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Brits See the'Light'

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History of Calotype Photography Examined at National Gallery

A photographic technique that was dying even as it was first being practiced in mid-19th-century Britain comes to vivid life in a well-organized new exhibition at the National Gallery of Art.

“Impressed by Light: British Photographs from Paper Negatives, 1840–1860” is an entertaining tutorial on the history of one of photography’s oldest techniques—the calotype. Invented by William Henry Fox Talbot, the calotype shortened previously long exposure times by casting a latent image onto sensitized paper that could then be developed by coating it in chemicals.

Although it was expedient and allowed for multiple copies of a photograph, the method lacked fine detail and tended to amass light and shadows. That turned off many serious photographers, who preferred collodion on glass.

Despite its demise in the 1850s, calotyping apparently continued to hold great sway among the hobbyists and casual photographers of mid-19th century Britain for its aesthetic appeal. In fact, many of the more captivating images in the “Impressed by Light” collection are the creations of then unknown photographers.

The exhibition’s first section, however, focuses on Talbot and the small cadre of calotypists he had taught, as well as a few other devoted practitioners. Among the more striking images in this first group is Talbot’s own work—a photograph of a simple haystack. But as Talbot himself noted, the calotype recorded “a multitude of details which adds to the truth and reality of the representation, but from which no artist would take the trouble to copy faithfully from nature.”

“Tree with Tangled Roots” by Hugh Owen shows us a gnarled, desiccated but unyielding mass of roots near a riverbank. The tree is determined to hang on, and the image carefully reveals the path of the roots as they twist and turn through rock and stone. Themes of survival and endurance were central to the era.

James Mudd’s “The Yard of Beyer Peacock Railway Engine Manufacturers” was unique in that very few photographers were interested in capturing the new industrial technologies that characterized mid-Victorian Britain. The accompanying wall text explains how a prolonged exposure renders this presumably bustling yard as a still, even calming environment.

Many of the photographs were taken by men of leisure who, though not professional photographers, had the time and money to pursue the art form as a serious hobby. There seems to be a particular fascination with cliffs and seasides, and some of these images are the most intriguing of all.

“View of Dunnottar Castle,” a ruined medieval fortress perched upon a precipitous rocky headland on the northeast coast of Scotland, is haunting in its inky solitude.

Although many of the images are of nature or industry, some focus on actual human beings. John Muir Wood’s portrait of his brother, George Wood, is striking for its intensity. The subject is dignified, self-assured and proud as evidenced by his formal top hat, cravat and other sartorial accoutrements. By the way, the human subjects featured in the exhibition were apparently a serious lot. There is rarely even the hint of a smile to be found here.

The final section of the museum, titled “Under an Indian Sky,” showcases more calotype photos taken after Britain had seized full control of the Indian government. The exotic South Asian nation, previously remote and unknown to most Britons, became a photographic playground. A haunting photo of the Bank of Delhi, for instance, shows damage to the bank inflicted by British troops when they fought to regain the city after an Indian uprising.

“Impressed by Light” is itself an impressive introduction to caloptype photography and successfully conveys the passion that photography has elicited then and today.

Impressed by Light: British Photographs from Paper Negatives, 1840–1860 through May 4 National Gallery of Art on the National Mall between 3rd and 9th Streets at Constitution Avenue, NW For more information, please call (202) 737-4215 or visit www.nga.gov.

About the Author

Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999