Posted August 2014 in History of Photography, Painters|Photographers, Photography, Publishing, Significant Photographers
By all accounts, Scotsman David Octavius Hill, (1802-1870) Secretary of the Royal Scottish Academy of Fine Arts in Edinburgh, was an accomplished landscape painter. Thankfully, for the nascent medium of photography beginning around 1843, he is not remembered for that. Blame the Disruption, if you will.
Disruption with a capitol D? He didn’t know it at the time, but when the freethinking Hill, a devout churchman seen above in detail in his own painting, sketchpad in hand, attended what became known as the Disruption: or, the historical occasion of Scottish religious free will known as the First General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland signing the Act of Separation and Deed of Demission at Edinburgh’s Tanfield Hall, the artistic potential of photography would soon stake its’ own claim among the arts.
The Scots are Coming
Admittedly, the focus of this website doesn’t claim any great insights into the evolution of early photography, with the exception that certain photographers, those being the team of Hill and fellow Scotsman Robert Adamson, (1821-1848) popularly known as “Hill & Adamson”, are profoundly important to our understanding of artistic developments in relation to photography that came later in the 19th Century. Similar to the concept of how precedent by itself can build a case in the courtroom or in the more democratic court of public opinion, the reach of Hill & Adamson through their artistic achievement, especially in portraiture, impacted greatly the later working methods of many photographers and in particular, the eventual achievement of two fellow Scots who came into their orbit: Thomas Annan and his son James Craig Annan beginning around 1865 and in the early 1890’s.
As for that “Disruption” in relation to Hill’s completion 23 years later of an over-sized painting commemorating the event, the decision to separate from the accepted order gave former Church of Scotland congregations the freedom from central Church control to choose their own ministers, among other religious freedoms. For this alone, photography’s potential was nicely summed up in the London Art-Union journal in late 1869:
To photography Mr. Hill, soon after its discovery, about the year 1843, gave much attention, and we shall not be wrong in assigning him the credit of giving to the process its first artistic impetus; and, in conjunction with his friend, Mr. R. Adamson, of having produced many specimens of the Talbotype as yet unsurpassed for high artistic qualities. (1.)
Thank the Calotype
Because the patent restricting Englishman William Henry Fox-Talbot’s 1841 invention of the Calotype process did not apply in Scotland, Hill & Adamson were able to exploit it to full potential. I’ve uploaded an example above, which in viewable form is technically known as a salted paper print from a calotype negative, for comparison. A survivor showing a bit of Gothic architectural detail, it was most likely done between 1845-1855 and found tucked between the pages of this archive’s copy of the aforementioned monthly Art-Union from 1846: the first magazine in history to publish (6000 copies) an example of a Talbotype “Sun Pictures” process calotype.
For a relatively clear understanding of what this early, yet cumbersome two-step process was, former George Eastman House Senior Curator of Photography William R. Stapp wrote in the pages of Image magazine from 1993 on the occasion of a seminal show of original Hill & Adamson calotypes held by the institution:
Calotypes are made on paper. The process requires the photographer to sensitize a sheet of good quality writing paper by brushing it with successive solutions of silver nitrate, potassium iodide, gallic acid, and silver nitrate. After being dried in the dark, the sensitized paper is loaded in the camera; after an exposure of several minutes, the negative is developed by brushing the paper with a solution of gallic acid and silver nitrate, fixed in a bath of sodium thiosulfate (“hypo”) to remove unexposed silver salts, and washed. When dried, this typically dense and contrasty negative is used to make a positive print on so called “salted paper,” which the photographer also has to prepare. This time a sheet of the same good quality writing paper is soaked first in a solution of sodium chloride (ordinary table salt, hence the term “salted paper”), then in a solution of silver nitrate, to produce the halide silver chloride. After it has been dried in the dark, the now light-sensitive salted paper is exposed to the negative in strong sunlight until the image is printed-out on it in deep orange hues. The resulting positive print is fixed in hypo, toned with gold chloride to a rich reddish-brown color, and washed to remove the residual chemistry. In all modern photographic materials, a transparent gelatin emulsion coated on the film or paper support contains the silver particles that form the image. Neither the calotype negative nor the calotype positive has an emulsion of any kind. The image resides literally within the fibers of the paper because the paper itself has been permeated with the photosensitive chemicals. A calotype print consequently incorporates the “tooth” (texture) of both the negative paper and the positive paper in its image. The print has a texture that is both visual and physical, which softens the image and mutes the rendition of detail. (2.)
