Two exhibitions of early photography – summer 2015

There are two good photography exhibitions on in London at the moment (or rather, I should say, at least two!): ‘Revelations: experiments in photography’ (Science Museum, on until 13th September and then moving to the National Media Museum, Bradford: 19th November 2015-7th February 2016) and ‘Captain Linaaeus Tripe: photographer of India and Burma, 1852-1860’ (V&A until 11th October). Both exhibitions have early photography at their hearts – hence their appeal to me with my current interest in early photography at Pompeii (more here and here). I have enjoyed visiting both; each offers interesting insights into photography of the period.

‘Revelations’ takes as its starting point early photographs taken in pursuit of scientific discoveries. These are divided into three: photographs of space and the solar system; photographs of natural phenomena on earth; and early x-rays. One set of photos, in particular, that has stayed with me showed the reaction of liquids to a falling sphere. In order to take these photos A. M. Worthington had to set the camera to take the photo at a slightly different time in the process (so easily done now, but painstaking in the early days of photography; for more on Worthington’s process see this article). The corona effects of the liquids make quite stunning photographs. What is striking about these photographs (and many others in the exhibition) is not only their technical skill, but also their apparent desire to be not only scientifically interesting, but also aesthetically pleasing works of art (and indeed this is a key theme of the exhibition).

This theme is picked up in the next two rooms of modern and contemporary art photographs, all of which have taken their cue from these early masterpieces. I, of course, find this aspect particularly interesting as this idea of an aesthetic borrowed (consciously or otherwise) seems to pervade the photographs I have studies from Pompeii, attesting to the considerable influence that these early photographs have had – right up to our current photographic habits and no doubt beyond.

The ‘Linnaeus Tripe’ exhibition has a rather more tightly-focussed chronological range and looks in detail at the photography of just one of these photographic pioneers. Captain Tripe was appointed as the official photographer on a number of missions in India and Burma in the mid 19th century and as such provides us with a corpus of photographs from the region of both socio-historical and archaeological interest. While I may have liked a clearer discussion of the impact or contribution of photography to the fraught relationship of colonizer/colonized, what most interested me were the various technological problems that Tripe encountered and the solutions that he implemented.

Tripe only used glass when trying to take photographs inside to counteract the poor light (he mostly used paper due to the heat and humidity of the region). Although he used this technique in the Central Museum, Madras, Tripe was still unhappy with these photographs because of the poor light. This was probably a problem for the Pompeii photographers too – Beatrice Blackwood, for example, seems to have struggled to take a good quality photo of the Pentheus wall painting in the House of the Vettii. The commercial photographers seem to have fared better (presumably due to better lighting equipment), but it is striking that even these did not use many indoor shots in their lecture sets. Tripe also retouched numerous photos to improve the play of light and dark, adding clouds and leaves on trees and sharpening the silhouette of buildings. These effects seem to have been added to improve the realism and texture of the photographs (on trees in early photography, see Sieberling 1986, 57; on the use of retouching in early photography, see Tucker 2005, 220, 226).

Beatrice's Blackwood's unsuccessful attempt to photograph the Pentheus painting in the House of the Vettii, Pompeii (HEIR: AD24624 Blackwood 024).

Beatrice’s Blackwood’s unsuccessful attempt to photograph the Pentheus painting in the House of the Vettii, Pompeii (HEIR: AD24624 Blackwood 024).

A more successful attempt to photograph the interior of the House of the Vettii from Henry W Taunt & Co, Oxford (HEIR: AD 44560 InstArch box 209 im 005).

A more successful attempt to photograph the interior of the House of the Vettii from Henry W Taunt & Co, Oxford (HEIR: AD 44560 InstArch box 209 im 005).

As well as these technical tricks and solutions, I was also taken by some of Tripe’s methods and practices. He had a clear programme for photographing sites – taking shots at a distance to set them in their landscape context and then focussing in on details. Such a systematic approach seems quite at odds with other early photographers (see for example Sieberling1986, 47-48). Tripe’s practice is no doubt familiar to many archaeologists today! This systematic approach allowed him to present his photographs in a portfolio as it were a tour – this is shown nicely in the exhibition through the sample of Amerapoona photographs (of which Tripe took 100 photos – a vast number for the day).

Both exhibitions provide plenty of material to think about both for those familiar with early photography and those new to the subject. Catch them if you can!

References

Sieberling, G 1986 Amateurs, Photography and the Mid-Victorian Imagination, Chicago.

Tucker, J 2005 Nature Exposed: photography as eyewitness in Victorian science, John Hopkins Press.

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