From Today, Painting is Dead - Early Photography in Britain and France
The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia
February 24 - May 12, 2019
By Ed Voves
Paul Delaroche (1797-1856) was famous in his day for painting historically accurate depictions of tragic scenes of French and English history. Except for The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, painted in 1833, Delaroche is forgotten today as an artist. Instead he is remembered as a prophet.
“From today," Delaroche exclaimed after seeing one of the first photographs in 1840, "painting is dead!”
Delaroche's famous (if undocumented) prediction was somewhat premature. Instead, his prophecy serves as the dramatic title of an outstanding exhibition on the history of early photography, currently at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. Two hundred-fifty original print photos document the rise of photography from 1839, when two rival photographic processes were demonstrated, to the 1880's.
From Today, Painting is Dead surveys both British and French photos. Last year, I reviewed a notable exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art, Salt and Silver. This was devoted almost exclusively to early British photos. The first decades of photography were noteworthy for a competitive relationship between British and French artists/scientists intent on "fixing a shadow" as the photographic process was at first called. The Barnes exhibition enables visitors to grasp how this cultural cross-pollination took place.
Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2019) Gallery view of From Today, Painting is Dead at the Barnes Foundation. The photo shows a display of Daguerreotypes.
The photographs on view at the Barnes come from a private collection belonging to Michael Mattis and Judy Hochberg. A husband and wife team, they began to collect vintage photos as a hobby in the 1980's. Their collecting is not a matter of self-indulgence or buying at a whim. Mattis is a physicist, Hochberg a linguist. With backgrounds in rigorous scholarship, they amassed a vast array of original prints from the dawn of photography to Diane Arbus.
William Henry Fox Talbot, Articles of China,1844
It needs to be emphasized that the Mattis-Hochberg collection photographs are not copies of copies. When we read the names on the exhibition photo credits - William Henry Fox Talbot, Félix Nadar, Gustave Le Gray, Julia Margaret Cameron, among others - we are seeing prints which these pioneers made themselves. These astonishing images are nothing less than the "birth certificates" of photography, historical documents as well as unforgettable visual masterpieces.
From the very moment upon entering the exhibition, you are confronted with the Janus-like impact which photography made during its first half-century.
The sensational impact of photography was much the same as the revolutionary implications of railroad travel. When the first railroad line, the Stockton and Darlington Railroad in the north of England, commenced operation in 1825, only freight was pulled by steam locomotives. People traveled on horse-drawn rail cars until 1833 when it was deemed safe for human beings to entrust their fate to an "iron horse."
Six years later, William Fox Talbot, introduced the ancestor of negative photography,the calotype. This process used sheets of paper coated with silver nitrate, followed by a wash of potassium iodide. This made it possible to make multiple copies of the same picture.
Fox Talbot had gone public with his invention in part because of the announcement of a rival method by the French artist, Louis-Jacques Daguerre, earlier in that year, 1839. Daguerreotypes were unique, "one-off" photographs, made with iodized silvered plates which were developed by being exposed to mercury fumes.
Anonymous. Young Frenchman with Gilt Background, 1847
Initially, Daguerreotypes had more appeal to the public because of the clarity and relative permanence of the image. Fox Talbot could make multiple prints but faced a severe challenge of fading. Thus the first years of photography were marked by concentration on technical problems and copyright issues. But it wasn't long before human and social concerns nudged aside "pure" science or technological innovation, as had occurred with the first railroads.
Since its first discovery, photography has made rapid progress, especially as regards the instruments employed in its practice. It now remains for the artist to raise it to its proper position among the fine arts.
Le Gray's photos astonished viewers, earning his landscapes and seascapes wide-spread acclaim. A powerful statement of photography as an art form had been made and thanks to the collecting savvy of Michael Mattis and Judy Hochberg, two of Le Gray's sensational photos are on view at the Barnes.
Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2019)
Display of photographs by Gustave Le Gray
The relationship of photography and painting was a curious one during the 1840's and 50's. The determination to direct the new medium along an artistic path siphoned-off some of the scientific spirit of the early pioneers of "fixing a shadow."
