13 Feb, 2010

Capturing the 19th Century

Posted by: admin In: Creative Review

Detail from Lady Alice Mary Kerr’s Portrait of Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, c.1870

The British Library is currently exhibiting some of the highlights from its vast collection of early photography. Here are just a few examples of the kinds of images on show at Points of View: Capturing the 19th Century in Photographs…


Lady Alice Mary Kerr, Portrait of Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, c.1870

In the mid-nineteenth century, portraiture was seen as one of the central functions of photography, which had developed into a major industry by 1850. But some of the best work was, in fact, being produced by amateurs, among them Lady Alice Mary Kerr.

Only a few examples of her work survive but her portrait studies, which include this striking image of poet and writer, Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, are particularly powerful.


William Henry Fox Talbot, An oak tree in winter, c.1842-43

William Henry Fox Talbot’s calotype process, unveiled in 1840 (and patented the following year) produced a paper negative from which unlimited prints could then be made. This study of an oak tree hints at the expressive artistic possibilities of the process which, in only a few years, had developed from being a largely experimental method, to a tool for creating compelling imagery.


William Henry Fox Talbot, Dandelion Seeds, 1850s

From the early 1850s, Talbot applied himself to perfecting a method of photomechanical reproduction, allowing images to be etched onto a metal plate and printed in a press with ink. Talbot registered two patents during this research – in 1852 and then in 1858 with his photoglyphic engraving process.


Edmund David Lyon, Interior of the Tuncum, Madurai, 1867-68

Commissioned by the Madras government to photograph architectural monuments in South India, Edmund David Lyon travelled for weeks over rough country roads with his supply of 12×10″ glass plates in order to secure some 200 negatives. William Scott Archer’s wet collodion process had originally envisaged stripping the thin collodion layer from its support after development of the pictures, but because of the weight and fragility of the glass, this process was not used widely.

According to Lyon “the ‘Tuncum’ was built by Trimul Nayak in 1630 for witnessing cock-fights … [and] was in 1868 occupied by the Judge of Madura.” Apparently, Lyon is actually referring to the ‘Tamukkam’ which was once a palace of Rani Mangammal who reigned over Madurai in the second half of the 17th century (and now houses Madurai’s Gandhi Museum).


Samuel Bourne, Mussucks for crossing the Beas river, Kulu, 1866

The commercial potential of India attracted an increasing number of professional photographers after the Uprising of 1857-58. Samuel Bourne was among the most successful of these, spending seven years in the subcontinent from 1863. This photograph comes from a series of Bourne’s images from the Himalayas and features a group of ‘mussuckmen’. A ‘mussuck’ was an ingenious method for crossing the rivers of northern India, taking the form of an inflated buffalo hide (see detail below).


Napoleon Sarony, Portrait of Oscar Wilde, New York, 1882

Among the many portraits of notable figures on show in the exhibition, Napoleon Sarony’s portrait of Wilde arguably has the most interesting back story (though discovering that Charles Dickens’ family responded to one “grim and wasted” portrait he had made with “a general howl of horror,” is hard to beat. Dickens, it seems, was not comfortable in front of what he referred to as “the detestable lens”).

The public’s appetite for pictures of the famous was spurred on by the growth of the communications industries and also increased literacy rates. As people became more able to both afford and to read newspapers, the demand for portraits of newsworthy figures grew. While a photographer like André Disdéri became noted for his portraits of Parisien society, Sarony emerged as being particularly well connected within the theatrical world.

This portrait of Wilde is notable also for its part in some groundbreaking legal history. The print was used as the basis for an advertisement for a New York department store – Sarony challenged the use of his image in such a way and the resulting case paved the way for far more stringent laws on the rights of individual photographic images. It was declared that as a photograph could be ‘authored’, it was therefore subject to copyright.

This no doubt helped to affirm the notion of photography as an art form in its own right and, more particularly, assert the position of the photographer as artist. When colour photography emerged decades later, these questions would of course be asked all over again.

Points of View: Capturing the 19th Century in Photographs is on until March 7 at the PACCAR Gallery at the British Library. Admission is free. More details at bl.uk/whatson.

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