The Barnes Museum’s Exhibit

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The Barnes Museum’s exhibit, From Today, Painting is Dead: Early Photography in Britain and France pulls together a wide range of photographs from early nineteenth-century photographers who were getting a hand on the new technology and exploring all of the artistic possibilities of this new art medium. While the artistic community of the time was slow to accept photography as an art form viewing it with disapproval and even resentment, the exhibit itself shows that the photographers themselves were quick to find their artistic part in the art world. Drawn exclusively from the vast personal collection of Michael Mattis and Jody Hochberg and curated by Barnes president Thom Collins, the exhibit contains pieces of many photographers. At the time of the invention of photography, painting had been for a very long time the primary medium for creating anything artistic.

The exhibit has photographs ranging from early daguerreotypes which was the first photographic procedure, which used metal plates and took a lot of time, to works of art by William Henry Fox Talbot, credited with creating the first photographic prints on paper. To drive the boundaries of the new medium, photographers established more expressive ways of representing their setting. The medium’s potential for faultless realism led more motivated photographers to other kinds of subject matter being more expressive. The first thing people see when they walk into the exhibit is a huge blown up image of two people sitting in a rowboat on a pond filled with water lilies. It is very obvious as to see why the Barnes would want to start with photograph which is a blowup of Peter Henry Emerson’s 1885 photo Gathering Water Lilies.

This photograph has a peaceful, worriless leisure about it, so it is an easy fit with the Barnes’s permanent collection. The exhibition is the second one the Barnes has drawn from the astounding collection of Michael Mattis and Judy Hochberg while focusing mainly on images from the first couple of periods after the insertion of the daguerreotype in 1839. The exhibit features images of those who were inventing their photography medium as they went along. The collection is organized by the official academic hierarchies of the ancient regime from the primacy of history painting and on down the order to portraiture, genre or any daily life imagery, to landscape and then finally to still life. However, when you walk into the exhibit it’s organized starting with Landscape, Portraiture, Still Life, History and lastly it ends with Genre. So essentially, each section of the exhibit is it’s own genre.

For painting, such differences held control for moral, religious and political reasons, but photography was at once embracing and questioning such convention, and fighting through technical limitation in the effort to match or best painting’s aesthetic dominance. The photographs in this exhibit are categorized according to the rigid guidelines that had existed for painting prior to the advent of photography and show the challenges faced by artists working in the new medium. Landscape for example brought a sudden challenge, in that early photographers were incapable of being able to capture naturally lit surroundings and the sky in one image instantaneously. Long exposures meant that normally skies would come out as a pure white spaces in pictures. Photographers did not want to have an image with an overexposed sky view.

It is fascinating to see the elegant solution of Gustave Le Gray’s 1857 The Great Wave which was an albumen print created from two negatives, one of the sea and the other of the sky with the clouds where they are one complete image. This photo was vivid because it froze action in time and it had the split second exposure. Gray used two different exposure and combined them which was an example of a combination print. The high contract between the water and the sky is very different, the sea is on the darker side whereas the sky is for the most part the brighter half of the photograph. The fundamental beauty of these early landscapes stands out with great immediacy. Landscape photographs were cherished for their attentiveness to detail with being imitative of a direct observation of nature.

As viewers move from section to section, the rich dimensions of the mediums and rich variety of the early era makes a strong impression. It makes such a strong impression mostly since these collected works of art are of such high and elegant quality. Being able to work outdoors helped photographers capture the amount of light that they need for their photographic processes to work. Cityscapes and nature were easier to photograph than humans since the photographer would need long exposure times which was sometimes difficult for people to city for long periods of time. Some photographers travel great distances to photograph certain landscapes. Included in the Landscape section, travel photographer Felice Beato’s Interior and Arches of the Temple of Heaven depicts a sacred temple that housed the practice of sacrificing animals and where Ming Dynasty emperors would pray for a plentiful harvest season. The common everyday person even today will travel great distances to take photographs of memorable sceneries such as the Grand Canyon ,Yellowstone National Park and etc.

Photographers would also travel distances to take portraits of people as well. The distinction of portrait photography challenged the long exposure times required by the first popular photo-portrait medium, the daguerreotype. The daguerreotype because of its long exposure time was known to produce incredibly detailed photographs since they were both unique and unreproducible. Since people have to sit for long extended periods of time, they were normally expressionless in the photographs. But great glass negative portraits emerged, and the collection of photographs is rich with them. It included several nude and erotic stereo daguerreotypes that convey the taboo-breaking determination of photographers to stretch the cultural and commercial conversation. Alongside the many fine photographs shot by Julia Margaret Cameron’s pre-Raphaelite pictorial portraiture, with her staged allegorical scenes referring to mythology, history and literature.

