Salt and Silver: Early Photography 1840-1860

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William Henry Fox Talbot worked out how to do it 1839, by soaking paper in silver iodide salts to register a negative image which, when photographed again, created permanent paper positives. It was one of the earliest ways of creating a photographer. He called it a ‘salt print.’

The photographs were fragile and liable to corrode quickly. In the great Victorian age of invention, salt prints were quickly replaced by new photographic processes. A new exhibition at London’s Tate Britain gallery will show how, for a short but significant time, the British invention of salt prints became a stock in trade process for emerging photographers the world over.

Salt and Silver: Early Photography 1840-1860 is the first major exhibition in Britain devoted to salt prints; with ninety photographs on display are among the few fragile salt prints that survive and are seldom shown in public.

“There was no such thing as a photographer back in the 1870s,” says Carol Jacobi, the curator of the show. “The early adopters of photography, the people who became the first photographers, were already lawyers or painters or scientists or politicians, as was the case with Talbot.”

Talbot, the aristocratic man from Chippenham, Wiltshire, who became one of the era’s defining inventors, used the process to capture historic moments and places with an immediacy no-one had ever previously seen. Of his beautiful picture of Nelson’s Column under construction, Jacobi says:

“Talbot was a technical innovator, but he had incredible pictorial ideas. He was framing things that haven’t been farmed before. You look at the half-constructed column of Nelson’s column in Trafagular Square. It’s a very novel piece of iconography, but the composition was fantastic. He focused on the foundations to the column, so there’s a tension and dialogue between the more haphazard construction of the more temporary buildings, and the more austere orderly architecture of the time.”

The exhibition acts as a documentary history of countries – form Britain to France and Greece to India – deep in the midst of change, and taken from the perspective of British travellers – among them artists, scientists and entrepreneurs of their day. Some of them are genuinely remarkable, like Roger Fenton’s haunting image of a female soldier fighting in the Crimean war, and Linnaeus Tripe’s exterior shots of Pudhu Mandapam, the pillared former entrance hall at the eastern side of Sri Meenakshi Temple in Mandurai, India. But they also act as a demonstration of the almost incidental aestheticism that came from the foibles of the process, in which contrasts between light and dark turned sooty shadows into solid shapes, and shadows into abstract shapes and movement was often captured as a misty blur.

“Early photographs tends to get lumped together,” says Jacobi. “But foregrounding salt prints allows us to think about their aesthetic, the distinctiveness of their papery texture, and the way those textures were used by the photographers at the time as part of the image. That was a big revelation to me; how distinctive these photographers are.”

Salt and Silver is on show at the Tate Britain between 25 February – 7 June 2015.

Tom Seymour

Tom Seymour is an Associate Editor at The Art Newspaper and an Associate Lecturer at London College of Communication. His words have been published in The Guardian, The Observer, The New York Times, Financial Times, Wallpaper* and The Telegraph. He has won Writer of the Year and Specialist Writer of the year on three separate occassions at the PPA Awards for his work with The Royal Photographic Society.