Art

Photography Review

At Yale: on the threshold and under the volcano

William Henry Fox Talbot’s “Nelson’s Column Under Construction, Trafalgar Square”
Courtesy of Wilson Centre for Photography
William Henry Fox Talbot’s “Nelson’s Column Under Construction, Trafalgar Square”

NEW HAVEN — “All beginnings are delightful,” Goethe said; “the threshold is the place to pause.” Let’s just say that Goethe would have paused with considerable pleasure at “Salt and Silver: Early Photography, 1840-1860,” and the great poet’s obsession with optics would be the least of it. The show runs through Sept. 9 at the Yale Center for British Art.

Photography gets more and more deeply embedded in our lives. Reach into your pocket, take out that cellphone, think how often you use its camera. We forget that fewer than 200 years ago it was thrillingly, even bewilderingly unprecedented. It was miraculous, the stuff of loaves and fishes. Or as William Henry Fox Talbot put it: “an Art of so great simplicity which employs processes so entirely new, and having no analogy to any thing in use before.” The show takes its title from Fox Talbot’s use of table salt and nitrate in creating one of the two chief early photographic processes.

Photography presented a recognizable image of external reality exactingly reproduced on metal or paper. Note the mention of two materials. The discovery of photography at the end of the 1830s was binary. The daguerreotype, metal, required a lengthy exposure time and took the form of an irreproducible positive image. The salt print, the handiwork of Fox Talbot, was paper. It required a shorter exposure time and took the form of a negative image that could be reprinted many times as a positive.

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The issues of exposure time and (especially) reproducibility ensured that paper would prevail over metal. But metal was initially more popular. This was particularly so in the United States, in large part because Fox Talbot had patented his process, as Louis Daguerre had not.

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Metal images tend to predominate in studies of early photography, thanks to their relative ubiquity, physical durability, and the literal brilliance of the daguerreotype and its homelier cousin the tintype. This means that “Salt and Silver,” exclusively focusing on paper prints, is something of a novelty. It consists of more than 130 images, from London’s Wilson Centre for Photography, which organized the show. They include portraits, nudes, still lifes, cityscapes, architectural photographs. Within just a few years, the medium was spanning continents as well as genres. These images were taken in Britain, France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Egypt, Palestine, India, Mexico, and the United States.

Courtesy of Wilson Centre for Photography
David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson’s study of three fishermen.

The work of more than 40 photographers is represented. A few are well known: Roger Fenton, Maxime Du Camp (Flaubert’s traveling companion in the Middle East), Édouard-Denis Baldus, Linnaeus Tripe, the Scottish team of David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson. Their study of three fishermen — one of them wears a top hat! — is emblematic of so many early photographs in combining the inexplicable rightness of a fairy tale with the immediacy of something just around the corner. The men look so much of their time (immediacy) as to seem to have stepped outside of time (as in a fairy tale).

The show begins with Fox Talbot, and he has the largest number of images, 13. “Photogenic drawings” he called his photographs; and he titled the book in which he collected them “The Pencil of Nature.” These images have such delicacy and fineness the comparison to drawing makes perfect sense. There’s a practical reason for that resemblance. With Fox Talbot’s paper prints — unlike later paper processes, such as albumen prints — the image sinks into the paper rather than rests on its surface. This makes for a distinctive, and highly pleasing, softness. There is nothing hard, or cold, about these images. The French writer Prosper Mérimée referred to the “cold tint” of daguerreotypes. In Fox Talbot’s work, the visual and tactile uniquely meet.

Softness is not the same thing as insubstantiality. A photograph of Nelson’s Column under construction in Trafalgar Square in 1844 offers a sense of solidity that no painting could match. Impasto can do only so much. The lens accepts all that comes before it. Monuments appear monumental. Ephemera appear ephemeral. As Walker Evans would say a century later, “If the thing is there, why, there it is.”

