonstrate the beauty and power of the medium. Francis Meadow Sutcliff’s “Two Daughter’s of the Photographer” is a particularly striking example, as is John Benjamin Stone’s “Man at the Entrance to Houses of Parliament.”

Also present are works that were controversial in their day. Toward the close of the nineteenth century a hot debate emerged around the idea of the amount of sharpness that was proper in photography. Peter Henry Emerson, a champion of the photogravure printing process, reasoned that because human vision is only crisp at the centre of the field of perception (an area of the eye known as the fovea centralis) and is blurred (or at least less crisp) elsewhere, that photographers should make their exposures slightly out of focus. The argument seems to be not just an advocacy of shallow depth of field, but rather a more abstract notion:

Nothing in nature has a hard outline, but everything is seen against something else, and its outlines fade gently into that something else, often so subtly that you cannot distinguish where that something ends and the other begins. In this mingled decision and indecision, this lost and found, lies all the charm and mystery of nature.

Emerson’s most famous work, “Gathering Waterlilies” is present under glass as it appeared in his book Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads. The print in the edition on display is a platinum print.

Ever since its inception photography has suffered from an identity crisis: not knowing if it was an art, and if it was an art, incapable of locating the nexus of artistic genius; is it in the camera operator, the choice of subject, the technique, the editing, the printing, the retouching … where? The problems of artistic intention are compounded through the multiplicity of objects that photography and film create. Walter Benjamin’s landmark essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction pointed out not just the fracture between earlier media and “modern” ones, but the increasingly problematic nature of defining just what qualified as an original and what was a reproduction when dealing with the new technology.

One photographic object that sits somewhat outside this distinction, however, is the daguerreotype. Its iridescence, how the image becomes clear and then vanishes as the plate is tilted in the light, the fine detail, and the mirrored finish, all make the daguerreotype nearly as miraculous as the invention of photography itself. There is no way to reproduce the specific nuance of such objects in a book or catalogue and so in this instance, the installation of the daguerreotypes in the Art Gallery of Albert are particularly worth seeing.

Outside the exhibition hall, I encountered this sign:

Entrance to 19th Century British Photography - Art Gallery of Alberta

Entrance to 19th Century British Photography – Art Gallery of Alberta

Setting aside for a moment the confusion the public must feel about what is and what is not appropriate to share on one’s instagram feed  (the gallery offers no reasoning in this regard, simply a “we’ll let you know when its OK.” position) the instagram signage seems like a last minute thought to make the show accessible to a wider audience. The notice has something of a ghee-whiz flavour.

It could be that the subtle distinctions between salted paper prints and those made with an albumen coating fade like a poorly fixed photograph when compared to the massive decentering brought about by instagram and its ilk. It could be that there is simply not enough room in any gallery to wade through the ramifications of such technologies. And yet I couldn’t help feeling that something could have been offered up – for or against – that would throw some light, however rarified, on the subject. Standing in a room with one of the first photographs ever made just inches from my nose, I felt that if I could just listen hard enough I could hear Henry Fox Talbot, and on the other wall Louis Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, trying to whisper something over the desperate silence that filled the room.

 

Francis Meadow Sutcliff’s "Two Daughter’s of the Photographer"

Francis Meadow Sutcliff’s “Two Daughter’s of the Photographer.” Taken on my cell phone.

John Benjamin Stone’s "Man at the Entrance to Houses of Parliament."

John Benjamin Stone’s “Man at the Entrance to Houses of Parliament.” Taken on my cell phone.

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