Sunday, September 23, 2012

Henry Peach Robinson (1830-1901)

Henry Peach Robinson (1830-1901, English) was a very vocal proponent of photography as a fine art. As others in his time, he started his career as a painter and already at 21 years old, he had one of his paintings exhibited by the Royal Academy. However, the allure of photography proved to be irresistible.
He would not be content with just use photography to record a scene but rather seek, in his own works, to "avoid the mean, the bare, the ugly, and to aim to elevate the subject, to avoid awkward forms and to correct the unpicturesque". In that, and in the connection he felt existed between the classics, poetry and photography - as a source for themes and settings -, he shared the standards of academic nineteenth century painting and meant to apply them to the new art form.
Robinson wrote many treatises in his lifetime, including Pictorial Effects in Photography: Being Hints on Composition and Chiaroscuro for Photographers, published in 1869, where he used the term "pictorial" in relation to photography for the first time. In his view, the use of techniques such as  "combination photography", created by himself - consisting in the combination of separate images into new ones by manipulating the negatives or prints - supported his claim that photography was a "High Art": only through the artist's direct intervention, his/her ingenuity and creativity, the final image came to be. The application of pictorial techniques, such as the chiaroscuro - the use of dramatic lighting and shading to convey an expressive mood - was a powerful tool in the hands of the photographer.
Remarkable images... Debated images
Robinson created some of most remarkable manipulated images in the nineteenth century. His aesthetics were influenced by John Ruskin's, trying to create moments of timeless significance.
Fading Away, Robinson's most famous image, is a composite print of five negatives. It was called by one critic "an exquisite picture of a painful subject". The model for both She Never Told Her Love and Fading Away is Robinson's favourite, Miss Cundall.
The second, purportedly showing a young consumptive woman surrounded by family in her final moments, was subject to heated debate that, in some ways, continues now. Accusations of indelicacy that are maybe still familiar to the contemporary ear - the invasion of a eminently private moment, that of death - were combined with those of dishonesty - the use of a truthful medium to create a false image - and bandied around the composition.
However, there is no difference in amount of "artificiality" between this photograph and any painting representing the same subject, tying both media neatly together as attempts to elevate life to art and transcend the moment. Also, given that tuberculosis was endemic among the urban poor and not so much among the wealthy and well-to-do, the accusation or artificiality can also be levelled at Victorian art in general. Searching to elevate the subject, Victorians altered reality - inexcusably, from the point of realism - as they refused to depict what surrounded most people living in industrial-revolution England: squalor, but then that would have been considered even more indelicate.
In any case, the picture received royal approval in that Prince Albert not only bought a copy of Fading Away, but also ordered every composite print Robinson created afterwards.

Henry Peach Robinson, She Never Told Her Love, 1857. Albumen Print. This solitary figure, is a photographic representation of unrequited love. The title is derived from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night (II,iv,111-13): She never told her love/ But let concealment, like a worm i' the bud,/ Feed on her damask cheek. As cloying Victorian representations of excessive feeling go, this one is perfectly discreet, capturing the unimportance of the external world when the mind is consumed by an overpowering emotion. There is no gesticulation, no artificiality in the pose. The almost black background captures de isolation of the wan figure, that would serve as a study for the central figure in Fading Away. [Source: George Eastman House]

Henry Peach Robinson, Fading Away, 1858. Albumen print, combination print from five negatives. Only 200 prints were made of the photographs, as an assistant accidentally ruined the negatives. The title is a verse from one of Percy B. Shelley's poem Queen Mab: There is a nobler glory which survives/ Until our being fades, and, solacing/ All human care, accompanies its change;/ Deserts not virtue in the dungeon’s gloom,/ And in the precincts of the palace guides/ Its footsteps through that labyrinth of crime;/ Imbues his lineaments with dauntlessness,/ Even when from power’s avenging hand he takes/ Its sweetest, last and noblest title -death[Source: George Eastman House]

Henry Peach Robinson, Fear, ca. 1860. Albumen silver print. [Source: Metropolitan Museum]

Henry Peach Robinson, Dawn and Sunset, 1885, printed 1890. Photogravure, from "Sun Artists, Number 2".  In his influential book The Elements of a Pictorial Photograph (1896), Robinson wrote: "A great deal can be done and beautiful pictures made, by the mixture of the real and artificial in a picture. It is not the fact of reality that is required, but the truth of imitation that constitutes a veracious picture."  [Source: Art Institute of Chicago]