Activism, and a bit of Fate
As fate would have it, one of those involved with the Scottish Free Church movement was Fox-Talbot correspondent Sir David Brewster. A friend of “Disruption” general assembly moderator, the Rev. Dr. Thomas Chalmers, (1780-1847) who was a minister, social reformer and evangelical orator of high renown chiefly responsible for the secession from the established Church, Brewster early on had learned the Calotype process from his friend Talbot. Teaming with Saint Andrews University chemistry professor John Adamson, they in turn taught it to Adamson’s younger brother Robert Adamson in 1842 after he had moved to Edinburgh.
And the rest they say is history. With Brewster also present at the assembly signing with Hill, he in turn suggested the new process to the painter as a way to solve the dilemma of accurately portraying the hundreds of clergy and others present at the “Disruption” for posterity.
Twenty-three years later, most likely with the help of Hill’s second wife Amelia Paton, (1820-1904) a sculptress, the Disruption painting, measuring in finished at over 11 feet by 5 feet, was ready for public display. And this is where it gets interesting for the career of Thomas Annan (1829–1887) and much later, his son James Craig Annan. (1864-1946) The decision to copy the painting for a mass audience was never in doubt for Hill, a man well-connected with the Scottish publishing trade who was born into it; his father being a bookseller and publisher. Hill had even learned the art of lithography from an early age, using it in the reproduction of his own work as a landscape painter for 20 years.
In 1865, shortly before his masterwork was finished, Hill made the acquaintance of Annan by reputation through his brother Alexander’s art gallery in Edinburgh. Annan’s copy paintings had been displayed there, for he had already made a name for himself in this line of work as early as 1862, producing fine copies of artwork for the Glasgow Art Union. These Art Unions “were lotteries connected with the major art exhibitions; the successful subscribers won paintings, and every subscriber received an engraving.” (3)
A commission resulted between Hill and Annan to copy Hill’s Disruption masterwork, a canvas that unfortunately- as opposed to the hundreds of Hill & Adamson calotypes used for reference works in its’ creation and now considered masterpieces of the photographic art-did not equate it to a masterpiece itself. Annan employed for this task an improved permanent carbon photographic process, using Joseph Wilson Swan’s 1864 patent carbon tissue to reproduce copies of the “Disruption” after purchasing the Scottish rights from him in 1866. (4.)
In addition to several detail photos of the painting included with this post, a mounted carbon copy photograph by Annan published in 1868 for the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Act of Separation and Deed of Demission can be seen in our archive here. For those adventurous enough to decipher names and titles of some of those making up the sea of faces in the painting, partly seen below, a fascinating, yet tricky key to some of the major figures can be found here. This was published as part of the 1943 centenary volume The Disruption Picture: A Memorial of the First General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland by Donald MacKinnon. (5.)
Thomas Annan, Documentarian
With Hill’s work complete, Thomas Annan’s professional career was starting to hit full stride, especially after his success with the Disruption commission. In 1868, the same year a version of this carbon photo was published, (6.) Annan undertook a new commission from the City of Glasgow Improvements Trust that when first published as a series of around 35 albumen prints in 1872, became known as The Old Closes & Streets of Glasgow. As previously outlined in my essay written in 2006 for the Luminous Lint website, Annan’s photographs taken between 1868-1871 are among the earliest done specifically for a record of slum housing conditions prior to urban renewal and as such are an important milestone in the history of documentary photography. (7)
Perhaps knowing her husband’s photographic legacy might be carried on, Amelia Paton bequeathed to Annan “a large collection of calotypes and the portrait lens used by Hill and Adamson” after Hill’s death in 1870. (8.) Speculation he used this very lens for portraits taken soon after for his illustrated volume the Memorials of the Old College of Glasgow, (1871) with examples seen in this post, are an intriguing insight raised by Sara Stevenson in her biography of Annan. (9.) Proportionally, individual portraits taken by Hill & Adamson in the 1840’s compared with those by Annan of the professors from the Glasgow volume and are very similar. However, Annan had the advantage of using the collodion process as opposed to calotype, with the increase of sensitivity of these plates lending a sharpness to his work not possible as movement was often the inevitable result of the slower 2-3 minute exposures required for the older process.
