- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 2, 2008

On his honeymoon in Italy, British scientist William Henry Fox Talbot watched his wife sketching and, envious of her talent, decided to create “drawings” of his own. Talbot’s subsequent experiments in manipulating light-sensitive paper during the 1830s led to one of the earliest types of photography, the calotype. His invention, with its paper negative from which multiple paper prints could be made, soon caught on with Britain’s upper classes as an artistic hobby.

Their picturesque images of castles, cathedrals, woodlands and exotic locales are the subject of a scholarly but staid exhibit opening tomorrow at the National Gallery of Art.

“Impressed by Light: British Photographs From Paper Negatives, 1840-1860” was organized by Roger Taylor, a professor of photographic history at De Montfort University in Leicester, England; Sarah Greenough, the National Gallery’s senior curator of photographs; and curator Malcolm Daniel of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the exhibit was shown in the fall.

The show’s display of 120 early photos by Victorian gentlemen (and a few ladies) reflects the gallery’s continuing focus on lesser-known aspects of photography as an artistic medium.

As in last year’s “The Art of the American Snapshot,” the pictures were made by amateurs for private viewing, in this case by affluent farmers, scientists and businessmen who could afford the expensive cameras and chemicals required for the calotype process.

The photos represent the work of 40 “artists” to prove the continuing use of Talbot’s invention during the 1850s despite the emergence of sharper, faster photographic methods such as collodion (a viscous solution of nitrocellulose in ether and alcohol) on glass. Many early shutterbugs preferred the calotype’s soft look, so as to create the appearance of a painting or an etching, over the more clearly detailed collodion negatives.

Viewers may be unfamiliar with these early photographic techniques, and the exhibit falls short in explaining their differences through visual comparisons.

Daguerreotypes, developed by Frenchman Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre around the same time as Talbot’s method, are unique, direct-positive images fixed on silver-plated copper sheets. Calotypes (from the Greek word kalos, meaning beautiful) were closer to the modern photographic process in using both a negative and a positive printed on paper.

In the first gallery, their appeal over metal-plated pictures is evident in Talbot’s experimental 1840s images, some of which seem prophetic. His photographic paper trace of a wild fennel sprig brings to mind the 1920s camera-free “rayographs” by Man Ray, while his calotypes of haystacks suggest neater versions of Claude Monet’s impressionist landscapes.

Salted paper prints of his photographic business in Reading, England, show Talbot and his colleagues in action, shooting people and objects through their cameras and developing calotypes in sunlight.

The equipment required of this paper-based photography was easier to transport than heavier metal and glass plates, making the calotype ideal for travel photography.

The show is particularly strong in displaying snapshots of iconic buildings taken on grand tours of Europe. Some of the most accomplished are by Welshman Charles Clifford, who made a career out of photographing the architecture of Spain.

His photo of a lighted statue in a monastery doorway makes the wooden saint appear more alive than the people posed in other calotypes of the period.

One of the few female photographers featured in the exhibit, Jane Martha St. John, uses a low vantage point to exaggerate the monumentality of the Roman Colosseum.

Calotypists also traveled to the far reaches of the British empire. One gallery is devoted to India, with tranquil, panoramic images of temples, mosques and the Taj Mahal taken by British photographers for the colonial government or snapped for their own private enjoyment.

As revealed in the blurry figures around the Hindu temple documented by Scottish army doctor John Murray, the calotype made it hard to record people and things in motion because of its prolonged exposure time.

As a result, most of the photos on display have a static, stilted quality, making for some dull viewing. Another reason for the concentration on inanimate subjects — trees, rocks, buildings — was nostalgia for Britain’s rural past on the part of the upper-crust shutterbugs, who felt anxious about the social and political upheavals of the Victorian age.

They enjoyed experimenting with the latest photographic techniques but looked to the peaceful countryside rather than crowded cities for inspiration.

Benjamin Brecknell Turner, a gentleman farmer, assumed a particularly wistful viewpoint in his photographs of agrarian buildings, stony cliffs and Gothic ruins, which were seen as threatened by industrial progress.

His view of Lynmouth, a village on the Devon coast visited by British writers Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, suggests his early photography aimed for the same Romanticism as their poetry.

One of Turner’s most arresting images depicts an empty Crystal Palace, the vast iron and glass shed designed by Joseph Paxton for the Great Exhibition of 1851, held in London.

Taken after the fair had closed, the photo focuses on a giant elm in a transept of the vaulted structure. The tree might well symbolize the calotype, which grew in popularity for about a decade after the exhibition, attracting amateurs who had the money and time to pursue photography at home and abroad.

WHAT: “Impressed by Light: British Photographs From Paper Negatives, 1840-1860”

WHERE: National Gallery of Art, West Building, Sixth Street and Constitution Avenue Northwest

WHEN: Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tomorrow through May 4

ADMISSION: Free

PHONE: 202/737-4215

WEB SITE: www.nga.gov

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