This was a breakthrough discovery in photography and for women in the arts. Cameron is a photographer who did not get started in photography until she was in her mid-forties. She is known for her photographs of stars of the time, and for photographs with Arthurian and other mythological or heroic themes. Cameron’s Sir Henry Taylor appears to have a soft-focus technique being used by the way the lighting is being directly mainly on the top of his head and into his forehead. The brightest part in the photograph is the head which could signify his intelligence by focusing mainly around his cranium. Cameron would use the technique of deskilling to make her photograph not as crisp. A few of the techniques that she would use to achieve this goal would be to smear the lens, kick the tripod during exposure, etc. During this time to be able to consider a photograph to be fine art it must be altered in some way such as giving a photograph blurriness.

Portraiture was usually challenging since people would be required to sit for long periods of time, many photographers were interested in still life as their subject matter. Still Life photographs were normally a combination of cleverly arranged objects that could include plants, ceramic or any other item that help express representational significances. For still life photographs, the photographer’s job is to fool the eye and make that arrangement of objects appear to be precise. Many people in the art community saw photograph is just mimicking inanimate objects sitting on a table. The things needed for a successful still life includes clarity, detail and little evidence of the photographer’s hand. William Henry Fox Talbot invented the Calotype which was used with a negative so many reproductions of the positive print could be made. The Calotype was not as clear and crisp as the Daguerreotype was since it was not a unique one of a kind photograph. Talbot wanted to show that the Calotype could achieve the same level of detail as the Daguerreotype. He published his first book called Pencil of Nature to promote calotypes, these were made on paper instead of metal. The forms of the old tea pots are strange and different enough that as a whole, the composition is very well balanced and harmonic.

There are four shelves with these tea pots and on the ends of each row the pots are similar in size and features. Talbot decided to place the larger objects in the middle of each row which shows their significance of hierarchy of scale. The shelves are parallel with the top and bottom edges in the image which makes the photograph act as a glass display of beautiful and fragile artifacts. Photography then gradually moved on to documentary photography for different worldly events. The invention of the Wet Collodion process is what allowed for War Photography to take place. Photographers were able to take a photograph and then process it on-site almost immediately which made it convenient for them. They also needed to plan ahead and gain experience in developing the photos under less than idyllic circumstances. Roger Fenton’s The Valley of the Shadow of Death is an example of a war photo, so people say.

This photograph was from the Crimean War, Fenton was not the first to take documentary photos in the Crimean War but he was the first to have his photos developed. Previous photographers did not fix their photographs properly or they drowned on their journey home. This photo does not have any people in it which makes it controversial of whether or not it is a truthful war photo. If someone did not know the history of Fenton going to the Crimean War, it would not be possible to tell exactly where this photo was taken and what subject matter is in it. The landscape looks very desolated which references back to war and the devastation that comes with it. This reads like a war image because of the spent artillery that are along the central axis of the photograph. This is the aftermath of the war. However, some believe that Fenton might have moved the artillery shells to be in the frame to help make the photograph more compelling. He was commissioned by Queen Victoria to take tasteful images of the Crimean War which would explain the absence of dead corpse. War photos can be considered as genre photos as well since they are depicting everyday life while in battle, whether that is preparing for war or essentially cleaning up the aftermath. Genre photographs during the early nineteenth-century were normally scenes depicting everyday life that would induce emotional reactions.

These types of photos emphasis mainly normal moments in time instead of any gallant tales. In the academic hierarchies, genre is the last out of the five sections in the exhibit. Everyday scenes could easily be acted in front of the camera but that is the reason why it was among the early multi-figure arrangements captured in photographs. An example of genre photography would be Maids Drawing Water at Freshwater by Oscar Gustave Rejlander. In the photograph, the two women are standing on either side of a well. Rejlander captures a everyday task in the nineteenth-century as well as a theme in the history of art. Many other photographers also depicted women as water bearers in the nineteenth-century. Walking through the Barnes’ exhibit was walking through the time of photography and the processes that came with it. Even though photography was first seen as a threat to painting and was accused of soon replacing painting as the number one medium, it never did. Photography was seen as a medium that can document an event or create an entire story.

The exhibit started off with the first processes of Daguerreotypes and Calotypes which came with many trial and errors and ended with photographs of everyday life that made viewers feel like tey are in the same scene as the subjects in the photos. Throughout the exhibit, viewers must look closely at how the processes of photography changed and the outcomes that came along with them. From Landscape, Portraiture, Still Life, History and lastly Genre, each section of the exhibit showed different aspects to the journey of photography as an art medium.

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The Barnes Museum’s Exhibit. (2020, Aug 21). Retrieved December 1, 2023 , from

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