“Salt and Silver” – Exhibition Review

I remember my dad carrying an analog SLR camera around on our holidays when I grew up. He would use it to take pictures of us, at restaurants in front of massive dinners, at the beach for an evening swim at twilight or placed next to interesting beedles or animals that we had found. When I think of my dad from that time, I see him with that camera; as a part of him.

The first camera I owned myself was the disposible cameras that I was usually given by my parents before going to the yearly summer camp around the age of 7 and 8. Later on when I was old enough to save up for it, I bought a “cheap” digital point-and-shoot camera that wasn’t very good and sadly didn’t last very long. I used it mostly to take pictures of the cat or the things in my room, like my books. But my first  proper camera is the camera I am still using now. On a whim almost from one day to the next I realised I wanted a DSLR camera and fell in love with the Canon 1000D, which I bought only a few days after with what was a very large and significant portion of my savings. I was 18 at the time.

I remember always liking photographing, either with my cheap disposable cameras or whenever a school project involved us borrowing a digital one. It was always there in the background as a “could-be” interest but it wasn’t until my first trip to London and I got my Canon camera that it really became an important part of my life.

So, photography and I have a long connection, one that must have started around that time when I was old enough to notice my dad walking around using his camera. It was only fitting then that I asked my dad if he wanted to go see the “Salt and Silver: Early Photography 1840 – 1860” at Tate Britain with me a couple of weeks ago.

The exhibition is displaying a collection of original salt and silver prints, some of the earliest forms of photographs. In 1839 English William Henry Fox Talbot invented this method of catching exposures of light onto a paper that had been treated with a light sensitive salt solution that was able to capture detailed images onto paper; much more detailed than the drawings he had tried to draw on holidays. He realised the potential of the photographs and wrote one of the first photobooks in the world, The Pencil of Nature, where he explained the different techniques used in the photographic process and the technological and artistic potential that the photographs could have. It was a manifest that made it possible to consider it as a new art form to be taken seriously in the 19th Century. What it argued was that it had the potential to be an art form as important, if not more so than the traditional fine arts.

The original photographs displayed in the exhibition are very fragile, especially to the exposure of light, which means they are not often shown to the public. So I knew it was a very rare, maybe once in a life time opportunity for me to see them.

I recently got interested in the work of Talbot, when we had a lecture about his photobook and have also both seen some of his photographs and researched how he revolutionised photography for my tours at the V&A museum, so I was especially interested in seeing his photographs. It was a pretty special experience to see the originals, with their physical, material presence, the quality of the paper and delicate, brown-ish hued images. Their presence is so much stronger that way and I got completely lost in some of the photographs and had to go back to look at them a second time.

I thought the exhibition had been curated really well to explain how Talbot’s invention of salt prints have revolutionised the aesthetics of still lifes, landscapes, portraits and scenes of daily life. Something that has also had a  significant impact on the aesthetics of painting. But to me what was the most enlightening experinece of the exhibition was to realise that the materiality of photographs really matter on how we look at them. It just isn’t the same to look at a pixel image on a flat screen, as it is to see the actual print of a photograph. We need the presence of their materiality to really “see them”.

So, as much as I love my DSLR, I can’t wait to get back home, dig out my dad’s old analog SLR, get my hands on a few rolls of physical film and start shooting.


The exhibition is still open and runs until 4 June 2015, so if you get the chance you should really go see it! It is not free but personally I thought it was well worth the money for such a rare chance to see some of the most iconic early photographs. *


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