A comparison showing the softness, beauty and masterful composition of a later generation carbon print portrait of English painter William Etty (1787-1849) done ca. 1843 by Hill and Adamson can be seen with this post along with portraits by Annan taken around 1870. These include the striking portrait of professor and theologian John Caird (1820-1898) that reveal compositional similarities between the photographers nearly 30 years apart. With the archival benefit of Annan printing his efforts in permanent carbon, it’s also amusing to see exposure times, although shorter than calotype, did not prevent him in at least one case from seizing the moment in order to permanently memorialize his subject and another unwitting one: a rather large housefly clinging to academic robes worn by University of Glasgow English Language and Literature Professor John Nichol.
Besides University professors, Annan did many fine portraits of Free Church of Scotland ministers in addition to ministers, elders and missionaries affiliated with the United Presbyterian Church. A unique album of these portraits, reproduced in carbon, is held by this archive, with several appearing in the 1875 Annan published volume Historical Notices of the United Presbyterian Congregations in Glasgow. As a businessman running a commercial studio, Annan marketed many of these images, often as variants, in the carte de visite format. The following is a listing of Annan’s Scotland studios with dates supplied by Peter Stubbs of the EdinPhoto web site:
202 Hope Street, Glasgow: 1862-72
77 Sauchiehall St. Glasgow: 1873-74
153 Sauchiehall St. Glasgow: 1875-91
75 Princes St. Edinburgh: 1876-82
Coming full-circle: Learning Photogravure
In 1883, after purchasing the British rights to a new process of Photogravure invented by Czech artist Karl Klíc, (1841-1926) Thomas Annan and son James Craig Annan traveled to Vienna in order to personally learn its intricacies. As defined by our good friends over at Photogravure.com, Klíc’s 1879 refined process of “reproducing a photograph by printing on paper from an inked and etched copper plate” was a vast improvement over that of William Henry Fox Talbot’s 1858 patented Photoglyphic Engraving process. Thomas Annan was so smitten he wrote Klíc the following appreciation:
“I beg to express my entire satisfaction with your gravure process… The process itself is very valuable to a fine art publisher because of the beauty of the work and the crafted manner in which the plates are executed. With many thanks to me and my son I remain, Dear Sir, yours very truly” - Thomas Annan March 11, 1883 (10.)
Fittingly renamed the Talbot-Klíc Dust Grain Photogravure by Klíc, the process was soon fully embraced by Annan’s publishing concerns, T. & R. Annan and Sons of Glasgow, Hamilton and Edinburgh, who utilized photogravure for high-quality, fade-resistant and archival plates, mostly copies of original works of art, an established specialty. Soon, the new process, which involved the individual hand-pulling of plates from a copper-plate press, was further exploited and refined by the budding photographer James Craig Annan in the early 1890’s, whose original photographic negatives “from nature” during his travels to the Continent, particularly North Holland and Italy, were directly reproduced in gravure after an ongoing period of great experimentation and refinement.
Like his father Thomas, who reproduced and exhibited some of the Hill & Adamson calotypes in carbon during the 1870’s and early 80’s using his own refinements of Swan’s process, (11.) James Craig Annan fully embraced Talbot-Klíc gravure printing to reinterpret their landmark achievements in early pictorial portraiture as well as other studies including the fisherfolk of Newhaven near Edinburgh. In this regard, beginning as early as 1890, Annan produced a series of hand-pulled gravures re-photographed from the original Hill & Adamson paper calotype “negatives in the possession of Andrew Elliott.” (12.) Later in 1905, working as part of the T & R Annan firm of Glasgow, he produced a further series of 20 plates printed on Japan tissue. (13.) These copper plates were then re-used for a series of gravures published in Alfred Stieglitz’s Camera Work XI, (1905) XXVIII, (1909) and XXXVII, (1912) thereby introducing new generations to the masterful legacy left by Hill & Adamson.
I’ll end this lengthy post with an excerpt from an appreciation of D.O. Hill by James Craig Annan, who was fortunate to have met and been inspired by the artist when he was only six years old- the result of his father being an intimate friend of Hill. This was included as part of a larger essay he wrote on the Scottish pioneer for Camera Work XI, and he makes the strong case their achievement was a direct result of their portrait collaborations for the Disruption painting:
“Thus the partnership began which was to produce the noble and extensive series of portraits which for powerful characterization and artistic quality of uniformly high excellence have certainly never been surpassed and possibly not even rivaled by any other photographer. This may seem an extravagant appreciation of Hill’s work, but it has been arrived at after mature deliberation.” (14.)