Henry Peach Robinson, When the Day's Work Is Done, 1877, printed 1890. Photogravure. [Source: Google Art Project]

Henry Peach Robinson, Sleep, 1867, albumen print. Robinson used as inspiration a poem by Matthew Arnold, Haworth Chrurchyard, 1855 (Sleep, O cluster of friends,/ Sleep! or only, when May,/ Brought by the West Wind, returns/ Back to your natives heaths,/ And the plover is heard on the moors,/ Yearly awake, to behold/ The opening summer, the sky,/ The shining moorland; to hear/ The drowsy bee, as of old,/ Hum o'ver the thyme, the grouse/ Call from the heather in bloom:/ Sleep, or only for this/ Break your united repose). Some paragraphs in the poem refer to Charlotte Brontë and Harriet Martineau, while others at the Brontë siblings. [Source: Better Photography].

George Eastman House 1000 Photo Icons, p 358-60. Taschen, 2002.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Henry Peach Robinson
Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons
George Eastman House Artful Ambitions/An Art of Its Own
Henry Peach Robinson, the Pictorialist, by R. Lalwany.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

An art form is born

Still life
Still life presents and obvious advantage for a young medium requiring long times of exposure: the subjects would certainly not be moving and ruining the negative.

Louis Jules Duboscq-Soleil, Still Life with Skull, ca. 1850. Daguerreotype. Symbols of the divine and the human, of the course of time and the inevitability of death. [Source: George Eastman House]

Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, Sill Life, ca. 1850. [Source: Wikipedia]

Cromer's Amateur, Still Life, bouquet of flowers, ca. 1845. Daguerreotype. [Source: George Eastman House]

The world around us
For the first time in history, reality could be reproduced in all fidelity. In cities, all buildings became easily recognizable, giving the viewer an accurate depiction of distances and sizes. Accuracy, together with the low price of reproducing photography, meant that people from all corners of the world could now learn to recognize places in which they had never been, and very well would never be.

Friedrich Martens, La Seine, la rive gauche et l'île de la cité, ca. 1845. Daguerreotype. Martens needed to use a panoramic camera of his own invention to create this broad view of Paris. [Source: GEH]

Louis Daguerre, Boulevard du Temple, ca. 1838. Daguerrotype. Daguerre was the inventor of the new medium, which at the beginning could only reproduce things that stood mostly still for minutes at a time. This view is one of the very first examples of daguerreotype. It shows a busy street in Paris, but no moving traffic because of the over ten-minute exposure time it cannot appear. At the lower left, however, a man is apparently having his boots polished, and we can see at his feet the bootblack polishing them. They were motionless enough for their images to be captured. [Source: Wikipedia]
Portraiture immediately became the most popular use of daguerreotypes:

Jean Baptiste Sabatier-Blot, Portrait of a Young Girl (Sabatier-Blot's Daughter?), 1852. Daguerreotype. The portrait is exquisite, intimate, the girl's face relaxed, serene, but focused on the camera.  [Source: George Eastman House]

Jean Baptiste Sabatier-Blot, Portrait of Woman and Daughter, 1852. Daguerreotype.
The standing girl leans of her mother's side, the family resemblance and the connection between the subjects immediate. No other objects distract the viewer. [Source: George Eastman House]

Antoine Claudet, The Geography Lesson,  1851. Daguerreotype. This group portrait, technically hard to achieve - a handful of sitters all immobile at the same time, most of them young children, at this early stage of photography - is nonetheless a fine triangular composition in which the subjects relate to each other rather than looking at the camera. The Geography Lesson was presented at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London. Claudet numbered many of England’s most prominent citizens among their customers, including Queen Victoria, Charles Dickens and Queen Adelaide, as well as thousands of other, lesser known, men and women. His work, including this one, as also frequently translated into wood and steel. [Source: Google Books]

Unidentified photographer, The Butterfly Collector, ca. 1850. Daguerreotype. The gentleman poses holding a quill and an illustrated book of butterflies to help him catalogue his collection, figuring at the back. An early example of the use of photography for record keeping. [Source: George Eastman House]

Unidentified photographer, Odalisque, ca. 1840. Daguerreotype. Exploration of the female form for artistic purposes? There is nothing salacious in the image, although the centrality of the naked female form in Western art itself could certainly be discussed using this early example of female nude. [Source: George Eastman House]

George Eastman House "1000 Photo Icons", p 40-2, 56. Taschen 2002
The Daguerreian Society Newsletter vol. 20 2008

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The birth of photography: Daguerre and the daguerrotype