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That is not to say that early photographers used the camera artlessly. Fox Talbot frames the column so that it’s cut off well before its elevation ends. That’s far from the sole example of superior artistry. There’s the near-noirish play between dark and light captured by Tripe in an Indian temple or the Yvonne De Carlo expression (speaking of almost noirish) on the face of a camp follower in a Fenton Crimean War photograph. Yes, thresholds are delightful. They’re that much more so when this skillfully carpentered.

Both technologically and conceptually, “Art in Focus: John Goto’s ‘High Summer’ ” offers quite a different photographic experience. It runs at the Yale Center for British Art through Aug. 19. The technological differences are easy to see. Goto’s nine photographs are digital and in color. The conceptual difference is that they’re composites: superimposing one visual reality on another to make a larger point.

Goto photographed classic English gardens at such English country houses as Stowe and Stourhead, then placed within the frame people who weren’t “there”: a film crew, a group of soldiers and refugees, environmental protesters. Their untraditional presence makes us look anew at these traditional settings. The resulting images are funny and provocative and oddly beguiling. Also in the gallery are various 18th- and early-19th-century prints and books, which provide a context for Goto’s photographs. Certainly nice to look at, they feel a mite superfluous. Goto’s images, in their slyly two-for-the-price-of-one way, speak for themselves.

In 1787, visiting Pompeii, Goethe (yes, him again) remarked that “Many disasters have befallen the world, but few have brought posterity so much joy.” What a heartless thing to say about the destruction of a city by volcanic eruption. But when Pompeii was buried under several feet of ash and debris in the year 79, much of it was preserved as well as destroyed. Excavations began in 1748, and a major tourist attraction was born — hence the joy Goethe spoke of.

It’s easy to see in “Pompeii: Photographs and Fragments” why the city has kept such a hold on the imagination. The show, which was organized by Yale University Art Gallery curator Judy Ditner, runs through Aug. 19. It consists of just 50 items, but so cannily organized as to feel much larger.

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There are two dozen ancient artifacts: coins, fragments of wall paintings, even glassware. How did that skinny little vase stay intact? Such objects, and much else, drew countless visitors. Eighteen photographs from the mid-19th century show Pompeii as destination. (There’s a Pompeii photograph in “Salt and Silver.”) The title of Giorgio Sommer’s “The Grand Tour: Vesuvius, Group of Foreigners on the Lava of the Crater” nicely speaks to the phenomenon.

“Praiano-Naples,” a 2017 artist’s book by An-My Lê, is a bit of a curveball. On one side of the book’s accordion fold are serene color photographs of the Bay of Naples, on the other images of erotic art that survived the eruption. Like God’s house, Pompeii contained many, let us say, mansions. These works were long kept away from the public. Perhaps that makes it fitting — if also unfortunate — that they are a bit hard to see in the vitrine that displays the book.

06yale William Wylie, "Body Cast, Macellus (VII.9.7)," 2013. c) William Wylie
©William Wiley
William Wylie’s “Body Cast, Macellus (VII.9.7)”

William Wylie’s nine large black-and-white images of Pompeii, taken between 2013 and 2017, are the heart of the show. They convey a sense of gravity worthy of their subject. There is a surpassing sense of strength to the structures Wylie records, a stalwartness. Of course there is: However damaged, however disfigured, they survived the most famous volcanic eruption in history. All photographs arrest time. Wylie’s seem also to indicate the eternal. How they manage to do so is beyond comprehension, if not beyond appreciation.

SALT AND SILVER: Early Photography, 1840–1860

ART IN FOCUS: John Goto’s “High Summer”

At Yale Center for British Art, 1080 Chapel St., New Haven, through Sept. 9 and Aug. 19, respectively. 877-274-8278, britishart.yale.edu

POMPEII: PHOTOGRAPHS AND FRAGMENTS

At Yale University Art Gallery, 1111 Chapel St., New Haven, through Aug. 19. 203-432-0600, artgallery.yale.edu

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.