1. British Artists: Their Style and Character: With Engraved Illustrations. : David Octavius Hill, R.S.A.: in: The Art-Journal: London: October 1, 1869: p. 317
2. William F. Stapp.: Hill and Adamson: Artists of the Calotype: from: Image: George Eastman House: Spring/Summer: Vol. 36: No. 1-2: 1993: p. 55
3. Sara Stevenson: Scottish Masters 12: Thomas Annan: National Galleries of Scotland: 1990: p. 5
4. After discussions with Hill, the copy photograph of the “Disruption“canvas was taken by Thomas Annan after he had ordered “a large Photographic Camera of the latest and most perfect construction” from Dallmeyer: in: 1866 Disruption prospectus by Hill: published in: Scottish Masters 12: p. 7
5. Alan Newble has thoughtfully, and no doubt, painstakingly, compiled the key as part of his website, with further insights on the historical importance of the Rev. Dr. Thomas Chalmers.
6. In correspondence between Annan and Hill in late December, 1865, Hill stated he wanted the Disruption painting reproduced in thousands of photographs in 3 separate sizes. “He (Hill) was hoping for prints half the size of the painting, and suggested that Annan make them in three parts, joining them together around the figures rather than in an arbitrary straight line.” : from: Hill & Annan letters: quoted in: Scottish Masters 12: pp. 6-7. Alas, Hill’s desires were trumped by technical limitation, with carbon prints supplied by Annan printed in 1866 in 3 sizes, as stated in the Photographic News of London: “Photographs of the picture will be issued in three sizes, ranging from 24 inches by 9 inches to 48 inches by 21 1/4 inches, at prices ranging from a guinea and a half to twelve guineas.”
7. The carbon print edition of Old Closes first appeared in 1877, with two later photogravure editions featuring 50 plates each printed by James Craig Annan published in 1900. Fine examples of the albumen prints from Old Closes can be found along with superb background on their making at the University of Glasgow Library special collections department online resource found here.
8. cited in Scottish Masters 12: p. 8
9. Ibid: p. 13
10. from: Photogravure.com online resource accessed August, 2014. While in Vienna under Klíc’s watchful eye, the Annans had produced a photogravure of Noel Paton’s painting of The Fairy Raid.
11. Scottish Masters 12: p. 8
12. David Octavius Hill & Robert Adamson: in: The Collection of Alfred Stieglitz: Weston Naef: New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art: p. 378. Elliott, (1830-1922) was a nephew of D.O. Hill
13. Ibid, p. 378
14. excerpt: David Octavius Hill, R.S.A. ⎯1802-1870.: J. Craig Annan: in: Camera Work XI: New York: edited and published by Alfred Stieglitz:1905: p. 18
Posted July 2014 in History of Photography, Scientific Photography, Significant Photographs
Walt Whitman certainly did. Just check out his eyeballs on this photograph taken in 1887 by George C. Cox for confirmation. Especially on this most personal of American holidays, the Fourth of July, the continuing birthday idea of our messy, evolving experiment of a democratic republic called the United States can never be said to be boring.
Need proof of his vision? - Whitman’s metaphorical call in this famous quote: “What is that you express in your eyes?” ; and response: “It seems to me more than all the print I have read in my life.”
You could say America’s poet (1819-1892) of the everyman didn’t need a camera, he was one. His genius of observation, something all great photographers possess, gave him the power to indelibly express his convictions. So when words flowed from his pen, they possessed the power of photographs, especially on the very idea of America in the aftermath of the Civil War:
from Leaves of Grass: intro to “Thoughts”:
Of these years I sing,
How they pass and have pass’d through convuls’d pains, as
How America illustrates birth, muscular youth, the promise, the
sure fulfilment, the absolute success, despite of people-
illustrates evil as well as good,
The vehement struggle so fierce for unity in one’s-self;
How many hold despairingly yet to the models departed, caste,
myths obedience, compulsion, and to infidelity, … (1.)
But enough of the history lesson. Since most of us will never rise to the level of a Whitman in prose, photography as an art form is a comparably easy stretch. Speaking for myself as a young newspaper photographer in the mid 1980’s hunched over a light table editing film, an early mentor told me as long as a person’s eyes in the negative were tack sharp through the loupe, it was a “keeper”, and worthy of publication.
And so it was for my colleagues a century before my own light table revelation, but with the slow, fragile dry plates in use at the time a much greater technical challenge. In 1887, New York portrait photographer George Collins Cox (1851-1902) had the sitting of a lifetime in none other than Whitman. Strolling into his New York studio with oversized fedora, it was 22 years to the day no less on April 15th when American president Abraham Lincoln finally succumbed to an assassin’s bullet in 1865.
