From Studio To Dark Room

From the birth of photography, its practitioners and artists fed off each other to find new ways of seeing

Art

“Beata Beatrix” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, c.1864-70  (©Tate)

The birth of photography is generally dated to 1839 with the revelation by Henry Fox Talbot and Louis Daguerre of their different experimental techniques, on which they had been working simultaneously but independently on either side of the Channel. From the first, photography had a dual role: as an objective, scientific recorder of appearances, and as a medium that aspired to art. The early decades of photography coincided with a period of artistic change — Courbet, Manet and the Impressionists’ experiments with new ways of looking at everyday life in France, and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s hyper-naturalism and the origins of the Aesthetic movement in Britain. As a result, art and photography became closely entwined. Painting with Light at Tate Britain (May 11-September 25) is a 75-year survey, from the Victorian to the Edwardian age, of this fruitful miscegenation.

While the theme of the exhibition is in no way novel, what it seeks to do is give form to the dictum of John Ruskin, the key figure in 19th-century aesthetic thinking, that “the greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something and tell what it saw.” Photographers took this to heart every bit as much as painters. This sort of concern helped forge, for example, the friendship between Julia Margaret Cameron and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Cameron’s photographs, with carefully posed models but no ostensible subject, were the direct equivalents of the painters’ essays in the same genre.

The exhibition makes its case by showing the works in pairs (90 pairings in all) and so includes, among others, Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix (c.1864-70) alongside Cameron’s ludicrously if earnestly titled mood piece Call, I Follow, I Follow, Let Me Die! of 1867. The similarities — identical hair, the upturned faces, the closed or half-closed eyes, the wan yearning, the presence of death — are so striking that the images could have emerged from a shared studio. The models, though, were not the same: Rossetti’s is a remembrance of his wife Lizzie Siddal, who had died in 1862, but Cameron’s lookalike can surely be no coincidence.

Whistler was another painter interested in photography and his Thames “Nocturnes” have the atmospheric blurring of developing photographic plates. Indeed, the borrowing from photography inherent in Whistler’s Mother is given away by its real title, Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1. It is a long-exposure portrait but in paint rather than chemicals on paper or a glass plate. The photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn (1882-1966) meanwhile took Whistler’s evocative Thames pictures as his inspiration and produced his own images of the London’s waterways and their traffic. They are not quite homages but rather instances of a synchronicitous vision. The same is true of P. H. Emerson and T. F. Goodall’s photographs of the Norfolk Broads which in their wateriness and concentration on unpicturesque corners of the landscape cannot help but bring to mind the work of the Impressionists.

In Scotland, the painter and lithographer David Octavius Hill (1802-70) didn’t merely cultivate an interest in photography but switched disciplines. With Robert Adamson he set up an experimental studio that produced photographic panoramas in the style of Turner as well as photographs of local worthies and fishwives in Edinburgh’s port at Newhaven. Hill’s fullest expression of the interwoven nature of his skills came with his huge painting of the “Disruption Assembly” of 1843 when 457 ministers of the Church of Scotland walked out of the assembly to found the Free Church of Scotland. Hill and Adamson took photographs of all those present for Hill to work accurately into his crowded memorial composition. The photographs now appear not as aids but as independent works of art in their own right.

Other artists regularly used photographs as compositional tools, especially those of the extended Pre-Raphaelite group for whom the depiction of microscopic detail became an end in itself. Atkinson Grimshaw’s Bowder Stone, Borrowdale, c.1863-8, for example, shows a Lake District view of heightened perception, with a massive rock at the centre of the picture. Every fissure, granitic vein or tuft of moss is shown with maniacal precision. Such a picture would be impossible to paint en plein air — too time-consuming, too reliant on the elements — so Grimshaw used photographs of the various elements back in the studio, such as Thomas Ogle’s image of the stone reproduced in a book about Wordsworth’s Lakes published in 1864. The exhibition, complete with bizarreries such as a private album showing the Royal Family reenacting the poses of famous paintings, show how the formation of the Victorian visual imagination was, for the first time, not the responsibility of painters alone but a joint enterprise. 

Alberto Giacometti is currently at the forefront of 20th-century artists, at least according to auction prices. Now is a good time to assess his rise up the ranks with two shows of his work, Alberto Giacometti: A Line Through Time at the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich (until August 29) and Alberto Giacometti, Yves Klein: In Search of the Absolute at the Gagosian Gallery on Grosvenor Hill, London (until June 11).

The Norwich show looks at both the influences on him (Cycladic art) and those he influenced (including Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon and Frank Auerbach) as well as examining how his fascination with the single figure grew out of the widespread sense of anxiety and alienation prevalent at the end of the Second World War. The Gagosian show pairs him with a very different figurative artist, his younger contemporary Yves Klein — both had studios in the 1950s in Montparnasse. It is, surprisingly, Klein — most famous for his impressions taken from blue-paint-covered women’s bodies — who shows that the central trait of Giacometti’s art was reduction. The reason he remains such a significant artist is not because he attenuated the human figure but because it was the form he saw as containing most expressively the innumerable travails of the human condition.