Gustave Le Gray's magnificent photos of sea and sky are among the great art works of the nineteenth century. Le Gray achieved his brilliant results by what today we would call "photoshop" methods. He combined two negatives, one for the sky and one for the sea (or ground in other pictures), joined at the horizon line.
Gustave Le Gray, The Great Wave, Sète, 1857
A science-conscious photographer (especially during the 1800's) could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. Le Gray's method is a case of "stacking the deck" in favor of photography as art. All is fair, however, in love, war - and photography
The law of unintended effect soon came into play. Two attempts of "guided photography" - one for using photos as source material for painting, the other for narrating biblical or allegorical stories with artfully posed photos - proved that photography was capable of unique creative achievement without putting on art salon "airs."
William Fox Talbot's calotypes found a ready advocate in Scotland, Sir David Brewster. He, in turn, taught the calotype process to Robert Adamson, a twenty year-old chemist who was keen to learn. At that time, the early 1840's, Scotland was convulsed by a controversy over religious doctrine. Adamson convinced the painter, David Octavius Hill (1802-1870), to use photo portraits of some of the Scottish clergymen involved in the dispute as source material for painting a group portrait.
The resulting painting, which I saw in the 2016 exhibit, Painting the Shadow, was remarkably lifeless. Hill and Adamson, being stubborn Scots, decided to continue experimenting with the camera to create portraits of their countrymen.
In an amazing creative leap, Hill and Adamson dispensed with painted final versions. The photograph itself would be the intended masterpiece and that is exactly what the incredible pictures they took of the seafaring folk of Newhaven, a fishing village near Edinburgh, are.
The Mattis and Hochberg collection has several of the photos of Hill and Adamson. The picture of the fisherman, Sandy Linton, and his sons, or "bairns" to use the colloquial Scottish word, is surely one of the greatest photos ever taken.
D.O. Hill & Robert Adamson, Sandy Linton, his Boat and his Bairns, New Haven, 1845
After examining Hill and Adamson’s calotypes, the aged watercolor painter, John Harden (1772-1847) declared, “The pictures produced are as Rembrandt’s but improved.”
After studying Sandy Linton, His Boat and His Bairns, it is difficult to disagree with Harden's view.
Hill and Adamson spent the next few years making over 2,500 calotype photos of breathtaking beauty and originality. Then, as so often happened to artists and writers during the 1800's, the young Adamson fell sick and died in January 1848. A precious moment of genius was cut short but the status of photography as an art form had been established beyond doubt.
The second instance of the law of unintended effect involved one of the most remarkable artists and photographers of the 1800's: Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879).
Cameron's family belonged to the Anglo-Indian colonial elite. Normally, these empire-builders occupied their spare time by shooting tigers while in India and hunting foxes during their leave-time in England. In 1863, Cameron's elder daughter and her husband gave her a camera as a present. Cameron was back in England, living on a rural estate called Freshwater.
"It may amuse you, Mother to try to photograph during your solitude at Freshwater."
Photography did amuse Cameron. A gregarious, if eccentric, person, Cameron had a circle of friends among England's literary and artistic elite, including Alfred, Lord Tennyson. She began to photograph friends, family members and servants in recreated scenes from the Bible, Shakespeare, the Arthurian legends and other epic tales.
Julia Margaret Cameron, King David and Bathsheba, 1869
For a photo of the aged King David and his love-interest, Bathsheba, Cameron posed Sir Henry Taylor, a poetry-writing official of the Colonial Office, and a young house maid named Mary Hillier.
At first glance, Cameron's David and Bathsheba seems suffused with Victorian sentimentality. Closer examination shows that this photo, and virtually all of Cameron's tableaux vivants, are profound studies of the human personality under stress or grappling with desires which cannot be satisfied.
Usually, a survey exhibition only has one or two of Cameron's photos on display. Thanks to the brilliant collecting of Michael Mattis and Judy Hochberg, the Barnes exhibit is so well endowed with examples of Cameron's oeuvre that we can readily appreciate the depth of her insight into human nature. Furthermore, many of the photos by Cameron on view are ones not often displayed in exhibitions held in the United States.
Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2019)
Display of 4 photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron
The debate over whether photography was an art or a science - or a bit of both -continued. At the very end of the era which the Barnes exhibition covers, a British photographer, Peter Henry Emerson, sparked a controversy over the status of photography which gained attention around the world. Ironically, it is Emerson's 1885 photo, Gathering Water Lilies, which appears in a near life-size print at the entrance of the exhibition.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019), The entrance to the From Today, Painting is Dead exhibition. The wall-illustration shows Peter Henry Emerson's Gathering Water Lilies.
Emerson, like Robert Adamson, had a background in science. He published a book collection of his photos in 1888, Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads, and the following year he authored a major treatise, Naturalistic Photography for the Students of the Art. With these books and his impressive body of photographs, Emerson was poised to become a major force in the cultural world such as Alfred Stieglitz was shortly to do in the United States.
A year later, Emerson made a complete "about-face". He declared "Photography not Art" and published a pamphlet entitled The Death of Naturalistic Photography. Emerson was much influenced by Darwin's theories of evolution and the many and conflicting schools of psychology. Trying to incorporate all that mass of scientific data into an all-embracing philosophy of art was too much even for a brilliant man like Emerson.
Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2019)
Detail of Peter Henry Emerson's Gathering Water Lilies, 1885.
Fortunately for us, Michael Mattis and Judy Hochberg, are extremely accomplished at the art of focusing and collecting great photographs. This superb exhibition of masterpieces of early photography at the Barnes Foundation is a testament to their dedication as collectors and for allowing the "voice" of these wonderful photographs to be heard.
Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved
Images courtesy of the Barnes Foundation and the Michael Mattis and Judy Hochberg Collection. Gallery photos courtesy of Anne Lloyd.
Peter Henry Emerson (British, 1856-1936) Gathering Water Lilies, 1885. Platinum print. 7 7/8 x 11 3/8 inches. Collection of Michael Mattis and Judith Hochberg.
Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2019) Gallery view of the From Today, Painting is Dead exhibition at the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia. The photo shows a display of Daguerreotypes.
William Henry Fox Talbot (British, 1800-1877). Articles of China, 1844. Salt print from calotype negative. Collection of Michael Mattis and Judy Hochberg
Anonymous. Young Frenchman with Gilt Background, 1847. Sixth-plate French daguerreotype. Collection of Michael Mattis and Judith Hochberg.
Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2019) Gallery view of the From Today, Painting is Dead exhibition at the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia. The photos shown here are works by Gustave Le Gray.
Gustave Le Gray (French,1820-1884). The Great Wave, Sète, 1857. Albumen print from two collodion-on-glass negatives. Collection of Michael Mattis and Judy Hochberg
D.O. Hill (British, 1802-1870) and Robert Adamson (British, 1826-1848). Sandy Linton, his Boat and his Bairns, New Haven, 1845, Salt print from a calotype negative, 7 5/8 x 5 3/4 inches. Collection of Michael Mattis and Judith Hochberg.
Julia Margaret Cameron (British, 1815-1879). King David and Bathsheba (Henry Taylor and Mary Hillier), 1869. Albumen print from collodion-on-glass negative. Collection of Michael Mattis and Judy Hochberg.
Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2019) Gallery view of the From Today, Painting is Dead exhibition at the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia. The photos shown here are (clockwise from top-left) Henry Herschel Hay Cameron, 1864; Dora as Bride. (Annie Chinery Cameron), 1869; The Dream, 1869; Summer Days (May Prinsep, Mary Ryan, Freddy Gould & Elizabeth Keown), c. 1866.
Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2019) Photo of the entrance to the From Today, Painting is Dead exhibition at the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia. The wall-illustration shows Peter Henry Emerson's photo, Gathering Water Lilies, 1885.
Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2019) Detail of Peter Henry Emerson's Gathering Water Lilies, 1885.