THOROUGHLY MODERN MAN: Salt & Silver, Tate Britain

Salt & Silver comprises four rooms of some of the earliest examples of photography, salt prints, created using light-sensitive paper coated in silver salts with paper or glass negatives. As this method of printing was only in use for around twenty years between 1840 and 1860, there are limited examples in existence and so I arrived at the show in anticipation of the collection. The four rooms were roughly laid out as follows: very early examples and experiments of salt printing, by William Henry Fox Talbot in particular; prints of modern street life and architecture; prints of historical monuments and ruins, (the images taken in Egypt were particularly striking); lastly there was a room of portraits.

The first thing that struck me about even the earliest prints was how clear and well preserved they were. Having experimented with salt printing myself, I know how difficult it is to get a defined, well-exposed image, yet the prints display a contrast and sharpness that suggest more modern technology, and it is easy to forget that the items are over 150 years old. This perhaps removed some of the romance for me, as I was hoping that the physical artefacts themselves would provide interest beyond the subjects they depict.

The early rooms I found to be a little inconsistent, with it seeming as if the curator was unsure whether to highlight experimental processes, or the best examples of salt printing. Whilst I found the emotive and dramatic nature of the prints appealing, many of the photographs left me wanting a little more in terms of composition and subject matter. There are exceptions: an Édouard Baldus print of the damage left by a flood in Lyon and a George Kendall Warren print of a Harvard rowing team on the the river, in particular. The third room, titled ‘Epic’, delivered a little more with images of ancient Egyptian ruins and other dramatic monuments; however the difficulties of producing large salt prints means that the room’s name is a little overblown, seeing as the majority of the prints are around 8 by 10 inches and lack visual impact.

The final room makes this exhibition worth the rather pricey entrance fee, however. The room, simply titled ‘Presence’, contains a concentrated selection of some of the most interesting early portraits I have seen – the informal portraits of Hill and Adamson, the remarkable portraits of Roger Fenton out in the field, not to mention the influential work of Nadar and Frénet. Fine examples of all of these are crammed into the final space, and I’m glad they were, as they stayed in my mind as I left the exhibition.

First image: Gabriel Kenny-Ryder.

Second image: John Wheeley Gough Gutch Abbey Ruins, circa 1858© Wilson Centre for Photography

Third image: Roger Fenton, Captain Mottram Andrews, 28th Regiment (1st Staffordshire) Regiment of Foot, 1855© Wilson Centre for Photography.

Exhibition continues until 7 June 2015, more information and book here.

Written by a Thoroughly Modern Man, Gabriel Kenny-Ryder.

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