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Salt & Silver Study Visit Review


What to do on a bright, breezy, sparkly Saturday morning in April? Off on a study visit to the dimly hushed galleries of ‘Silver & Salt’ at Tate Britain. Four rooms themed as Paper Photographs, Modern Life, Epic and Presence showcase the best salt prints from the Wilson Centre for Photography. Haven’t heard of the Wilson Centre? We neither, but a little internet research reveals Michael G. Wilson as one of the powerbrokers of the art world as well as producer of the Bond films since, well, almost forever. Without much to go on in terms of a website for instance, the Centre appears to house Wilson’s world standard collection of photography, not in the US as you might expect, but at his home over in Belsize Park, and to work with a small number of elite photographers already firmly established at the peak of their careers. Purely a vanity project, or a strategic move by the Tate (Wilson is 71)? Does it matter? Well no, as long as the choices, the language and the layout are not put forward as an orthodoxy, as long as there’s flexibility in the model so to speak. Of course it’s very pleasant to look at such a collection of rare and exquisite photographs, ‘images’, as curator Simon Baker explains in his introduction, ‘with their own specific aesthetic: a soft, luxurious, effect particular to this photographic process’ And so to the dictionary to check out the definition of luxury – ‘a state of great comfort or elegance especially when involving great expense: he lived a life of great luxury. An inessential, desirable item which is expensive or difficult to obtain, a pleasure obtained only rarely’.² All good stuff and even better the etymology further down the page denoting lechery and excess! All this points to aesthetics as a primary concern of course, and so back to Wilson – ‘you get that really rich, velvety look. It’s like looking down into the paper… people think of early photographs as black and white, but actually there are wonderful shades and tones; purplish browns, sage green, gold. It’s a lost art; a lost look’
Regrouping after the exhibition in the cafe we talked for a good hour around these things, Amano leading the charge for connoisseurship, Richard reminding us that the prints were fascinating as historical documents, Chris contextualising their documentary value with Lewis Hine and Alyson noting that if documentary, Octavius Hill’s Newhaven studies were certainly posed. An interesting discussion on art and photography to which everyone contributed, even if just by their Presence. Personally, my life wasn’t changed by this show (my criteria for good art) and although it was thought provoking, was that to the credit of the curators or ourselves? I’m a bit of a cynic about institutions as a rule, having the suspicion that the hidden agenda in most of what they do is to justify their own existence (I totally omit the OCA from this charge!) and the claim by Tate Britain that ‘this is the first exhibition in Britain devoted to salted paper prints… a uniquely British invention’ did not relieve this particular fear. Looking forward to your comments please don’t hold back.
¹Quoted on the Tate website http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/salt-and-silver-early-photography-1840-1860
²Oxford Dictionaries http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/luxury
³Davies, L. Michael Wilson: Photography is Alchemy, Daily Telegraph 24/02/15 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/photography/11425492/Michael-Wilson.html
Photo Credit: Richard Down

Posted by author: Rob
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7 thoughts on “Salt & Silver Study Visit Review

  • I enjoyed this exhibition. Had done a certain amount or reading and attended a curator’s talk beforehand. As usual, my blog is a fairly thorough account … https://amanostudy.wordpress.com/2015/04/20/salt-and-silver-tate-britain/
    Make of it what you will!
    Rob helped us to see context in the staging of this exhibition. Yet whatever one’s view, one could hardly not be impressed by the quality of these historic documents which we mostly see reproduced in books, stripped of their original, dare I use the word, aura!

  • Lovely to see the original prints from around a 150 years ago. The soft tones and subtle qualities of some were really a joy to look at. Some as if drawn in a soft brown pencil, especially those printed from paper negatives, the glass and wax negatives producing more contrast and introducing black tones. A strong sense of physicality/aura/atmosphere drawn from the time. I wonder how the super sharp digitally recorded modern images of today would translate with this process?
    Interesting was the framing and perspective of some of the photographers. Landscapes inspired by famous paintings and models posed like sculptures alongside seemingly straight historical recordings. Photography was and still is drawing on original art forms art and to shape it’s expression.
    All of the images were historically informative while some were also aesthetically considered, depending, of course, on the photographer.
    On the subject of the title of this exhibition, I found it disappointing. The collection is grouped not by its aesthetic commonalities, nor the subject matter but by the date recorded and due to the printing processes used. Although we get to view the images with the content of each meticulously described, it was lacking in much information revealing the practical aspects of using silver salts or the new photographic discoveries and experiments made by their use. With no explanation on how a certain look was achieved or what difficulties/restrictions would have been encountered and without any examples of silver salt processing vs rival or successive print practices or any examples of the same practices made today.
    I’d hoped to come away with some practical knowledge about the process which I did gain a little of from the OCA tutor more than the exhibition. It seemed as if there was more to find in the expensive accompanying book than in the actual show
    I still want to find out more about salt silver processing as a result of looking at the original prints…er…next stop the Internet?

  • Apologies for the slow reply. I enjoyed this visit – particularly the discussion afterwards where Rob got us thinking about the curatorship – which is something that continually interests me. From my first study visits at the Brighton Biennial in 2014 through several more since, it is one thing that is a continual theme (barring the photographs of course) and one thing that may never have occurred to me without it being raised as an issue. I am now beginning to understand the various aspects of curatorship which need to be considered when viewing an exhibition – or at least, they are worth considering if one is to make the most of it. It certainly helps to understand a little more about the motives of the curator, be they to help you understand the photography better, or to understand the reasons for the exhibition. Sometimes the curator’s plan ‘works’ and other times it doesn’t. I know some students have been quite critical of how some exhibitions have been curated – “Conflict. Time. Photography” being one. I can certainly see why some photographers can get touchy about how their work is displayed as it may go against how they themselves envisioned it. In the case of those now deceased they clearly have no, or little say in how this is done. Anyway, this is a general comment, but how and why the images were used was certainly relevant in the case of Salt and Silver, where Rob asked us to consider the motives of The Wilson Centre for Photography who supplied the images in the exhibition. Beyond that, it was certainly interesting to see these images made so long ago and how photography developed in quite a short period of time. Being a relative newcomer to photography it was fascinating to see some of the images made famous (to me) in the textbooks I’ve read on the subject, from such names as Fox Talbot and Roger Fenton. At this moment in time I’m still absorbing a lot of information so find it difficult to be critical other than to simply say what I like and don’t like, something that I can keep to myself for the time being! It was satifying enough to simply see these images so I will save proper critiquing until I feel knowledgable enough!
    Many thanks to Rob for hosting – it’s always really interesting listening to what you have to say.

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