Salt and Silver: Early Photography, 1840–1860

Thursday, June 28, 2018
Sunday, September 9, 2018

Featuring more than one hundred seldom-displayed salt prints on loan from the Wilson Centre for Photography in London, this exhibition provided visitors with an opportunity to see some of the earliest photographs in the world.

The salted paper process was pioneered by the English scientist and scholar William Henry Fox Talbot and unveiled in Britain in 1839. This exhibition surveyed the first twenty-five years of photography’s evolution through this process and examined how, for a short but significant time, Talbot’s scientific and artistic breakthrough created a new visual experience that inspired generations of photographers. The technique—which used simple compounds of salt and silver—was efficient, portable, and versatile, allowing its practice to spread around the world. Many photographers adopted this method from the 1840s onward, and this display featured more than forty of its practitioners, tracing their networks and geographical reach from England into Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, India, and North America.

Exhibition highlights included Talbot’s haunting image The photographer’s daughter, Ela Theresa Talbot (1843–44), which exemplifies the beginnings of photographic portraiture, often featuring celebrities, as well as the faces of beloved children; David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson’s swaggering Scottish fishermen (ca. 1845); Roger Fenton’s shell-shocked soldier in the Crimean War (1855), which employs photography as a form of social documentary; Talbot’s Scene in a Paris Street (1843) and Nelson’s Column Under Construction, Trafalgar Square (1844); and Linnaeus Tripe’s dark, dramatic view of the Puthu Mandapam in Tamil Nadu, southern India (1858), which showcases the early photographic concern with recording and representing historical monuments both recent and ancient.

William Henry Fox Talbot, Nelson’s Column Under Construction, Trafalgar Square, April 1844, salted paper print from paper negative, courtesy of the Wilson Centre for Photography

Salt and Silver: Early Photography, 1840–1860 was organized by the Yale Center for British Art in partnership with the Wilson Centre for Photography. The lead curator was Hope Kingsley, Curator of Education and Collections, with Polly Fleury, Special Projects, Wilson Centre for Photography; and the organizing curator at the Center was Chitra Ramalingam, Assistant Curator of Photography, working under the direction of Scott Wilcox, Deputy Director of Collections.

An abridged version of this exhibition, curated in collaboration with the Wilson Centre for Photography, was shown at Tate Britain in 2015. This included an accompanying catalogue (London: MACK Books, 2015) of the same title, Salt and Silver, produced by the Wilson Centre for Photography and edited by Marta Braun and Hope Kingsley, with an introduction by Simon Baker, as well as contributions from several international scholars.