The 19th century didn’t really become the 19th century until the invention of photography. Or so it can now seem. So much of the look of that age as we picture it today - serious, solid, severe - comes courtesy of the camera. The photograph helped define the 19th century as movies would the 20th.
Seeing the 19th century this way isn’t necessarily a product of our modern (thus anachronistic) imagination. There are reasons for the 19th century making the kind of impression it does in early photographs.
Early photographs required long exposure times. Mass and repose rather than detail and motion lent themselves far better to the camera: stilled life as well as still lifes. Even more important than the nature of the camera, perhaps, was the nature of people’s response to it. “Writing with light,’’ the Greek derivation of photography, was so novel, so remarkable, that practitioners often reserved it for monumental subjects: ancient ruins, mighty trees, palaces, the sea.
All those subjects figure in the 35 photographs that make up “Silver, Salt, and Sunlight: Early Photography in Britain and France.’’ The show runs through Aug. 12 at the Museum of Fine Arts. The nicely alliterative title comes from the elements that went into making early prints - more specifically, paper prints. Many early photographs were printed on metal, such as daguerreotypes and tintypes. Soon enough, the paper print would be universally used (until the arrival of digital photography, of course). “Silver, Salt, and Sunlight’’ includes one daguerreotype.
Finally, and hardest to define in accounting for the general look of early photographs, there is the matter of miraculousness. Today, when photographic images are as ubiquitous as air, it’s all but impossible to conceive of a time when they must have seemed magical and inspired awe. The look on the face of the man in Nadar’s portrait “The Apostle Preacher Jean Journet’’ is meant to evoke religious belief, but it also can be seen as representing the common response to this astonishing new process. Or there’s the glorious expanse of Gustave Le Gray’s “Cloudy Sky - The Mediterranean With Mount Agde, Seascape.’’ Le Gray might equally well have titled it “Let There Be Light.’’
Le Gray trained his lens on less imposing subjects, too - though “less imposing’’ may not be quite accurate for describing his portrait of Victor Cousin. The French philosopher has the stalwart look of statuary. The camera has always had a special fondness for gravitas. One can see that fondness displayed in homelier fashion in David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson’s “James Linton, Newhaven Fisherman’’ and Joseph Cundell’s “Two Military Musicians.’’
In the latter, admittedly, the sense of personal gravity owes as much to the bulk and height of the soldiers’ bearskin hats as it does to the two gentlemen. Painters had long ago shown the importance of props and costume in portraiture. The lesson was not lost on photographers. Lewis Carroll’s “Xie Kitchin Asleep on Sofa’’ owes its charm to the sweetness of its 8-year-old sitter and the photographer’s patent affection for her. It owes something disquieting to the off-the-shoulder shift she wears and our knowledge that Carroll selected it for her. Often the 21st century looks at the 19th with puzzlement and incomprehension. Here, perhaps, it’s with an insight the Victorians denied themselves.
Carroll’s photograph, taken in 1873, is the only one not from the 1840s, ’50s, or ’60s. Those decades are so far away. Yet one of the wonders of these images is their capacity to collapse that distance in time. The line of mountaineers in Auguste-Rosalie Bisson’s “Le Crevasse (Savoie)’’ look like refugees from a National Geographic Channel special, albeit one in black and white. Louis-Remy Robert’s “Urn’’ has such a spooky, otherworld appearance it could be a long-lost ancestor of one of Man Ray’s rayograms.
There’s also the way these photographs can transcend time. The preposterously perfect placement of a canvas-covered wagon in Charles Marville’s picture of a Paris street could earn it a place on the Acropolis as a model of classical symmetry. As photographed by Eugene Cuvelier, the snaking curves of branch and trunk in a small copse on a long-abandoned estate make a concept like “century’’ seem irrelevant, or even ridiculous. Art has always done that, of course. With the arrival of photography, it could now do so aided by technology.
Note: Because of their delicate state, several images will be rotated over the course of the show’s run with others not currently on display. So multiple visits are in order between now and Aug. 12.Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.