National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION

Tour: Selected Photographs from the Collection

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In the last few years the National Gallery of Art has significantly expanded its collection of photographs. Although the Gallery began actively acquiring photographs in 1989, the collection initially consisted primarily of the art of a few key twentieth-century American photographers: Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Ansel Adams, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, and Harry Callahan. Since 1995 the museum has been adding photographs from a much broader spectrum and now has more than 9,000 nineteenth- and twentieth-century photographs in the collection, by more than 250 European and American photographers. This tour, drawn entirely from the Gallery's collection and from promised gifts, celebrates some of those recent additions, including works by pioneer photographer William Henry Fox Talbot, celebrated nineteenth-century master Julia Margaret Cameron, modernist artists such as Charles Sheeler and László Moholy-Nagy, as well as such observers of modern life as Bill Brandt.

The works presented here demonstrate that the most gifted photographers do not simply record their world but transform it, endowing it with meaning and significance; that through selection and manipulation, framing, isolating, freezing, and distorting these practitioners create images that resonate not only with their own emotions or ideas, but also with those of the viewer.

Photographic Processes

Since the discovery of photography in 1839, the practitioners of the new art form invented and experimented with many processes and techniques. The descriptions listed here are a selection of the processes displayed in this tour.

Paper negatives were made of fine writing paper sensitized with silver salts, exposed in a camera, developed, and fixed (stabilized). Invented by William Henry Fox Talbot, paper negatives were used exclusively until the late 1840s. A paper negative could be used for the printing of a positive salted paper print by placing it on top of a sheet of paper sensitized with silver salts and exposing it to sunlight. Papers could be sized with starches such as arrowroot to enhance the appearance. Salted paper prints are characterized by a matte surface and a soft, atmospheric quality resulting from the texture of the paper negative. Because of their increased translucency, waxed-paper negatives, especially popular in Britain and France, allowed for finer detail.

Early glass negatives or collodion negatives were hand-coated with a thin film of collodion (guncotton dissolved in ether and alcohol), then sensitized with silver salts. The plates were exposed while still wet and developed immediately. Popular throughout the 1850s, collodion negatives almost entirely replaced paper negatives by 1860. Glass negatives were ideal for printing albumen prints, the most common photographic print process from the mid-1850s through the 1880s. Invented by Louis Désiré Banquart-Evrard, albumen prints were made using paper coated with a layer of silver salts suspended in egg white and then exposed to sunlight through a negative. Albumen prints are characterized by their smooth, glossy surface and fine detail. Most albumen prints were toned with a solution containing gold chloride, which changed the image hue from reddish-brown to a rich purple.

The platinum process is based on the light-sensitive characteristics of iron salts, which react with platinum salts to form platinum metal. While in many other kinds of photographic prints the metal image rests within a binder on the surface of a coated paper, here it is absorbed into the fibers. Thus the image takes on the texture of the paper and is softer in appearance and less detailed than a photographic print on a coated paper. Prized for its rich blacks and delicate tonal range, platinum is usually charcoal in hue, although the hue may be changed by varying the temperature of the developing solution or by using toners such as mercury or gold. Invented and patented by Richard Willis in 1873, the platinum process was popular from the late 1880s through World War I, when it became economically impractical to manufacture the paper commercially. The palladium process is identical to platinum except that salts of palladium are substituted for salts of platinum to form the final palladium image. In general, palladium prints are warmer and more sepia in hue than platinum. Introduced in 1916 as a cheaper substitute for platinum, palladium paper was commercially manufactured until the 1920s.

A gelatin silver print is a black-and-white photograph in which the image, consisting of silver metal, is suspended in a gelatin layer. To make a modern gelatin silver print, light-sensitive silver salts are mixed in gelatin and applied to a piece of paper that has been coated with a layer of white pigment also mixed with gelatin (the "baryta layer"). The baryta layer gives the print a smooth, reflective surface and brilliant highlights. The paper is exposed to light through a negative and then "developed out," or made visible, in a chemical reducing solution. This basic chemical process, introduced by Talbot in 1840, has been in use for the last 150 years; since World War I it has been the primary method of printing black-and-white photographs.

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