Monday, 2 March 2015

On Lambeth Bridge

 Looking south

Looking north

A trip to London yesterday, to visit the "Salt and Silver" exhibition of early photography at Tate Britain.  It was a toss-up between that and the poorly-reviewed "Sculpture Victorious" in the next room.

I suspect a laugh at the expense of Victorian sculptors might have been more entertaining.  One forgets how in love those early photographers were with the novelty of photographing ancient architecture.  The detail!  The even tonality!  And, best of all, the immobility!  So, several rooms mainly full of historic, worthy but dull records of grey stonework.  Although I wouldn't have minded taking home John Wheeley Gutch's wonderfully toned image of Tintern Abbey in 1858, ranging from the deep shadow of the ivy-covered arches to a bare hint of a sunlit, tree-covered hillside beyond, a view surely little changed since Wordsworth's repeat visit in 1798:
Once again I see
These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild; these pastoral farms,
Green to the very door; and wreathes of smoke
Sent up, in silence, from among the trees,
With some uncertain notice, as might seem,
Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods
And not a single English Heritage interpretation board in sight.

As always, the photographs of people proved the most compelling, especially Roger Fenton's Crimean War portraits, which I have long admired for their bleak and scruffy renderings of the realities of life "in the field".  Especially as the field in question was located in the cold and rocky Crimean Peninsula, but its temporary residents were kitted out for some rather more congenial field near Aldershot.  I felt for them as we crossed the Thames on Lambeth Bridge, with a cold March wind cutting up the river and the clear sunlight periodically blocked by the ever-higher architectural cliffs along the Embankment.


Chrisb said...

I might get along to this show now I know it contains some Fenton or maybe even some Emerson.
I have a love hate relationship with Victorian photography, as you suggest the early workers were still enamoured by the wonder of the process.
While on the trail of London exhibitions one of the best for me was the extensive Edwin Smith show at RIBA a couple of months ago, superbly curated very beautiful work. Whoever organised the chaotic depressing spectacle that is the Human Rights exhibition at the Photographers Gallery at the moment could have learnt a lot from the Smith show.

Mike C. said...


I think the thing that struck me most was how much better many if not most of these early images looked in reproduction -- salt prints are not tonally very exciting, and many look like photocopies... True blacks were clearly hard to achieve.