Fox Talbot at MediaSpace

Fox Talbot: The Dawn of the Photograph at MediaSpace in the Science Museum is a display of prints by William Fox Talbot and his contemporaries, mostly from the 1840s. Although apparently comprehensive (at least in terms of FT’s own output) it is surprisingly unsatisfying.

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We start with copies of FT’s early experiments, including the famous lattice windows at Lacock Abbey and some of his ‘photogenic drawings’. Most of these are still-lifes or architectural details, allowing long exposure times. An 1840 study of a statue of Diogenes in the Great Hall at Lacock seems surprisingly modern with its subject lit by a patch of window light amid dark shadows.

It is not clear how much detail has been lost from these images due to age and reproduction, but there is a loss of detail at both ends of the dynamic range and it is possible to make out the grain of the paper negatives. The newer images, represented by original salt prints are considerably better.

There are two pull-quotes displayed on the walls of the second gallery

… what man may hereafter do, now that Dame Nature has become his drawing mistress, it is impossible to predict (Faraday, 1839)

and in rather Blackadder-ish tones:

I always felt sure you would perfect your process til they equalled or surpassed Daguerre’s but this is really magical. Surely you deal with the naughty one (Herschel, 1841)

This gallery displays contemporary processes, particularly the daguerrotype. Ironically, this includes a daguerrotype of Fox Talbot himself. It is worth viewing a daguerrotype ‘in the flesh’; they are stunningly sharp but the metallic surface gives odd reflections from some angles. Of course, the daguerrotype was a technological dead-end but it was a serious rival to FT’s calotype process, particularly among American portraitists.

The next two galleries display FT’s calotypes from the period when the process had become ‘mature’. The exhibits are mainly original salt prints, sepia in tone with a good tonal range and very sharp – as we would expect from a contact-printing process. They are very much ‘record’ photographs (pre-dating the Pictorialist movement), mainly Scottish views and the architecture of Oxford. It must be said that the main interest is that these photographs were made at all, rather than their content and I wonder whether we need to see so many of them.

Here and in the final gallery, showing work by FT’s contemporaries, there are some treasures (Anna Atkins’ cyanotypes of British algae for instance) and it is interesting to see calotype negatives with the skies ‘inked-in’ so that they will print as dead white, a ‘look’ very foreign to modern landscape photographers.

So, why do I find the overall exhibition unsatisfying? As a photographer with a scientific interest, I believe there is a wasted opportunity. This is the Science Museum after all, so where are the displays showing the detail of the calotype process and comparing it with its rivals, the contemporary daguerrotype and the later wet-collodion glass plates? In my view, it would have been a better use of one of the middle galleries.

Unlike later photographers working with a mature technology, the importance of FT, Daguerre and other pioneers has at least as much to do with the process as with the images they produced. Although the daguerrotype and the calotype are seen as rivals in history books, the daguerrotype was a dead-end; (a) as a direct-positive process, it was not possible to make multiple copies, (b) it was expensive and (c) it compromised the health of its practitioners breathing mercury vapours.  The calotype was safer, cheaper and reproducible. By introducing a negative-positive process to photographic printing it made possible  the postcard, the carte-de-visit and the family album, all of which have social implications beyond the mere taking of a photograph. I would like to have been shown more.

Gathered Leaves • Alec Soth at MediaSpace

A retrospective, with images from four of Soth’s works, Sleeping by the Mississippi (2004), Niagara (2006), Broken Manual (2010) and Songbook (2014) shown in four gallery spaces.

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Part of the Niagara gallery space

Sleeping by the Mississippi

A trip down the Mississippi with a large-format camera; the images are printed 50x40cm, grainless and very sharp. Soth introduces us to some of the people and scenes he encountered on the way. I particularly enjoyed Charles, Vasa, Minnesota (2002) with his nerd glasses, balaclava, boiler suit and two model aircraft. This is bible-belt territory and several subjects were portrayed with religious icons, including Bonnie with Photograph of an Angel (actually an unusual cloud formation).

Non-people scenes included a fair amount of detritus. Hotel, Dalton City, Illinois (2002) is simply an old door propped against a wall.

Niagara

A series taken in and around Niagara Falls (the town and the waterfall). The introductory note tells us that the area is the site of spectacular suicides and affordable honeymoons, and long associated with love. The dominant image is of the head of the falls; most of the others are deadpan portraits with a theme of fragile love. His subjects were found in bars and wedding venues and juxtaposed with pictures of spectacular scenery and tawdry motels. The gallery image photograph above shows a large bride and a naked couple on the sofa, looking vulnerable rather than erotic.

The Cadillac Motel image would fit nicely into Exercise 1.3(2), using perpendicular lines to flatten the picture space. The Flechs is a family group with parents, five identically dressed daughters and a son.

Broken Manual

A series about runaways, hermits, hideouts and empty space.

Songbook

A project about reconnecting with people, Soth and writer Brad Zellar made a series of road trips, acting as if they were reporters from a local paper, shooting and writing about human interest stories. Mostly these are happy pictures, which makes Execution, Huntsville Prison, Texas particularly disturbing. This is not the execution itself but a flashlit shot of a queue of redneck types, mostly in uniform, presumably waiting to enter.

Julia Margaret Cameron at MediaSpace

MediaSpace at the Science Museum (Exhibition Road, London SW7) is currently showing an exhibition of the work of Victorian portraitist Julia Margaret Cameron. The majority of the exhibits are original albumen prints from wet-collodion plates, although there a few modern prints.

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Apart from a few images from her final years at the family coffee plantations in Ceylon, the images fall into two main categories: head-shot portraits and tableaux of religious or poetic scenes. The head-shots, in particular, were unusual at a time when portraits were typically full-body. Portrait subjects included Thomas Carlyle, William Herschel and Alfred Tennyson (Tennyson described his favourite portrait as “the dirty monk).

It has to be said that Cameron’s technique was not perfect; all but one or two of the photographs are unsharp and many exhibit motion blur. The introductory text acknowledges and excuses this thus, “Her photographs combined an unorthodox technique with a deeply personal vision. Using a lack of sharp focus, they often included scratches and other technical ‘faults’ to harness photography’s expressive power, which became the hallmark of her style despite criticism at the time”. The label next to her first lens (a 12-inch f/6 Petzval without aperture stops – therefore impossible to get the whole of an 11×9″ plate in focus) quotes Cameron herself thus, “… when focussing and coming to something which to my eye was very beautiful I stopped there, instead of screwing on the Lens to the more definite focus which all other Photographers prefer”

Cameron also had an interest in amateur theatre, which shows in the arrangement of the group tableaux and in her use of lighting. The intensity of the images outweighs their technical flaws and she is now regarded as one of the greats of Victorian photography, and highly influential in portraiture.