“92nd Gordon Highlanders at Edinburgh Castle” (1846)
WASHINGTON - How much would you pay for a photographic print of a special foreign destination?
Ten dollars, maybe $20?
That would be a bargain - compared to buyers who doled out a full week’s pay for a single print in the 19th century.
What made people so willing once to fork out such an extravagant amount?
Created from a paper negative, the calotype photograph represented a cutting-edge innovation to 19th century consumers, particularly in Britain. But like many popular trends, the calotype image enjoyed only a short, albeit brilliant, run.
The calotype and its brief yet fruitful history provide the focus for a major exhibition here at the National Gallery of Art.
“Impressed by Light: British Photographs from Paper Negatives, 1840-1860” presents a unique overview of the photographic form through 120 vintage prints by 40 British photographers.
Discovered by Scotsman William Henry Fox Talbot in 1840, the calotype proved a revolution in the then-nascent medium.
Talbot’s initial attempts at calotype printing proved slow and laborious. But his technique improved once he found that exposing a sheet of chemically treated paper to an image visible on the back of a sliding box camera could create a negative image. He could then produce a positive image by placing this paper negative directly on paper coated with either light-sensitive silver salt or silver nitrate and albumen, and exposing it to sunlight. In essence, Talbot’s process had given birth to negative-positive photography. He borrowed the term for his new photo method from the Greek word for beautiful, “kalos.”
Ordinary scenery often served as the inspiration for early caloytype devotees.
“The Haystack” (1844)
A Talbot calotype on view, “The Haystack” (1844), is accompanied by the image’s original paper negative. The photograph depicts a traditional farming mode for storing food for livestock in the winter. The most striking aspect of the picture, though, lies in the sharp details the calotype could capture.
The calotype also could convey a dreamy, otherworldly effect, such as in a diffused informal military portrait, “92nd Gordon Highlanders at Edinburgh Castle” (1846) by British artist David Octavius Hill. Hill also appears here posed in “David Octavius Hill at the Gate of Rock House” (c. 1845), a calotype self-portrait created by the subject and his colleague, Robert Adamson. As a photographic team, Hill and Adamson produced several thousand calotype negatives, many of which were portraits.
As competing photographic processes emerged, such as the collodian glass-plate negative in 1851, the calotype faced obsolescence. The Great Exhibition of 1851 in London, however, produced a renewed interest in the calotype - in an unexpected fashion.
The Great Exhibition provided a large-scale forum for the nascent photographic medium. But the event also exposed serious technical and creative shortcomings of British photography, especially when compared to French and American photography. After the exhibition, British photographers set out to bring their efforts up to par. They organized the first exhibition devoted exclusively to photography in the country, formed the Photographic Society of London and successfully lobbied Talbot to relinquish his calotype patents, which allowed greater participation in the process.
Following the Napoleonic Wars and political upheavals in Europe during the first half of the 19th century, Brits slowly started to return to the continent as tourists, with some packing calotype gear.
Lightweight and portable, calotype cameras and supplies proved ideal for travel photography. This piqued the interest of entrepreneurs, who marketed the images as travel souvenirs. Calotype prints didn’t come cheap, though, often selling for the equivalent of a week’s salary.
British travel calotypes features several European locales. The Rev. George Wilson Bridges, who learned the process from another photographer on Malta, Calvert Jones, toured the Mediterranean, taking shots that include a “View of Mount Etna” (1846) on Sicily, and the remains of a Roman theater in his “Taormina, The Amphitheater” (1846).
“Principal Doorway of the Carthusian Monastery, Burgos” (1853)
Another photographer, Charles Clifford, produced images for tourists while living in Spain. In his “Principal Doorway of the Carthusian Monastery, Burgos” (1853), Clifford placed a wood statue of the religious order’s founder, Saint Bruno, at the doorway of the monastery, as if to create the illusion of a miraculous moment.
Calotypes by Roger Fenton, of Crimean War photographic fame, feature views from Czarist Russia, with one showing onion-shaped church domes inside the Kremlin in Moscow from 1852.
Several calotypists also made their way to an intriguing corner of the British colonial empire: India.
In one impressive calotype on display, John Murray produced a triptych of the “The Taj Mahal from the Gateway” in early 1864.
But not all photographers focused solely on the wonders of India. Robert Christopher Tytler and Harriet Christina Tytler, for instance, photographed the heavily damaged Bank of Delhi in Delhi, which suffered heavy shelling by British troops during the Indian Mutiny against British rule in 1857.
Although the calotype held its own in photography’s early years, it couldn’t resist the tide of change, and by the 1860s, its popularity finally succumbed to new developments in the medium.
“Impressed by Light” remains on view at the National Gallery through May 4.
IF YOU GO:
The National Gallery of Art is on Constitution Avenue between 3rd and 9th streets N.W.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday.