Exhibitions/ Impressed by Light

Impressed by Light: British Photographs from Paper Negatives, 1840–1860

September 25–December 31, 2007

Exhibition Overview

This exhibition is the first major exhibition to survey British calotypes—works of exceptional beauty and rarity which are made from paper negatives and are among the earliest forays into the medium of photography. During the first two decades of photography, British photographers turned their lenses on family, nature, and the landscape at home, and on historic architecture, ruins of past civilizations, and exotica abroad. The exhibition presents works by forty artists, including such masters as William Henry Fox Talbot, David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, Roger Fenton, Benjamin Brecknell Turner, and Linnaeus Tripe, as well as many talented but unrecognized artists. The majority of the works on view have never before been exhibited or published in the United States.

Invention of the Calotype

The invention of the calotype by Englishman William Henry Fox Talbot, announced to the public in 1841, was a major event in the development of the new medium of photography. Talbot's innovative method utilized a fine writing paper, photosensitized with chemical solutions, placed in a camera, and exposed to light to create a negative from which many positive prints could be made—the basic principle behind nearly all subsequent photography until the digital age. Most previous accounts of the history of early photography have assumed that the introduction of glass negatives in 1851 precipitated an almost immediate decline in the use of paper negatives. This exhibition reveals a previously unrecognized artistic flourishing of the calotype among British photographers working on several continents during the 1850s.

Artists who chose to work with paper negatives even after the introduction of glass negatives did so either because they preferred its aesthetic qualities—a softening of detail and a massing of light and shadow—or because of its practical advantages for travel photography and hot climates. Equally important for many gentlemen-amateurs, the calotype distinguished its practitioners as artists, distinct from commercial photographers, who preferred the faster process and sharper images of glass negatives.

About the Works on View

The first section in the exhibition—"The Formative Years, 1839–1851"—presents photographers' first forays into the paper negative process. During this period in Britain, the new medium of photography remained largely the province of its inventor Talbot and his circle of relatives and associates, with the notable exception of Scottish collaborators David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson.

"The Calotype Finds Its Place" focuses on the 1850s, when British artists took up paper-negative photography enthusiastically and with a sense of national pride for this homegrown invention. The larger public first witnessed the artistic potential of photography at the 1851 Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations at the Crystal Palace. Many of the new practitioners inspired by this display were gentlemen of leisure and learning with wide interests in the arts and sciences. They were encouraged in their photographic pursuits by the formation of the Photographic Society in 1853, and their work was facilitated by the loosening of Talbot's patent restrictions that same year. Exhibiting a preference for subjects such as ancient oaks, rural life, seaside vistas, ships, ruined abbeys, cottages, and castles, British calotypes of this period generally reflect a retreat into nature and an idealized past as an antidote to the modern, industrial society that was emerging at the time.

The calotype was especially well suited to travel and exploration; unlike glass negatives, paper negatives could be prepared well in advance of their use and developed long after, eliminating the need for a complete portable darkroom.

"Echoes of the Grand Tour" features photographs that amounted to a virtual journey throughout France, Spain, Italy, and Greece for the nineteenth-century armchair traveler who, until the advent of photography, had relied on written descriptions and often fanciful or inaccurate engravings.

"Under an Indian Sky" illustrates how the paper negative thrived in India well into the 1860s. Particularly well suited to the hot and dusty Indian climate, the calotype was favored by the two most talented and prolific early photographers of the subcontinent, John Murray and Linnaeus Tripe. In addition to showing Indian and Burmese architecture that—for viewers back home—was exotic and fantastic, the photographs in this section reveal aspects of the complex relationship between native Indian culture and British colonials at a moment of great turmoil.

The exhibition concludes with "The Lost Work", a continuous digital slide show of approximately fifty paper negatives and their digitally generated positives, allowing visitors to see superb examples of the calotype that survive only as negatives.

The exhibition is made possible by The Hite Foundation.

The catalogue is made possible by Howard Stein.

Additional support is provided by the Mary C. and James W. Fosburgh Publications Fund and the Roswell L. Gilpatric Publications Fund.

The catalogue is published with the assistance of The Getty Foundation.

The exhibition was organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the National Gallery of Art, Washington.