Building a Collection: Photography at the National Gallery, Lecture by Sarah Greenough, senior curator and head, department of photographs
The Nineteenth Century: The Invention of Photography
In 1839 a new means of visual representation was announced to a startled world: photography. Although the medium was immediately and enthusiastically embraced by the public at large, photographers themselves spent the ensuing decades experimenting with techniques and debating the nature of this new invention. The works in this section suggest the range of questions addressed by these earliest practitioners. Was photography best understood as an art or a science? What subjects should photographs depict, what purpose should they serve, and what should they look like? Should photographers work within the aesthetics established in other arts, such as painting, or explore characteristics that seemed unique to the medium? This first generation of photographers became part scientists as they mastered a baffling array of new processes and learned how to handle their equipment and material. Yet they also grappled with aesthetic issues, such as how to convey the tone, texture, and detail of multicolored reality in a monochrome medium. They often explored the same subjects that had fascinated artists for centuries — portraits, landscapes, genre scenes, and still lifes — but they also discovered and exploited the distinctive ways in which the camera frames and presents the world.
William Henry Fox Talbot, British, 1800–1877, A Scene in York: York Minster from Lop Lane, 1845, salted paper print, Edward J. Lenkin Fund, Melvin and Thelma Lenkin Fund, and Stephen G. Stein Fund, 2011.57.1
A British polymath equally adept in astronomy, chemistry, Egyptology, physics, and philosophy, Talbot spent years inventing a photographic process that created paper negatives, which were then used to make positive prints—the conceptual basis of nearly all photography until the digital age. Calotypes, as he came to call them, are softer in effect than daguerreotypes, the other process announced in 1839. Though steeped in the sciences, Talbot understood the ability of his invention to make striking works of art. Here the partially obstructed view of the cathedral rising from the confines of the city gives a sense of discovery, of having just turned the corner and encountered this scene.
David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, Scottish, 1802–1870, and Scottish, 1821–1848, David Octavius Hill at the Gate of Rock House, Edinburgh, 1843–1847, salted paper print, Paul Mellon Fund, 2007.29.27
In the mid-1840s, the Scottish team of Hill, a painter, and Adamson, a photographer who had opened the first photography studio in Edinburgh, produced some of the finest pictures made with the newly invented medium. Theirs was a true partnership of technical skills and creativity. In the four brief years of their alliance before Adamson’s untimely death, they created some three thousand portraits and pictures of local life. This picture of Hill, made at the entrance to his studio, is characteristic of the partners’ deft harnessing of light and shadow to model the subject’s face, suggesting a psychological intensity.
Albert Sands Southworth and Josiah Johnson Hawes, American, 1811–1894, and American, 1808–1901, The Letter, c. 1850, daguerreotype, Patrons’ Permanent Fund, 1999.94.1
Working together in Boston, the portrait photographers Southworth and Hawes aimed to capture the character of their subjects using the daguerreotype process. Invented in France and one of the two photographic processes introduced to the public in early 1839, the daguerreotype is made by exposing a silver-coated copper plate to light and then treating it with chemicals to bring out the image. The heyday of the technique was the 1840s and 1850s, when it was used primarily for making portraits. The daguerreotype’s long exposure time usually resulted in frontal, frozen postures and stern facial expressions; this picture’s pyramidal composition and strong sentiments of friendship and companionship are characteristic of Southworth and Hawes’s innovative approach.
Roger Fenton, British, 1819–1869, Moscow, Domes of Churches in the Kremlin, 1852, salted paper print, Paul Mellon Fund, 2005.52.1
Trained as a lawyer and painter, Fenton photographed for only eleven years, yet he was one of Britain’s most influential and skilled practitioners. The first official photographer to the British Museum, he was also one of the founders of the Photographic Society, an organization he hoped would establish photography’s importance in modern life. He constantly tested the limits of his practice, even hauling his cumbersome equipment abroad to places such as Russia, where he made this photograph as part of a remarkable series of architectural views of the Kremlin.
Roger Fenton, British, 1819–1869, Fruit and Flowers, 1860, albumen print, Paul Mellon Fund, 2005.52.4
Gustave Le Gray, French, 1820–1884, The Pont du Carrousel, Paris: View to the West from the Pont des Arts, 1856–1858, albumen print, Patrons’ Permanent Fund, 1995.36.94
Early Decades of Photography in France (Slides 6–9)
In the second half of the nineteenth century, some photographers in France, hired by governmental agencies to make photographic inventories or simply catering to the growing demand for pictures of Paris, drew on the medium’s documentary abilities to record the nation’s architectural patrimony and the modernization of Paris. Others explored the camera’s artistic potential by capturing the ephemeral moods of nature in the French countryside. Though photographers faced difficulties in carting around heavy equipment and operating in the field, they learned how to master the elements that directly affected their pictures, from securing the right vantage point to dealing with movement, light, and changing atmospheric conditions during long exposure times.