And he nailed it, as they say in America. Eyes tack sharp. The following historical account of the Whitman portrait sitting from the Charles E. Feinberg Collection at the Library of Congress gives a nice working account of Cox the photographer in action. A result of that session: the “Laughing Philosopher”, was the title Whitman declared as his favorite:
”On the morning of April 15th, 1887, George Cox took several photographs of Whitman, who was celebrating the success of his New York lecture on Lincoln, delivered the day before. Whitman recalls that “six or seven” photos were made during the session, but Whitman’s friend Jeannette Gilder, an observer of the session, said there were many more than that: ‘He must have had twenty pictures taken, yet he never posed for a moment. He simply sat in the big revolving chair and swung himself to the right or to the left, as Mr. Cox directed, or took his hat off or put it on again, his expression and attitude remaining so natural that no one would have supposed he was sitting for a photograph.“ (2.)
1. from “Thoughts” Leaves of Grass II: The Complete Writings of Walt Whitman: New York:1902: Henry W. Knight, publisher: National (limited) Edition: p. 275
2. excerpt: Walt Whitman Archive online resource accessed July, 2014
Posted June 2014 in New Additions, Unknown Photographs
Sometimes, scratching your head does make sense. Especially when encountering a photograph such as this. I wish I could elaborate beyond my first instinct, which is that the subject resembles some kind of shrunken head with an extremely bad hair day.
However, on close inspection, it might actually appear to be some kind of Asian mask, dressed in what appear to be elaborate silk garments. But these are only guesses. This very fine tissue gravure printed on a thin sheet of Japan laid paper was purchased for this archive from a dealer based in Warwickshire, England in the Fall of 2012. It was purchased at the same time by a lovely pictorialist study that I’ve titled Agnes, which can be seen here.
Does anyone have clues as to the actual subject matter and or author responsible for this mysterious photograph?
Posted March 2014 in Composition, History of Photography, Significant Photographs
When evaluating the chiaroscuro masterpiece Campo San Margherita by James Craig Annan, a striking vertical composition taken in 1894 during his visit to the Campo San Margherita piazza in Venice-an outdoor market and tourist destination still popular today- the idea of Modernism, a decidedly 20th Century school as applied to the photographic arts, should be taken seriously considering the intent and evidence posed by this finished work.
Documentary, cubist in form and radically pictorial for its time, this slice of life study showing the interaction of a market vendor and customer can be dissected for compositional posterity with the intent a post-mortem of sorts by this reviewer is reason enough when re-considering the historical record of early photographic aesthetics.
First off, Scotsman Annan was a master engraver and pioneer of the hand-pulled photogravure, an intaglio process similar to etching, but with the matrix of a photographic negative “from life” doing the stand-in for the artists brush or pencil. With this control afforded, the photographic results transferred to a copper plate could be altered at will depending on artistic intent, giving Annan the ability to subtly control and change aspects of his composition after he took the initial exposure by camera.
Arbitrarily beginning at the bottom of the frame, a subtle flow begins to develop reaching near the top of this composition. Here we see the Campo San Margherita title, with letters spanning the entire width of the vertical composition placed in its own compartmentalized box serving as anchor to the entire work.
From here, the eye travels upwards. With an engraver’s burin, Annan deliberately alters a portion of highlighted marketplace cobblestones to a shaded version- the result being complimentary, contrasting diagonals now taking residence within the dead-zone of space created by his decision to present the work as an extreme vertical composition from the outset.
This in turn brings us to the very center of the frame. Without reading too much into it, the scale itself is the perfect symbol for what Annan achieves in this area we are most interested in visually. Holding it out while weighing a marketplace purchase for his customer opposite, the vendor’s action gives credibility to the idea a kind of balance has been created and achieved at the very center of the frame, especially after she conveniently stoops to his same level while contemplating the purchase.
The rest of the frame serving as backdrop to this drama in the middle compliments everything else within in, but with a twist. Instead of a purely static presentation of a lone moment occurring in the marketplace, the hat-wearing gentleman walking directly behind the vendor preparing to bust out of the frame gives a refreshing jolt to the work. Annan’s inclusion of this other action reminds us the marketplace bustles with life.
