I'd noticed the Salt & Silver exhibition in passing as when I'd come to the Tate Britain to see the Karen Knorr exhibition recently. It had looked really interesting and I was planning to come back to see it. In the meantime the OCA arranged as study visit which I managed to get on so here I am!
The Salt & Silver exhibition at Tate Britain is described as Britain's first exhibition devoted to salted paper prints. It is one of the first forms of photography and was a technique created by British photography pioneer William Henry Fox Talbot in 1839. Made by contact printing from Fox Talbot's own calotype negatives, it became the dominant form of positive paper-based photographic prints for the following 20 years or so.
The exhibition was organised in collaboration with the Wilson Centre for Photography, established by philanthropist and collector (amongst other things - most notably being producer and screenwriter for various James Bond movies) Michael G. Wilson and was curated by Carol Jacobi, Simon Baker, Caroline Corbeau-Parsons and Hannah Lyons.
What is immediately noticeable about this exhibition is the rarity and value of the prints on display. All the images are framed and covered to protect them. These are not the type of photographs you see on display very often!
Anyway, on to the exhibition itself: There were over 100 images altogether, all taken from Michael G. Wilson's private collection. The earliest images were of still life, architecture and landscapes, as static subjects these were the only ones suitable for the long exposure times necessary at the time (around 30 minutes). Fox Talbot improved the process in 1841 reducing the necessary exposure time to less than 5 minutes and then to around 1 minute, meaning that it was then possible to take reasonably sharp images of his family as well as formal portraits.
One of the first images on display was Fox Talbot's own Study of China which was taken in 1844. This type of photograph was typical of the period where photography was still being tested. It is almost as though Fox Talbot just chose this as a subject because it was convenient rather then for any aesthetic quality. Of course, others soon started to use Fax Talbot's invention and we see throughout the exhibition a contribution from several photographers of the time. Notable amongst them is Roger Fenton whose images from the Crimean War include this portrait of Captain Mottram Andrews from the 28th Regiment (1st Staffordshire) and this one of a 'container'. There were also images by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson including a number taken in the village of Newhaven near Edinburgh. This series was unusual in that it depicted groups of working men and women as well as portraits of individuals, who were often unaware that they were being photographed. The photographs hadn't been commissioned and this was a first for human subjects. Here is one image of the Newhaven Fishermen from 1845.
We also saw images by Edouard Baldus who was commissioned by the French state to photograph historic French landmarks, such as the Abbaye de Saint-Denis in 1855.
In the mid-19th Century photography was also being used to document ancient monuments around the world as well ancient texts and archaeological finds.
Later in the exhibition we saw portraiture become more prevalent as it began to take over from painting as a way to 'immortalise' its subject. Exposure times were still a problem though and formal portraits had to be posed for some time or run the risk of blurring.
One of the criticisms of this exhibition is that the images are often simply too small. This is an unfortunate criticism of course as little, if anything, can be done to improve matters here. Another criticism is that the images are very much 'the same'. This again is quite understandable in a sense, as firstly they are from a limited collection, by a limited number of photographers and from limited technical capabilities, in terms of the equipment available at the time. I think some of my fellow students were disappointed that there was little explanation of the techniques used by the photographers, which was something that was covered to a certain degree at the Drawn By Light exhibition, which alongside the images, also displayed equipment ans chemicals used to create the different types of photographs.
Much of the debate afterwards with our tutor Rob Bloomfield, concerned not so much the images themselves, but the curatorship and what may be read into this. Without attempting to go into too much detail here, Rob wanted us to consider what intention or motive the owner of the images may have had by offering the images up for this exhibition. This was an interesting question and from my point of view came slightly from left-field as I am still used to visiting exhibitions just to look at the photographs! Once again, it is clear that sometime we need to look even beyond the curatorial decision making when considering an exhibition. I'm learning!