In 1939 the French Académie des sciences published the invention of the daguerrotype process and almost immediately, purchased the technique and made a present of it to the world. It is hard to overestimate the transcendence of this new way to represent reality and its value as a tool for research.
Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre is, together with Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, the inventor of the daguerreotype process. Daguerre and Niépce had entered a partnership in 1829 and worked together until the latter's death in 1833, when Isidore Niépce would take his father's place. A decade in total was spent further experimenting on the basis of Niépce's discoveries - he had produced the first heliograph or permanent photograph of the rooftops of Paris from his window in 1826-7. The inventors would receive life pensions from the French government but only one would see his name live on, as two new words entered humanity's vocabulary: daguerreotype and daguerreotypist. The two largest daguerreotype collections in the world are the one at Eastman House, with approximately 500 daguerreotypes, and the one at the Bibliothèque Nationale, in Paris.

Portrait of Louis Daguerre in 1844 by Jean-Baptiste Sabatier-Blot. [Source: Wikipedia]
The process
The daguerreotype image is formed on a highly polished silver surface over a copper - or other metals, such as brass or even pure silver - substrate, but other metals can be used. The usual stock material in the nineteenth century was Sheffield plate, produced by fusion-plating or by electroplating or, alternatively, by a combination of the two techniques. Over the plate, a coating with a compound of iodine, bromine and chlorine, applied in a dark room, will make it sensitive to the light. Polished smooth and clean, it becomes the background, by reflection, upon which the picture will be created by exposure to light in a camera obscura.

Daguerreotype camera built by La Maison Susse Frères in 1839, with a lens by Charles Chevalier. Chevalier provided lenses both for Niépce and Daguerre, and is credited to have introduced them to each other. [Source: Wikipedia]
Depending on the sensitization chemistry used - the composition of all chemical materials experienced rapid change since the very beginning - the brightness of the lighting, and the light-concentrating power of the lens, the required exposure time ranged from a few seconds to minutes and even hours.

I Clipping (in France, bending back) the corners of the plate and bending the edges so as not to catch any of the materials used when II Polishing the silver side to obtain as nearly perfect a mirror finish as possible, optimizing the quality of the end product and then swab the surface with nitric acid to burn off any residual organic matter. III Sensitization in darkness, or by the light of a safe light (red, it was soon discovered), the silver surface was exposed to fumes and then carried to the dark camera in a light-tight holder.  IV Exposure of the plate within the dark camera by removing a cap from the camera lens, creating an invisible latent image on the plate. When the exposure was judged to be complete, the lens was capped and the holder was again made light-tight and removed from the camera. V Development of the latent image by several minutes of exposure in a developing box to the fumes given off by heated mercury.  VI Fixing to arrest the light sensitivity of the plate, the remaining silver compound was removed. VII Gilding, also called "gold toning" - an addition to Daguerre's process that soon became standard procedure - gave the steely gray image obtained a slightly warmer tone and physically reinforced the powder-like, i.e. enormously fragile, silver particles of which it was composed. VIII Sealing, would avoid tarnishing or marring the finished plate, which was bound up with a protective cover glass and sealed with strips of paper soaked in gum arabic. In the US and UK, a gilt brass mat was normally used to separate the image surface from the glass, while in the rest of Europe a thin cardboard mat or passepartout usually served that purpose. [Source: Wikipedia]

All aspects of the technique would experience constant and rapid changes, decreasing exposure time, and increasing the accuracy and durability of the end result. Efforts to mechanize the most intensive parts of the procedure were soon successful.
Practical considerations: time of exposure, head rests and first props
A sitter for a daguerrotype would need to be completely still during the whole time of exposure in order to avoid blurring the image irreparably. Daguerre himself expressed scepticism regarding the possibility of portraiture when exposure times were up to 20 minutes long.

Louis Daguerre, Boulevard du Temple, ca. 1838. Daguerrotype. Daguerre was the inventor of the new medium, which at the beginning could only reproduce things that stood mostly still for minutes at a time. This view is one of the very first examples of daguerreotype. It shows a busy street in Paris, but no moving traffic because of the over ten-minute exposure time it cannot appear. At the lower left, however, a man is apparently having his boots polished, and we can see at his feet the bootblack polishing them. They were motionless enough for their images to be captured. [Source: Wikipedia]

Cromer's Amateur, Organ Grinder on street with children passing, ca. 1848. Daguerrotype. The children, moving, appear as mere shadows in the picture. Only the organ grinder, looking straight at the camera with his head slightly tilted to his right in an amiable gesture, appears clear to the viewer. [Source: George Eastman House]

Only when exposure time was significantly reduced - the total amount of exposure time would always depend on the brightness of the light at the photographer's disposal - to just some minutes, portraiture was considered.
Minutes, however, are still a long time to sit for a portrait completely immobile. As early as August 1939, The Athenaeum suggested that ‘the head could be fixed by means of supporting apparatus’. Sitters would be helped by the head rest, a metallic contraption composed of a metallic rod with a heavy cast iron base and column and a piece for resting the head. This aide would remain in use, and sold by photographic suppliers, until the first decades of the twentieth century.