Finally, the central part of the background: a large shaded alleyway dividing two separate buildings anchoring the entire left and right margins of the frame, neatly compliments the balance of the two windows seen behind the man wearing the hat. Here, the area of the arched window frame in the top left of the composition reaches upwards to its natural conclusion: another area of naturally shaded discoloration similar in tone and effect Annan manipulated for the bottom third of the frame.
But this is just one opinion, albeit from someone who has spent a lifetime constructing and deconstructing photographs. Hopefully, this insight into one singular example of Annan’s art might give others the chance to see his motives and intent for what they are: a strong example of photographic Modernism ahead of his time.
Posted March 2014 in New Additions, Photography
Besides the obvious: a permanent, for the most part, result in the form of a photograph; the act of taking said photograph could be argued as being just as important. For some, it really is the point.
Can I take your picture? Why sure. Why would you be interested may I ask? Because…
I find you: insert adjective here. Or don’t ask permission.
Because. No real reason at all, other than it sorta confirms your existence for posterity. So not a bad tradeoff, especially for those who might want to look back, far off in the future, or five minutes from now.
Going back well over a century, this series of photographs is confirmation act has always been wrapped up in art. For proof, observe the capable body language of voiceless French actress Félicia Mallet, (1863–1928) published in 1896 and recently posted. As Pierrot, she was taking on the role modern scholars consider the essence of the artist’s alter-ego. Especially as some might consider: “the famously alienated artist of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.” (1.)
But the inherently silent results recorded by French photographer Arthur da Cunha here are besides the point. A live performance will always elicit a critic, particularly one on the public stage.
In a fortunate coincidence, no less an observer than George Bernard Shaw weighed in a year later, his take on Mallet’s performance during the London stage production of A Pierrot’s Life giving readers the opinion her Pierrot was far more believable than one played by (Mrs.) Signora Litini:
The recasting of “A Pierrot’s Life” at the matinees at the Prince of Wales’ Theatre greatly increases and solidifies the attraction of the piece. Felicia Mallet now plays Pierrot; but we can still hang on the upturned nose of the irresistible Litini, who reappears as Fifine. Litini was certainly a charming Pierrot; but the delicate, subtle charm was an intensely feminine one, and only incorporated itself dreamily with the drama in the tender shyness of the first act and the pathos of the last. Litini as a vulgar drunkard and gambler was as fantastically impossible as an angel at a horse-race. Felicia Mallet is much more credible, much more realistic, and therefore much more intelligible — also much less slim, and not quite so youthful. Litini was like a dissolute “La Sylphide”: Mallet is frankly and heartily like a scion of the very smallest bourgeoisie sowing his wild oats. She is a good observer, a smart executant, and a vigorous and sympathetic actress, apparently quite indifferent to romantic charm, and intent only on the dramatic interest, realistic illusion, and comic force of her work. And she avoids the conventional gesture-code of academic Italian pantomime, depending on popularly graphic methods throughout. The result is that the piece is now much fuller of incident, much more exciting in the second act (hitherto the weak point) and much more vivid than before. (2.)
1. Pierrot: see: Wikipedia overview: accessed, March, 2014
2. excerpt: Meredith on Comedy: An Essay on Comedy. By George Meredith. Westminster: Archibald Constable & Co. 1897: from: Dramatic Opinions and Essays by G. Bernard Shaw/(James Huneker): Volume 2: New York: Brentanos: 1906: pp. 225-6
Posted January 2014 in Exhibitions, History of Photography, Significant Photographers
Subversive and unwilling to play by the rules. This is why the body of work produced by British photographer Julia Margaret Cameron (1815–1879) should still matter to us today.
How can one not admire the intent and courage it must have taken her to focus a camera lens in the era of wet plate photography (1860s-1870s) and then, just as often as not, deliberately have the mischievous bent to throw that lens slightly out of focus in order to create photographs often resembling the feelings found in dreams? Photographs that justifiably draw admiration and discussion even today of the lives of Victorian celebrities and house servants who were convinced to sit or be dragged in front of that camera.
For those inclined to learn the mysterious ingredient-and staying power so to speak-of Cameron’s photography-the answer might be a single word: “beauty”. This might indeed be the key, a Citizen Kane, Rosebud moment if you will, the one final word she reportedly uttered on her deathbed.
Beauty, and a renewed appreciation is what I took away from a visit late last year to a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art simply titled “Julia Margaret Cameron”.
Surprisingly, it was first devoted solely to her work at the museum, a tightly edited overview comprised of 38 works, including several by her contemporaries: David Wilkie Wynfield, William Frederick Lake Price, and Oscar Gustav Rejlander.
