Unknown photographer, Rome, So-Called Casa di Rienzi, the Oldest Medieval Private House, ca. 1855, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, David Hunter McAlpin Fund, 1946.
John Muir Wood (British, 1805-1892), Family Group, Leith, 1847-52, Salted paper print; 11.3 x 14 cm, Scottish National
Photography Collection, National Galleries of Scotland.
Horatio Ross (Scottish, 1801-1886), Affaric Lodge, mid-1850s, Joy of Giving Something, Inc.
Unknown photographer, Spreading Oak with Seated Figure, 1850s, Paper negative, 17.7 × 20.7 cm,The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Hans P. Kraus, Jr., 2007.
John Murray (English, 1809-1898), The Taj Mahal from the Banks of the Yamuna River, 1858-62, Albumen silver print, 39.9 x 44 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gilman Collection, Purchase, Joseph M. Cohen Gift, 2005.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue
Galleries for Drawings,
Prints and Photographs and
The Howard Gilman Gallery
Impressed by Light: British Photographs
from Paper Negatives, 1840-1860
September 25-December 30, 2007
Impressed by Light: British Photographs from Paper Negatives, 1840-1860 surveys British calotypes — works of exceptional beauty and rarity made from paper negatives and are among the earliest forays into the medium of photography.
During the first two decades of photography, British photographers turned their lenses on family, nature, and the landscape at home, and on historic architecture, ruins of past civilizations, and exotica abroad.
Impressed by Light presents works by 40 artists, including such masters as William Henry Fox Talbot, David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, Roger Fenton, Benjamin Brecknell Turner, and Linnaeus Tripe, as well as many talented but unrecognized artists. The majority of the works to be featured have never before been exhibited or published in the U.S. and are unfamiliar to scholars and the public alike.
It was organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
“This exhibition fundamentally changes our understanding of photography’s early development in the country of its birth, bringing together for the first time a host of photographic treasures that show an artistic flowering whose history has been hidden until now,” remarked Malcolm Daniel, Curator in Charge of the Museum’s Department of Photographs. “Impressed by Light is also a perfect complement to the Met’s popular 2003–2004 exhibition, The Dawn of Photography: French Daguerreotypes, 1839–1855, which showed masterpieces of the rival French process during the same period.”
“Impressed by Light will be full of discoveries,” explained Roger Taylor, guest curator of the exhibition. “Many of the artists included in the exhibition are unfamiliar even to specialists because their photographs were intended for private albums and for exchange with family and friends, rather than for publication and broad dissemination, and thus were printed in only one or a handful of examples.” With 118 works lent by 27 public and private collections in the United Kingdom, France, Canada, and the United States, the exhibition will be the first occasion to see many of these photographs.
The invention of the calotype by Englishman William Henry Fox Talbot, announced to the public in 1841, was a major event in the development of the new medium of photography. Talbot’s innovative method utilized a fine writing paper, photosensitized with chemical solutions, placed in a camera, and exposed to light to create a negative from which many positive prints could be made — the basic principle behind nearly all subsequent photography until the digital age.
Most previous accounts of the history of early photography have assumed that the introduction of glass negatives in 1851 precipitated an almost immediate decline in the use of paper negatives. This exhibition will reveal, instead, a previously unrecognized artistic flourishing of the calotype among British photographers working on several continents during the 1850s.
Artists who chose to work with paper negatives even after the introduction of glass negatives did so either because they preferred its aesthetic qualities — a softening of detail and a massing of light and shadow — or because of its practical advantages for travel photography and hot climates. Equally important for many gentlemen-amateurs, the calotype distinguished its practitioners as artists, distinct from commercial photographers, who preferred the faster process and sharper images of glass negatives.
The exhibition is in four sections. The Formative Years, 1839-1851 presents photographers’ first forays into the paper negative process. During this period in Britain, the new medium of photography remained largely the province of its inventor Talbot and his circle of relatives and associates, with the notable exception of Scottish collaborators David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson.
The Calotype Finds Its Place will focus on the 1850s, when British artists took up paper-negative photography enthusiastically and with a sense of national pride for this homegrown invention. The larger public first witnessed the artistic potential of photography at the 1851 Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations at the Crystal Palace. Many of the new practitioners inspired by this display were gentlemen of leisure and learning with wide interests in the arts and sciences. They were encouraged in their photographic pursuits by the formation of the Photographic Society in 1853, and their work was facilitated by the loosening of Talbot’s patent restrictions that same year. Exhibiting a preference for subjects such as ancient oaks, rural life, seaside vistas, ships, ruined abbeys, cottages, and castles, British calotypes of this period generally reflect a retreat into nature and an idealized past as an antidote to the modern, industrial society that was emerging at the time.
The calotype was especially well suited to travel and exploration; unlike glass
negatives, paper negatives could be prepared well in advance of their use and developed long after, eliminating the need for a complete portable darkroom. Echoes of the Grand Tour will feature photographs that amounted to a virtual journey throughout France, Spain, Italy, and Greece for the 19th-century armchair traveler who, until the advent of photography, had relied on written descriptions and often fanciful or inaccurate engravings.
Under an Indian Sky illustrates how the paper negative thrived in India well into the 1860s. Particularly well suited to the hot and dusty Indian climate, the calotype was favored by the two most talented and prolific early photographers of the subcontinent, John Murray and Linnaeus Tripe. In addition to showing Indian and Burmese architecture that, for viewers back home, was exotic and fantastic, the photographs in this section reveal aspects of the complex relationship between native Indian culture and British colonials at a moment of great turmoil.
The exhibition concludes with The Lost Work, a continuous digital slide show of approximately 50 paper negatives and their digitally generated positives. This will allow visitors to see superb examples of the calotype that survive only as negatives.
Impressed by Light was organized by guest curator Roger Taylor, Professor of Photographic History at De Montfort University, Leicester, and former Curator of Photographs at the National Museum of Photography, Film, and Television in Bradford, England; Malcolm Daniel, Curator in Charge of the Metropolitan’s Department of Photographs; and Sarah Greenough, Curator of Photographs and Head of Department at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.