Alcohol, Ether and Gun Cotton

Ruined Manor Hampton GayEarly photography was not easy.  The wet- plate collodian  process used between the 1850s and 1880s uses a solution of gun-cotton in ether and alcohol and requires the entire photographic process including coating the plate, exposing and developing it to be completed within fifteen minutes.

These and other challenges faced by early photographers were brought home to me by the the recent BBC documentary ‘Britain in Focus’, produced in partnership with the National Media Museum and presented by Eamonn Mccabe.  The first episode covered the earliest period of Photography in Britain – from polymath inventor Henry Fox Talbot in the 1840s to Peter Henry Emerson in the last years of the nineteenth century.  The journey surveyed some of the greatest pioneers of early photography in their most famous locations: Fox Talbot in Lacock Abbey, David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson in Newhaven, Roger Fenton in the Crimea, Julia Margaret Cameron at Little Holland House, Robert Howlett in the Isle of Dogs and Peter Henry Emerson in the Norfolk Broads.

I am familiar with the work of most of the photographers in the program, but curiously I had not come across Roger Fenton.  I was hugely impressed by his images and a little research showed him to be an extremely important photographer.  Born into a wealthy banking family in 1819, he studied law at Oxford and painting in Paris before he took up photography, learning the early Calotype process developed by Fox Talbot.  Fenton was a founder member of the Photographic Society (later the Royal Photographic Society), the first official photographer of the British Museum and quite possibly the world’s first officially appointed war photographer, photographing the Crimean War in the first systematic coverage of a conflict in 1855. 

Alcohol Ether and Gun Cotton
Roger Fenton’s Wagon

Fenton’s connections led to his commission by the British government to photograph the Crimean war – a conflict that pitted the Russian Empire against a somewhat unlikely alliance of Britain, France, the Ottoman Empire, and Sardinia.  He took a photographic assistant, a servant and a large horse-drawn van converted from a merchant’s wine wagon to carry his cumbersome large format glass plate photographic equipment (see image, right).   The wagon offered a good target for Turkish artillery and Fenton also suffered from the high temperatures, broken ribs and cholera.  Nevertheless, and despite the long exposures and rapid processing required, he was able to capture 350 images, most of which were later exhibited across Britain and displayed to the British and French royal families.  Fenton was a technically accomplished photographer and his large format images from Crimea are striking.  They consist mainly of posed portraits and scenes and landscapes of battle sites including the iconic The Valley of the Shadow of Death.  Though he saw plenty of horrors during the conflict, he did not record any with his camera, most likely because his government patrons wanted the images that could be used as part of a campaign to counter reports of wide spread military incompetence in a war that was unpopular with both the press and the public.

The depth of field made possible by the large format, together with marvellous tone and composition make Roger Fenton’s work quite extraordinary.   In addition to his war photography he shot royal portraits, architecture, landscapes (such as those of Bolton Abbey covered in the documentary) and still life.   He regarded photography as both art and business and abandoned it entirely in 1863 to return to law when he saw its status was diminished to a craft – illustrated by the 1862 International Exhibition’s placement of photography in the section reserved for instruments and machinery.  He died only a few years later in 1869.

Large format film photography, and particularly wet-plate collodian images, have a unique look that can not be reproduced with 35mm cameras – the shot of Roger Fenton’s wagon clearly shows this.   However, the supporting image in this post is an homage to it.  The shot of the ruined manor at Hampton Gay (which burned down in 1887) gives the impression of a shallow depth of focus at distance using motion blur.  It was sepia toned and I added some grain and lens falloff in post production.  The shot was taken on a Nikon Df DSLR mounted on a tripod with a 40 second exposure at f13 using a black glass ND filter.  At some point I’d love to take a large format camera out to shoot the ruined manor, preferably a glass plate camera.  I doubt I will ever mange it, but if anyone in Oxfordshire has the equipment and expertise and is open to hiring both, I’d be very open to it.

 

 

When Photos Looked Like Paintings – Pictorialism

Waterloo_placeIn the earliest days of photography it took a mastery of optics, chemistry, and an arcane workflow to take and process a photograph using the cumbersome cameras of the time.  To read more about this, see my post on Fox Talbot and Early Photography.   This time-consuming hybrid discipline restricted photography to a small and skilled group of people.

The introduction of the Kodak camera in 1888, an inexpensive handheld unit, changed all that, and is one of the more important milestones in the history of photography.  Like many important events, it spawned changes that its inventor could not have envisioned. The Kodak introduced a system of photography based on flexible, lightweight roll film.  In addition, it simplified camera operation by providing fixed focus, a single shutter speed and pre-loaded film.  The need to work with chemicals was dispensed with by the introduction of film processing as a service.  Together these refinements made photography far more accessible.   In 1892, the year George Eastman’s company was renamed The Eastman Kodak Company, Eastman Kodak coined the advertising slogan, “You Press the Button, We Do the Rest”.  What Eastman could not have foreseen was the backlash to this popularisation of photography.

The production of a vastly increased number of spontaneously shot, realistic but unremarkable ‘snapshot’ images, prompted a protracted public debate about whether photography could be considered to be art or was purely a utilitarian medium produced by a mechanical recording device.  Inspired by Peter Henry Emerson’s book Naturalistic Photography (1889) and rejecting the notion of photography as solely a documentary medium, a small group of photographers set out to show that photography was indeed fine art.   Some of the better known are Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946); Edward Steichen (1879-1973); Edward Weston (1886-1958); Paul Strand (1890-1976);  Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-79); Henry Peach Robinson (1830-1901); Peter Henry Emerson (1856-1936); Robert Demachy (1859-1936) and my personal favourite, the Belgian Leonard Misonne (1870-1943).   These photographers formed clubs and salons such as The Linked Ring, Photo-Secession, The Royal Photographic Society and The Photo-Club of Paris and created a movement known as Pictorialism.   Pictorialism was also the product of photography and the world of art coming closer together at the end of the nineteenth century.  Artists such as Manet and Gauguin used photographs to capture images that would be rendered as paintings back in the studio, whilst some pictorialist photographers (such as Henry Peach Robinson) had been trained as painters. Continue reading “When Photos Looked Like Paintings – Pictorialism”