The wall copy set the stage for those not already familiar with Cameron, describing her rightly as:
”One of the greatest portraitists in the history of photography—indeed in any medium“…
A further explanatory statement in her own words followed:
”From the first moment I handled my lens with a tender ardour,” she wrote, “and it has become to me as a living thing, with voice and memory and creative vigour.”
Words that no doubt have influenced scores of photographers, painters and others working in various artistic disciplines during the many decades since her passing. An important early tribute came in the lifetime of Cameron’s youngest son Henry Herschel Hay Cameron. (1852-1911) Inspired no doubt by his mother’s art, he was a working photographer who maintained a London studio, and provided the Introduction as well as a series of complimentary portraits paired with those by his mother for the folio volume Alfred, Lord Tennyson and his Friends. This series of 25 large-plate photogravures along with letterpress was published in a limited edition in 1893.
Other notable remembrances of Cameron’s work appeared earlier and much later. In 1891, the English publication Sun Artists featured four of her photographs: Sir John Herschel, Alfred Lord Tennyson and the allegorical works The Day Dream and The Kiss of Peace. All large-plate gravures for the 5th issue.
For Camera Work 41 published in 1913, editor Alfred Stieglitz presented five plates of Cameron’s work published as tissue gravures: two of Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle, portraits of English polymath John Herschel and Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim and an allegorical study of English Shakespearean actress Ellen Terry taken done in 1864 when she was 16 originally titled “Sadness”.
Later in the British Number of the short-lived publication Platinum Print published in Feb. 1915, American photographer Clarence White’s essay titled Old Masters in Photography lauded Cameron as an early influence, singling out her photograph he most likely saw in an 1891 issue of Sun and Shade titled the Dalmatian Maid.
This portrait of Christina Spartali, a neighbor of Cameron on the Isle of Wight who was most certainly not a maid, as her family had made their fortune from the cotton trade and her father was Consul-General for Greece, was taken in 1868. White observed:
”While some questions have been raised as to the influence these workers have had on those of today, for my own part I must confess an influence on my work inspired by Mrs. Cameron’s “Dalmatian Maid,” a copy of which I saw in the days of my early efforts.” (p.4)
Although ended, photographs from the Cameron show at the Met can still be viewed in digital form, along with an ambitious project devoted to her and other notable photographers now ongoing on behalf of the rich photographic collection held by the Royal Photographic Society at the National Media Museum in Bradford, England.
Other treasures await additional scholarship. For our part, PhotoSeed presents with this post a seldom-seen work by Cameron formerly owned by Peter Hukill, (1927-2003) an early collector of fine art photography who built a collection thanks to the early efforts of galleries including the former Robert Schoelkopf Gallery in New York City, the records of which now reside in the Smithsonian Archives of American Art.
Prescient, and subversive indeed. The Schoelkopf Gallery was apparently one of the first to feature photography as fine art in the United States. In 1967, it had the distinction of mounting the last solo show of Cameron’s work before the Met’s which opened in 2013: “timing it to coincide with a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that focused on Cameron as one of four Victorian photographers.” (1.)
1. excerpt: Robert Schoelkopf Gallery records, 1851-1991: Smithsonian Archives of American Art online resource: “In its early years the Robert Schoelkopf Gallery contributed considerably to the development of interest in fine art photography that fostered an increasingly lucrative market for photographic prints during the 1960s and 1970s.”
Posted January 2014 in New Additions
A curious photograph entered this archive last year, and with the debut of a new season of Downton Abbey upon us here in the States, I thought it important to pay homage to those women who made English Service, from circa 1917, the noble effort it was.
Posted January 2014 in New Additions, PhotoSeed, Significant Photographs
Posted December 2013 in Publishing
Posted April 2013 in Photographic Postcards, Publishing, Texts
Beyond the Tweets, texts and messaging saturating our present-day social media culture-recently extending even to software giving a smartphone user the ability to view a photograph just once before it disappears into the ether forever, (Snapchat et al apps) the endurance, value and cultural importance of the printed word and photograph need be considered-indeed marveled at-for the historical record and of course for posterity itself.
Consider today’s example, a postcard featuring an original cyanotype photograph of a well-dressed gentleman reading a newspaper. Addressed and posted to Harold A. Buffington of Littleton, New Hampshire in October, 1906, (1.) this simple and lasting form of communication is signed “Papa”, (2.) with the suggestion for his son to come over on Sunday for a visit in order to enjoy a slice of pumpkin pie.
