BY C. H. GIBBS-SMITH
IT is, perhaps, one of the more legitimate regrets of history that the science of photography was not born sooner. Most inventions come as the culmination or several lines of research or discovery, and such inventions generally arrive on the scene as soon as humanly possible. But the successful photograph could easily have been made nearly a century before it did in fact see the light. For there were adequate lenses in existence by the middle of the eighteenth century, and the action of light on salts of silver was demonstrated by Johann Heinrich Schulze in 1727. To complete the trio of ingredients, the camera obscura, known since Leonardo da Vinci, was a well recognized aid for the amateur -- and occasionally the professional -- artist of the eiqhteenth century.
Photography, as the reader will see from this book, was officially launched in 1839. Architectural and topographical shots were possible from that date; portrait photography got well under way in the early 'forties; and the full flowering of all photography, except of objects in motion, came after the invention of the wet plate in 1851. So we have lost, by default, the images of the Age of Reason, the Revolutions of Industry and of France, the Romantic Revival and the age of Napoleon. We have lost Dr Johnson and Mrs Siddons, Byron and Bonaparte.
But the ultimate triumph of photography brought about perhaps the most penetrating, although undramatic, revolution of the modern world. For it provided the human mind with a new pictorial lining. It widened the boundaries of experience; it recorded, informed and immortalized; and it added a most versatile tool to the workshops of science and industry. Since photography is the craft of recording, the era in which it was born is preserved for us in all its delightful, horryfying and absorbing detail. Victorian photography records in its brown and bromide images the buildings and landscapes, the great faces and the humble faces, the sentimental charades, the diversions and the daily lives of that period in which philanthropy, cruelty, inventiveness, commercial acumen, literary triumph and far-sighted idealism were found in bewildering profusion.
This book reveals, or at least suggests, much of that rich profusion; and it often adds another quality -- beauty. The word is here used quite unambitiously; it is used to indicate a quality in the pictures which sometimes enhances their subject-matter, and sometimes transcends it. Much nonsense and a little wisdom has been written during the past century about the art of photography. I am not going to risk adding to either category. But no one with moderate sensibilities would claim that pictorial photography as a whole can rival the achievements of painting with its infinite reach of creativeness. By the same token, however, it is obvious that artistic creativeness can find a vehicle in photography and a considerable number of the pictures which follow provide ample evidence of it.
One of the limiting factors in appreciating photographs has always been, and still is, the comparatively small size of those presented to us on the walls of galleries, or in books and periodicals. In this connexion it is interesting to note how few of the world's great paintings are small. Many psychological factors enter into this strange but universal deference paid to large objects. Photography, as an artistic
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Publication information: Book title: Masterpieces of Victorian Photography. Contributors: Helmut Gernsheim - Author. Publisher: Phaidon. Place of publication: London. Publication year: 1951. Page number: 5.
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