Left: a headrest for use behind a chair. Centre: a large headrest for standing figures. The arm and crutch at the top steady the head while a cushion on the vertical stand steadies the upper body, preventing any swaying movement. Right: a headrest designed for attachment to the back of a posing chair. [Source: Art Gallery of South Australia]
Head rests were meant to be a delicate support for the pose, not a rigid fixture against which the figure was to lean. Writing in 1868, artist and amateur photographer William Lake Price, emphasised the need for them because, although sitters would claim they were indeed capable of remaining ‘perfectly immoveable’ during the exposure, and therefore, not needing a head rest, they actually could not, resulting in failure. His advice to operators about the way to use it properly was:
‘the best, indeed the only way, to use it properly, is to let the sitter go into a natural position of the body and head, and then gently to advance the crutch until it just touches him‘.

The contraption, of course, was made fun of:

Cartoonists doing what they do best. [Source: Art Gallery of South Australia]
An unflinching portrayal of reality?
Photography was used to document reality...

Self-portrait with Laboratory Instruments, by Robert Cornelius, 1843. The composition is unconventional, as his face is almost completely covered by his hand. [Source: George Eastman House]
... But also to create a fictional one.

The inscription reads Dr. MacBeth in the Costume in Which He Crossed the Plains, Fleeing from the Cholerea [sic] of Which He Died. This daguerreotype with applied color,  ca. 184 , by an unidentified photographer, uses an abundance of props to help us recognize the subject by the symbols of his subject's life. [Source: George Eastman House]
Portraiture using daguerreotypes became immensely popular. For the first time in history, people of modest means could obtain an exact likeness of themselves or their loved ones for a moderate cost. Daguerreotypists settled at a studio or itinerant individuals travelling from town to town encouraged not only celebrities and political figures to have their pictures taken, but also ordinary tradesmen and workers, proud of their skills and their professions, to spend nearly a day’s wages to have a photographic portrait made.
A flourishing market in portraiture sprang up, predominantly the work of itinerant practitioners who travelled from town to town.

Advertisement for E. S. Hayden, a travelling daguerreotype photographer, not dated. Announcement printed by "American Office Print Waterbury, Ct" (at the bottom). [Source: Wikipedia]

The invention would be immediately and enthusiastically adopted in the United States following its introduction by Samuel Morse. By 1853, it is estimated that three million daguerreotypes were being produced per year. While it is not surprising that a young, dynamic nation would embrace technological advancements at the same pace they were appeared, daguerreotypes became known and likewise adopted in a country just opening to Western culture, Japan.

Albert Sands Southworth, ca. 1848, by the Southward & Hawes Studio. Southworth (1811–1894) operated Southworth & Hawes daguerreotype studio  together with Josiah Johnson Hawes (1808–1901) from 1843 to 1863.  They both took frequent portraits of each other, so they knew what was required from a sitter to obtain a portrait. In this case, the daguerreotype is vignetted, giving it an intimate mood. [Source: Wikipedia]

Portrait of Shimazu Nariakira, the daimyō of Satsuma Province (now Kagoshima Prefecture), in formal attire by Ichiki Shirō taken in 1857. According to Ichiki's memoirs - compiled in 1884 -, Shimazu obtained the first daguerreotype camera ever imported into Japan and ordered his retainers to study it and produce working photographs. Due to the limitations of the lens used and the lack of formal training, it took some years for achieve the desired result, and the oldest documented Japanese photography. [Source: Wikipedia]
For the photos:
The George Eastman House (the Cromer collection and their flickr page) are an invaluable resource for researchers.
A working (at the moment of publication) link is provided for each.

For the text:
George Eastman House "1000 Photo Icons", p 40-2, 56. Taschen 2002
Wikipedia, several entries.
The heliograph, the Harris Ransom center.
The head rest and props, The Art Gallery of South Australia.
The extension of the practice of daguerreotyping: World Digital Library.