Before getting to the nut graph as they say in newspaper lingo, “Papa”: aka Arthur W. Buffington, (b. 1868) begins his correspondence with a quote from a well known (at least for its time) story celebrating the importance of small town rags everywhere. It might not be surprising given his listed occupation as a printer for the 1900 U.S. Census. Owner of the Buffington Press in Littleton during this period, (they printed cookbooks among other volumes) he writes on the postcard:
The Little Country Paper
It tells of all the parties an’ the balls of Pumpkin Row ‘Bout who’s spent Sunday with who’s girl, an’ how the crops’ll grow. An’ how it keeps a feller posted ‘bout who’s up and who’s down. That little country paper from his ol’ Home Town.
This entire “story” seems to have originated around 1903 or before by someone writing for the Denver Post newspaper in Colorado. I’ve taken the liberty to include it in its entirety at the end of this post (as it originally appeared) along with another similarly titled “story” I discovered from the era . And the juicy part? “Papa” writes:
Come down Sunday. Mamma has made a whole pumpkin pie and I have only had one piece out of it. (you can divide your piece with L. O and mamma and Ray don’t like punkin very well!) Papa.
In addition to the slice of pie he presumably ate, the postcard might have even inspired Harold Buffington to get ink in his blood like his father, for he is listed in the 1940 U.S. Census as a printer for the Courier office, still known today as the Littleton Courier, a weekly newspaper published since 1889.
The Little Country Paper
When the evenin’ shades is fallin’ at the endin’ o’ the day,
An’ a feller rests from labor, smokin’ at his pipe o’ clay.
There’s nothin’ does him so much good, be fortune up or down,
As the little country paper from his O’l Home Town.
It ain’t a thing o’ beauty an’ its print ain’t always clean. But it straightens out his temper when a feller’s feelin’ mean. It takes the wrinkles off his face an’ brushes off the frown. That little country paper from his Ol’ Home Town.
It tells of all the parties an’ the balls of Pumpkin Row. ‘Bout who spent Sunday with who’s girl an’ how th’ crops’ll grow. An’ how it keeps a feller posted ‘bout who’s up an’ who is down. That little country paper from his O’l Home Town.
Now, I like to read the dailies an’ the story papers too. An’ at times the yaller novels an’ some other trash—don’t you? But when I want some readin’ that’ll brush away a frown I want that little paper from my O’l Home Town. (3.)
The following with the same title originated in the Baltimore (MD) American newspaper in 1900 or before, and may have inspired the Denver Post account of The Little Country Paper:
The Little Country Paper
It’s just a little paper-it isn’t up to date:
It hasn’t any supplement or colored fashion plate.
It comes out every Friday, unless the forms are pied;
The outside is home printed, with boiler-plate inside.
It hasn’t any cable direct from old Bombay,
But it says that “Colonel Braggins is in our midst to-day.”
It doesn’t seem to worry about affairs of state.
But tells that “Joseph Hawkins has painted his front gate.”
It never mentions Kruger or Joseph Chamberlain.
But says that “Thompson’s grocery has a new window pane.”
And that “the Mission Workers will give a festival.
And there’ll be a temperance lecture in William Hooper’s hall.”
It tells about the measles that Jimmy Hankins had.
And says that Israel Johnson “has become a happy dad.”
It says that “cider-making is shortly to commence.”
And cites the fact that Ira Todd is building a new fence.
It mentions Dewey’s coming in one brief paragraph, And says that “Charlie Trimble has sold a yearling calf.” And everything that happens within that little town The man who runs the paper has plainly jotted down.
Some people make fun of it, but, honestly, I like To learn that “work is booming upon the Jimtown pike.”
It’s just a little paper—it hasn’t much to say—
But as long as it is printed I hope it comes my way. (4.)
1. It is believed the gentleman in the cyanotype photograph reading the newspaper is also the recipient of the postcard: Harold A. Buffington, a student who would have been 20 years old in 1906. (b.: September 12, 1886 | d. March, 1976. source: Crestleaf)
2. “Papa” was Arthur W. Buffington (b. 1868) who lived in Lisbon, New Hampshire at the time he mailed this postcard
3. The Little Country Paper: Denver Post: reprinted in the Mansfield (OH) News: Saturday, October 24, 1903
4. Newspaper Verse: Selections Grave and Gay: Current Literature-A Magazine of Record and Review: New York: Vol. XXVIII: April-June, 1900: pp. 192-93