The Luxury Channel meets Carol Jacobi, the curator of Salt & Silver – Early Photography at Tate Britain….
How did you select the pictures for this particular collection?
The photographs in the exhibition are from all around the world, but all are salted paper prints that have survived from the brief period when they flourished in the middle of the nineteenth century. Salt prints were the first form of paper photography as we know it today, introduced in Britain by William Henry Fox Talbot in 1839. They spread throughout the globe, but lasted only twenty years. Sharper, shinier methods replaced them and their distinctive look was lost. These rare examples have been collected over decades by Michael Wilson, and the Wilson Centre of Photography has collaborated with Tate Britain for this first exhibition of its kind in this country.
What has been the most exciting discovery for you curating this collection?
The special aesthetic of the prints. The tragic figure John Beasly Greene, for example, was a French-American archeologist who began photographing in Egypt at the age of 19 and died in Cairo at 24. In those few years he challenged the taste for clarity that dominated his field. He used the limits of the salt print medium – blurring, burn-out, shadow and their velvety texture – to explore its poetic potential and evoke the enigmatic atmosphere of ancient Egyptian sites.
So, what were early photographers actually taking photos of?
Their world. Photography was from the start an art of the contemporary. Salt prints materials were portable and almost immediately photographers were exploring the globe. They also made striking compositions of the new cities, railways, wars and disasters, working people and celebrities. Eugène Piot’s gritty image of the Parthenon shortly after Greek independence is striking. Photography was also a newly intimate medium and photographers such as Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson found ways to capture fleeting moments of childhood, lovers and friends.
It’s been argued that with the advancement of modern technology, the photos that we store digitally are in fact more fragile in many ways than salt print photographs – would you agree?
Digital cameras became commercially available after 1990 and it is interesting to ask yourself how easy it is to find and access photographs that you made 10 or 20 years ago. Institutions are perhaps more systematic than individuals in storing digital files and prints.
Is the art of photography now recognised as an art form?
This is the importance of the exhibition. The exceptional thing about those first two decades when photography was hand-made, before it became widely commercialised, was that people were fascinated by these paper prints’ potential as art. Many of the first photographers were artists. The painter Jean-Baptiste Frénet, for example, studied Raphael’s Renaissance Holy Families. Our poster image shows how his family groups entwine the figures, hands and gazes in a similar way to create wonderful complex relationships. Other early photographers were writers, scientists, surgeons, soldiers and engineers, and all of these seem to have been inspired by the artistic possibilities and challenges of the new medium. The pictorial creativity and beauty of light and shadow of salt prints look forward to modern photography.
Whose photography has inspired you over the years?
This is very difficult to answer briefly! Talbot has to take top place for the experimental, resonant images he made in the first five years. His image of Nelson’s Column being built in Trafalgar Square is one of the stars of the show. Roger Fenton and Félix Nadar cannot be matched for their psychological insight and superb handling of light and dark. Fenton’s famous portrait of a young soldier, shocked and exhausted after the rigors of the Crimea war, is unforgettable. These are well-known names, but I have also been inspired by landscapes and portraits in the exhibition by, until now, less well-known figures, such as Frenet, Beasly Greene or the Mexican photographer Ignacio Gavino Rocha.
What makes a great photograph?
Salt prints do not have that frozen quality of sharper photographs such as daguerreotypes and their soft, papery texture leaves room for movement and imagination. Hill and Adamson’s Newhaven Fishermen (Alexander Rutherford, William Ramsay and John Liston) circa 1845 is very early and the group was carefully posed and composed, yet the three men fill the frame with a marvellously informal camaraderie.
Salt & Silver – Early Photography runs at Tate Britain until 7th June. For further information, go to www.tate.org.uk/whats-on.