There's nothing quite like watching the birth of a new technology and figuring out what wonderful things you'll be able to do with it. When photography was invented in 1839--by a Frenchman and an Englishman working independently, as so often happened in the history of science--it offered the chance to see the world with new eyes, in great and small detail.
"Experimental Photography: Discovery and Invention," at the J. Paul Getty Museum (to April 2) gives viewers a taste of the strangeness of this new medium, and the hits and misses that occurred when people tried it out. The first in a yearlong series commemorating the 150th anniversary of photography, the exhibit also offers a crash course in the differences among the early techniques.
The daguerreotype process, invented by Joseph-Nicephore Niepce (and named after his death by his partner, architectural draftsman Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre), created a single, highly detailed image on a silver-plated sheet of copper.
Meanwhile, William Henry Fox Talbot had figured out how to make what he called "photogenic drawings" by placing objects on paper treated with light-sensitive silver salts and exposing it to sunlight. As quietly awesome as a holy relic brought back by a pilgrim, the tiny, dark, irregularly shaped image of a corner of flowered linen cloth that Talbot made (probably in 1835) is one of the very first images of the world made on paper without the use of ink or paint.
But he didn't pursue this discovery--or announce it to the world--until 1839, when the daguerreotype was officially unveiled in Paris before a huge crowd of scientists, artists and the curious public.
Jolted into action by the competition, he got back to work and invented the calotype, which made it possible to produce paper negatives more swiftly, thanks to a battery of chemicals. Meanwhile, astronomer Sir John Herschel was devising the cyanotype process, which used iron salts to create blue photographs from paper negatives made without a camera. Unlike the daguerreotype--passe by midcentury--these processes allowed for multiple copies of the same image.
During the next few years, a number of men and women with scientific or artistic backgrounds, lots of patience and access to the special formulas and ingredients looked around for outdoor (i.e., sufficiently well-lit) subjects to photograph. Lace, botanical specimens, neighborhood views and interesting local characters were early favorites in this era of naive and enthusiastic experimentation.
A scrap of handmade lace in a photogenic drawing negative by Talbot looks almost like a living organism seen under a microscope: a network of minute holes with almost imperceptible differences in shape--a miraculous design rendered strikingly complex in the places where two layers of lace accidentally double up.
Anna Atkins--a serious amateur botanist whose father, a curator of natural history at the British Museum, was a friend of Herschel--assembled an ambitious cyanotype catalogue of underwater plants, each rendered as a flat white design on a blue background.
Talbot's early triumphs also included a delicately detailed image of an oak tree and a view from the window of a hotel in which the photographer serendipitously caught a sliver of light on the shutter of a building across the road.
Scotsmen Robert Adamson, who ran a calotype studio, and David Octavius Hill, a landscape painter, teamed together to produce calotype portraits and tableaux, some curiously undisciplined (a group of lounging Newhaven fisherman, some indifferently turning their backs to the photographers), some painstakingly posed in the fashion of Victorian paintings (three women unconvincingly making a show of great interest in a letter).
Hippolyte Bayard, a French civil servant, chose his stocky self as a major subject, photographed amid carefully arranged groupings of everyday objects which, says exhibit curator Weston Naef, contain symbolic meanings.
Stymied at not being able to shoot indoors, Bayard tried setting up a table and chairs outdoors so two women could pretend to be busy with their needlework as if ensconced as usual in their parlor.
Bayard was also on hand to register the way the Rue Royale and Place de la Concorde looked after the 1848 uprising in Paris that overthrew the constitutional monarchy.
The next wave of photographic maturity would bring Roger Fenton's battlefield scenes of the Crimean War, Carlton Watkins' views of Yosemite and Julia Margaret Cameron's dreamy literary tableaux--all to be unveiled at the Getty April 11 in "Experimental Photography: The First Golden Age."