Exhibitions Assistant Emily Amesbury discusses Tate Britain’s latest exhibition dedicated to one of the earliest forms of photography.
As the leading photographic process of its time, the ‘salt print’ was vital to the creation of an innovative visual language, whilst capturing a snapshot of life in the nineteenth century. At a time when painting and sculpture dominated the art-world, photography was yet to establish its status as an art form in its own right.
Tate Britian's current exhibition Salt & Silver follows photography’s emergence as a platform for experimentation, from its inception to its initial developments, as photographers embraced the unique possibilities of their new medium and revolutionised the way we record the world around us.
A method pioneered by William Henry Fox Talbot in 1839, salt prints provided the foundations for contemporary photography, but are now part of a practice which has since been transformed by today’s technological advances. It is easy to forget that photography once relied entirely on lengthy chemical processes, especially now that an image can be captured digitally through the instantaneous snap of the shutter. By 1841 Talbot had established the technique of coating paper with a combination of salt solution and silver nitrate to produce a light sensitive surface. This enabled the creation of a photographic negative known as a ‘calotype’. The negative would then be used to form a positive which could be infinitely reproduced. Due to the fragile nature of the process, few salt prints have survived to the present day. Therefore this exhibition provides an astonishingly rare chance to view some of the oldest and best examples of early photography. Alongside Talbot’s calotypes, the exhibition also includes photographs by Roger Fenton, David Octavius Hill & Robert Adamson and Eugène Piot.
Room One introduces the viewer to paper photography and its unique ability to capture society, objects and architecture with a new realism. With this came the public perception that the camera was representational of ‘truth’, that the photograph was able to prove the existence of its subject. The camera was a mechanically democratic invention, capturing each subject as equal regardless of status. David Octavius Hill & Robert Adamson were among the first to utilise this new realism, documenting the working communities of Newhaven, Edinburgh in the series Newhaven Fisherman (1843-45). Using the camera to capture elements of the everyday, Hill & Adamson present staged representations of these communities; though it is questionable whether these photographs depict the true reality of these occupations, as the subjects stand posed and distanced from their surroundings.
Roger Fenton’s photographs depicting the Crimean War, found in Room Two, could also be seen as a constructed ‘reality’. His vast scenes of the battlefield, devoid of people, do not depict the true brutality of the war - rather an edited account of events. It could be assumed that this was due to the laborious processes involved in producing the image. Construction of the scene may have been necessary in order to capture events reliably, especially those which were fast moving. His photographs, like those of his contemporaries, highlight a vastly different approach from the immediate documentary techniques of the present.
A clear thread of the exhibition appears to be the camera’s ability to suspend time. Through Eugène Piot’s lens, the Parthenon is forever suspended in its pre-restored state, blackened and surrounded by rubble as it was in 1852. Marking discoveries of ancient landscapes, photographers, were able to transport the British public to these previously unseen sights, using photography to broaden their awareness and understanding of the wider world. The camera has been able to portray our place in history, and as these images suggest, there remains a constant and deep-rooted interest in exploring and celebrating the world around us.
This is an exhibition that charts photography’s progression throughout the 1840s until 1860, from how photography was, to use Talbot’s own phrases, ‘drawing with light’ and ‘the art of fixing a shadow’. However, this is part of a much larger narrative in the development of the medium that the viewer is left to explore. Photography’s position between art and technology is a unique one and the exhibition provides an insight into early photography, distanced from modern technology and operated by a select few. It is an opportunity to view the foundations of what is a now, through the use of digital cameras and camera phones, an accessible household practice of the modern age.
Salt & Silver is at Tate Britain until Sunday 7 June.