Charles Marville, French, 1813–1879, Hôtel de la Marine, 1864–1870, albumen print, Diana and Mallory Walker Fund, 2006.23.1
Édouard-Denis Baldus, French, 1813–1889, Toulon, Train Station, c. 1861, albumen print, Patrons’ Permanent Fund, 1995.36.10
Eugène Cuvelier, French, 1837–1900, Belle-Croix, 1860s, albumen print, Gail and Benjamin Jacobs for the Millennium Fund, 2007.115.1
Julia Margaret Cameron, British, 1815–1879, The Mountain Nymph, Sweet Liberty, June 1866, albumen print, New Century Fund, 1997.97.1
Ensconced in the intellectual and artistic circles of midcentury England, Cameron manipulated focus and light to create poetic pictures rich in references to literature, mythology, and history. Her monumental views of life-sized heads were unprecedented, and with them she hoped to define a new mode of photography that would rival the expressive power of painting and sculpture. The title of this work alludes to John Milton’s mid-seventeenth-century poem “L’Allegro.” Describing the happy life of one who finds pleasure and beauty in the countryside, the poem includes the lines:
Come, and trip it as ye go
On the light fantastic toe;
And in thy right hand lead with thee,
The mountain nymph, sweet Liberty.
Maria Harriet Elizabeth Cator, British, 1831–1881, Cator Family Album (detail), 1866–1877, collage of watercolor and albumen prints in bound volume, Pepita Milmore Memorial Fund, 2014.174.1
In mid-nineteenth-century Britain, upper-class women frequently created collages out of small, commercial portrait photographs of family and friends, cutting out heads and figures and pasting them onto paper that they then embellished with drawings and watercolor. Made decades before the twentieth-century avant-garde discovered the provocative allure of photocollage, these inventive, witty, and whimsical pictures undermined the standards of respectability seen in much studio portrait photography of the time.
Carleton E. Watkins, American, 1829–1916, Piwac, Vernal Falls, 300 feet, Yosemite, 1861, albumen print, Gift of Mary and David Robinson, 1995.35.23
The westward expansion of America opened up new opportunities for photographers such as Watkins and William Bell (see the following slide). Joining government survey expeditions, hired by railroad companies, or catering to tourists and the growing demand for grand views of nature, they created photographic landscapes that reached a broad audience of scientists, businessmen, and engineers, as well as curious members of the middle class. Watkins’s photographs of the sublime Yosemite Valley, which often recall landscape paintings of similar majestic subjects, helped convince Congress to pass a bill in 1864 protecting the area from development and commercial exploitation.
William H. Bell, American, born England, 1830–1910, Grand Cañon, Colorado River, Near Paria Creek, Looking West, 1872, in Geographical and Geological Explorations and Surveys West of the 100th Meridian, Seasons of 1871, 1872, and 1873 (1873), albumen print in bound volume, Corcoran Collection (Gift of William Wilson Corcoran, 1886)
Guillaume-Benjamin-Amant Duchenne (de Boulogne), French, 1806–1875, Plate 63, Fright, from Mécanisme de la physionomie humaine (The Mechanism of Human Facial Expression) (1862), 1854–1855, albumen print, Pepita Milmore Memorial Fund
A neurologist, physiologist, and photographer, Duchenne de Boulogne conducted a series of experiments in the mid-1850s in which he applied electrical currents to various facial muscles to study how they produce expressions of emotion. Convinced that these electrically-induced expressions accurately rendered internal feelings, he then photographed his subjects to establish a precise visual lexicon of human emotions, such as pain, surprise, fear, and sadness. In 1862 he included this photograph representing fright in a treatise on physiognomy (a pseudoscience that assumes a relationship between external appearance and internal character), which enjoyed broad popularity among artists and scientists.
Eadweard Muybridge, American, born England, 1830–1904, Plate 365, Head-spring, a flying pigeon interfering, from Animal Locomotion, 1887, collotype, Corcoran Collection (Museum purchase, 1887)
Muybridge’s experiments in the 1880s revolutionized the understanding of movement and inspired scientists and artists alike. Using banks of cameras equipped with precisely triggered shutters, he captured sequences of pictures of people and animals moving and performing simple actions, such as climbing stairs or, as here, performing a head-spring. Showing small increments of movements, his work made visible what once was imperceptible to the human eye and laid the foundation for motion pictures.