The DNA of early photography connects two London exhibitions with a view of both Pictorialist and scientific output. Tate Britain hosts Salt and Silver featuring prints and negatives made between 1840 and 1860 majoring on the evolution of silver salt paper negatives and positives. As you would expect the work of Fox Talbot, Nadar, Fenton and Hill and Adamson are well represented along with many other less well-known practitioners equally as skilled in the medium over some 90 prints from this pioneering period. The comparisons between straight salt prints and those made using Gustave Le Grey’s 1851 waxed paper evolution are fascinating; quality improved again with salt prints struck from colodian plates, clearly demonstrating it is not just this century that innovation and evolution in image capture happened at a pace! The exhibition divides the decades into four rooms, Paper Photography illustrates the first steps taken by Fox Talbot et al; Modern Life shows how photographers explored the art of everyday life from rich to poor, landscape to architecture with subject matter and the soft romantic characteristics of salt printing pre-dating impressionism by some 30 years. This section also shows more technical advancement with examples of Louis-Desire Blanquart-Evrard’s work, he had modified and improved Fox Talbot’s process during the 1840s and introduced the albumin print method in 1851. Room 3 titled Epic looks at the visual chronicling of the world’s heritage using the reasonably portable salt print process. Concluding with portraiture, room 4 illustrated how photographers such as Nadar interpreted and preserved the physical Victorian image.
The theme of pioneering photography continues across town at the Science Museum’s increasingly popular Media Space with Revelations, Experiments in Photography. Having seen Fox Talbot’s better-known 1840’s Pictorialist work at Tate Britain, the first encounter at Revelations was more Fox Talbot, this time from his scientific work again onto salt print output. It is easy to forget early photographers were often first and foremost scientists. The show is curated around the argument that photography has the ability to show the elusive, to go beyond that which the human eye and brain can see and process; and while this ability, used initially for pure record and the advancement of scientific endeavour, could be equality influential on the art of photography. It is an easy trip from Fox Talbot’s 1840 photomicrograph salt paper print of diatoms through Campbell Swinton’s Positive/Negative Discharge silver gelatine prints from 1892, Henri Becquerel’s Beta Ray Printing-out paper prints in 1901 to Maholy Nagy and Man Ray’s photograms in the late 1920s. As the men of science made new ways of seeing the structure and fabric of the world contemporary artists and photographers absorbed the possibilities. As the show progresses lines become more blurred; Edgerton’s high-speed work such as Bullet Through Apple, 1964, clearly informed Ori Gersht’s Blow Up series from 2007. Examples of these both present, a rare chance in this country to see Edgerton’s period Dye transfer prints that spent as much time on the walls of MOMA in period as work by Picasso! Also on show is Berenice Abbott’s scientific work illustrating the laws of physics for academic publication. Abbott, better known for her documentary and architectural work, spent two years from 1958 working for MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in the USA to produce images that have only really been seen by a wider audience in the last few years.
The final section is dedicated to photography as fine art and includes, as well as Gersht, work from Walead Beshty, his Transparency Positive and Negative 2010, film exposed to airport scanners, which clearly connects with Henri Becquerel’s work at the turn of the 20th century. It is fascinating to see how from the outset the scientist/photographer and the techniques and processes they evolved pre-empted abstraction and modernism and informed and influenced art movements and the medium itself, and that this is an on-going situation.
Two absorbing and thought-provoking exhibitions which are well recommended; one particularly vexing thought however, it is astonishing that so many prints and negatives from the mediums first few years exist and are viable, how much of today’s digital output will be in another 170 years? Maybe science, the birth parent of photography, has also cast its death knell?