Magazine article Tate Etc.

The Flowering of Photography

Magazine article Tate Etc.

The Flowering of Photography

Article excerpt

In photography's first decade two pioneering practitioners, David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, collaborated on making salted paper prints - a technique that produced photographs that were as much objects as images. Their work is included in Tate Britain's Salt and Silver: Early Photography 1840-1860, the first exhibition in the UK dedicated to salt prints

Early photographs absorb us in many ways. Their imagery has the directness and freshness of something made for the first time, made new. They also link us to the past and its protagonists: photographers, sitters and viewers. The pictures in Salt and Silver: Early Photography 1840-1860 - simple prints of silver and salt fixed on plain paper-were created at the beginning of photography's evolution using William Henry Fox Talbot's processes.

His methods and materials were efficient, portable and versatile, but commercial portrait studios first favoured the daguerreotype process and paper photography was largely the domain of amateurs. They were a diverse contingent; some, like Talbot, were scientists. Robert Adamson studied mathematics and trained to be an engineer, while his collaborator David Octavius Hill was a lithographer and painter. Their partnership began in 1843, just four years after photography's public announcement, and yet within another four years they produced almost 1,500 remarkable photographs. They were, as the German writer and philosopher Walter Benjamin declared in 1931, key to 'the flowering of photography' which 'came in its first decade'.

The appeal of their work includes the compelling materiality of their salted paper prints. This is Talbot's process, where the light-sensitive salt and silver are applied in solution, soaking into the upper layers of the paper. The image is thus integrated into the paper, creating a sense that the photograph is itself an object rather than an image sitting on top of a coating as in the mid19th-century albumen print or the later gelatin silver print. The plain matt surface has a velvety richness, especially in the deeper tones, while the paper fibres subtly break up the outlines of the image, giving a rough softness to the picture.

This pictorial breadth is very different from the fine detail of daguerreotype images. By comparison with the precision achieved on those polished silvered plates, paper prints could look sketchy and provisional. Yet they were appreciated for just those qualities. In 1843 the Edinburgh journalist Hugh Miller described Hill and Adamson's photographs in the terms of a painted portrait: 'There is the same broad freedom of touch. …

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