Photographic Memory

E la Theresa Talbot was one of the first children ever to be photographed. At least, that’s who curators of the exhibition Salt and Silver: Early Photography, 1840-1860, now showing at the Yale Center for British Art, believe the child to be. She sits serenely in her ruffled dress, gazing to her right as if distracted by a playmate. Her hair is neatly parted, her hands placed obediently in her lap.

Her image is preserved today, 175 years after it was taken, in a salted paper print made from a paper negative. It’s an artifact of the process her father, William Henry Fox Talbot, invented in the earliest days of photography, an art that he noted “employs processes entirely new, and [has] no analogy to any thing in use before.”

Viewers of the exhibition, which features more than 100 prints on loan from the Wilson Centre for Photography in London, may have to stretch themselves to imagine a time when photography was a novelty, when people could live and die without ever having their photograph taken, when locales just a few miles from home might remain forever unseen except in drawings or paintings. Walk through Salt and Silver with such a time in mind and the innovation of these photographs feels explosive.

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Created by sensitizing ordinary paper with “separate solutions of salt and silver nitrate,” the salt prints of Talbot and his contemporaries demand still more from us. Their small scale and narrow range of color make it nearly impossible to stand in any of the YCBA’s small gallery spaces and capture an overall impression. These photographs must be met up close, one by one.

Also challenging for the contemporary viewer is the primitive technology. The images are often fuzzy, mottled and uneven. Some suggest drawings in pencil or chalk more than photographic images. An exhibition glossary notes that the earliest salt prints were made on uncoated paper whose “absorbency could produce a ‘sunk-in’ effect in the image.”

Nowhere is the evolution of this technology from rustic to refined more evident than in Roger Fenton’s gorgeous prints of items in the British Museum’s collection. Fenton was “at the heart of British photography,” the exhibition notes, working both “in the established fields of portraiture and landscape” as well as “[initiating] new genres, including documents of war and reproductions of works of art.” In 1853, Fenton was appointed the official photographer of the British Museum. His four prints of statues and busts displayed at the YCBA leap out as remarkably sharp, dramatic images, beautifully lit and masterfully executed.

Salt and Silver serves up plenty to digest, surveying the history of this period of photography including its practitioners, its locations and its subject matter. But perhaps most compelling are the artifacts that shed some light on the process of capturing and printing the images themselves. Jean Baptiste Frenét’s Untitled study of a horse and groom (ca. 1855) reveals scratch marks he made on the negative in a crude attempt to fill in the horse’s tail, which was blurred beyond recognition as it swished back and forth during the long 10- to 30-second exposure.

One of Félix Teynard’s waxed paper negatives is paired with its salted paper print, Monument Taille dans Le Roc, Piliers et Sculptures de Gauche (1851-52). The dark, flat negative, when printed, reveals surprisingly rich detail in the layers of rock above a rough-hewn temple, grooved by tools, deeply cut with hieroglyphs and layered from light to shadow as the eye proceeds into the depths of the temple.

A series of three prints of a single image, Saint-Valéry (Vue du Port) (1855) by Édouard-Denis Baldus, demonstrates the visual differences among salted paper prints; glossier albumen prints, whose salted egg white coating gave them “a finer image quality” and eventually became the standard; and a mass-produced photolithographic print. A grassy bank in the foreground, a placid canal, a single ship at anchor along the seawall and a row of three-story buildings without a human in sight gives way to a static sky. The albumen print, mounted in the center, is the warmest of the three—hot, even, with its bright exposure and yellowish hue. The mass-produced print, perhaps unsurprisingly, appears flat. The salted paper print, by contrast, has a more textured appearance, most evident in the rippling canal water, which subtly reflects the buildings on the shore.

Removed as we are today from these early photographic challenges and processes—most recently in the shift from analog to digital, from darkroom to computer—one might expect these images to feel removed from our experiences as well. Nevertheless, there are moments of recognition, like peeks through a keyhole at a subject who suddenly returns our gaze.

The title of John R. Johnston’s Dr. Kane’s funeral at Cincinnati March 8th, 1857 who could not be taken because they were all moving and would not stop (1857) says it all. The image of the funeral procession of Arctic explorer Elisha Kent Kane is so motion-blurred, in fact, that it’s hard to tell whether the wagon bearing Kane’s body is even in the photograph. Ironically, that sense of movement makes the scene feel all the more genuine, as if it might have happened just moments ago. In the Matthew Brady Studio’s Untitled view of soldiers camped out in front of a house (ca. 1861-64), the summer shadow of leaves on a tent is light we recognize, and the relaxed cross of a soldier’s weary feet is viscerally familiar.

Familiar, too, is an early Yale yearbook—here called a “class album”—in which the owner, A.G. Wilkinson of the class of 1856, collected the autographed inscriptions of some classmates and later added his own notes on their fortunes, from “judges, professors, and theologians” to “drunk in Washington, DC.”

Viewers can “turn” the pages of the book on a nearby touch screen. Therein lies a reminder of our digital present, a fitting end to a brief journey through photography’s earliest decades.

Photo Key:

1. William Henry Fox Talbot, The photographer’s daughter, Ela Theresa Talbot (detail), 1843–44.
2. William Henry Fox Talbot, Nelson’s Column Under Construction, Trafalgar Square (detail), April 1844
3. Roger Fenton, Captain Lord Balgonie, Grenadier Guards (detail), 1855.
4. Charles Clifford, Valladolid-Iglesia de San Pablo (detail), May 1854.
5. Roger Fenton, Cantinière (detail), 1855.
6. Linnaeus Tripe, Puthu Mundapum, View of the Nave. Trimul Naik’s choultry, 1858.

Salt and Silver: Early Photography, 1840-1860
Yale Center for British Art – 1080 Chapel St, New Haven (map)
Tues-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun noon-5pm through 9/9
(203) 432-2800…

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Photos courtesy of the Wilson Centre for Photography.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is a writer and communications pro whose perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the Green and a coffee milkshake. She posts twice-weekly content for book clubs in her Substack newsletter, Better Book Clubs.

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