Musings On Photography

Photo History: The V&A, and Roger Fenton and the Still Life

Reading time: a comfortable 20 minutes or so, plus pauses, but I don’t know how fast you read…

The V&A Bit

So I took a trip to London to see a close friend last week. We met at the V&A and saw the Photography Centre and did the Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams exhibit (which was only overwhelming in terms of crowd density). I don’t go up to London very often (because it’s hella expensive) so this was my first summer excursion (I don’t go out that much). 

The V&A’s totally new Photography Centre opened last year after a huge renovation to accommodate the RPS collection which was being re-homed from Bradford’s National Media Museum. The V&A now has the science and art of photography in more or less one place. 

The room, which used to be Gallery 100, is now a technical and historical history of photography. By which I mean that the prints chosen to grace the walls were made using a variety of techniques; things started with a heliograph made by Nicephore Niepce and continued to salted paper prints, albumen, gelatin silver, dye transfer, and a totally unusual technique called the Foto-chroma Eilers (named for the man who developed it in the 1930s). 

The History Bit

One of my favourite prints on display currently is by Roger Fenton. You know of him probably from his Crimean photographs, The Valley of the Shadow of Death (1856), made using the wet collodion process. As a process, wet collodion preceded dry collodion (duh). 

Roger Fenton, The Valley of the Shadow of Death, 1855 (printed 1856)
Salted paper print from wet collodion glass negative
Image Courtesy Musee d’Orsay Online Collection [1]

In the mid-1840s the properties of guncotton were expanded upon. Guncotton’s initial use was as an explosive agent, and was intended to replace gunpowder. It was originally made by treating cotton with concentrated nitric acid; cotton is a combination of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, and when brought into contact with nitric acid the nitrogen joins the initial compound to become explosive. 

So it had one use on the battlefield. Its other use was discovered by Dr Maynard of Boston, Massachusetts, who developed a method by which the guncotton could be made into plaster to cover surgical wounds. [2] Guncotton made with nitrate of potash (a nitric acid substitute) and sulphuric acid was dissolved in alcohol and ether:

Obviously what the original recipe for plasters looked like…

The Wet Collodion Bit

When Frederick Scott Archer got his hands on the stuff in 1851, his method for creating images completely overtook the Daguerreotype and Calotype that had, until then, dominated much image-making. In the wet-plate collodion process, collodion was made light-sensitive with a mixture of chemicals before it was applied to the glass plate and exposed to light through the camera’s lens.

Archer had been experimenting with glass as a support since 1848. In his process, guncotton was dissolved in a mixture of alcohol, ether and potassium iodide, which created the treacly-textured collodion. This was then poured onto a glass plate which had been polished using rottenstone. [3] Archer then sensitised the plate, to make it light sensitive, in a bath of silver nitrate solution. It was placed in the camera and exposed to light while still wet, which made it necessary for the photographer to work quickly. If the collodion dried before being exposed to light, the plate was unusable.

From The Chemist Monthly Journal, Chemical Philosophy, 1851
Courtesy the Frederick Scott Archer Dedication Website [4]

The ultimate advantage of the wet-plate collodion process, I think, is that it made reproducing images far more possible than its predecessors: Daguerreotypy and Calotypy. Now you had a negative on a single glass plate from which you could produce infinite number of positives resulting in salt paper or albumen prints, depending on your preference. With the wet-plate collodion process images were also sharper in detail and the exposure lasted only a few seconds. [5]

Naturally the dry-plate collodion method superceded its wet sibling and allowed the photographer to prepare sensitised papers in advance, but even so the results were often unreliable and required a much longer exposure time. Ultimately both collodion techniques were surpassed by gelatin silver printing. 

The Fenton Bit

Fenton was born in Lancashire in 1819, studied law and was called to the bar in 1851. First he studied painting in Paris and London, exhibited in some Royal Academy exhibitions and began practicing photography in 1852. In the same year he travelled throughout Russia, photographing the architecture. After seeing the Societe Heliographique in Paris, Fenton was inspired to set up a similar photographic society in Britain, which started out life as the Photographic Society of London and would later become the Royal Photographic Society. [6]

Fenton went to the Crimea in 1855. He wasn’t the first choice for this trip but the official government photographer was killed during a hurricane there in November 1854. According to sources Fenton had already purchased and converted a former wine merchants’s van into a travelling darkroom. In February 1855 he set sail for Crimea, with the assistance of the British government and under Her Majesty Queen Victoria’s patronage. 

Fenton had the chance to photograph the horrors of war not merely by dint of being there but also friends and family members who were casualties of the fighting. He refrained, though, from photographing the wounded or dead for several reasons.

  • Numero uno, it would not have done the British government much good at home to be fielding cries from the concerned public about the state of the British war machine abroad.
  • Numero dos, since he was in the Crimea with the backing of the government and Her Maj, it wouldn’t have done him much good to be photographing particularly horrific scenes that might foment some kind of public insurrection at home.
  • Numero tres, he also had the backing of a publisher, Agnew & Sons, which was hoping to make money out of Fenton’s imagery when he returned. As it turned out, interest in the Crimean War ended when the war ended and people weren’t very interested in the photographic documentation that Fenton had painstakingly captured. [7]

The Still Life Bit

Anyway, I got a bit off track because I really wanted to wax lyrical about this one print I saw at the V&A. When I came across Fenton for the first time it was through his Crimean  photographs. I didn’t know that he was a highly recognised photographer of multiple subjects: architecture, reportage, tableau vivant, portraiture and still-life. It’s the still-life I want to focus on now. 

This was the print on display in the new Photography gallery and in the flesh it’s so tonally rich and vibrant that I’m sorry to have to reproduce it here in drab digital quality. Effectively what you’re seeing is a still life containing such beautiful specimens of ripe fruit as plums, a strawberry, grapes, and a peach, all standing along with a jug, glass and cherubic figurine. 

Roger Fenton, Parian Vase, Grapes and Silver Cup, 1860
Albumen print
The Royal Photographic Society Collection at the V&A
Photograph taken by yours truly at the V&A

In painting, a still life represented a clearly defined genre of the medium. You would see groupings of items whose purposes varied from decorative to meditations on life and mortality. With the photographic equivalent, however, things evolved as photography developed and photographic techniques expanded in efficiency.

Early on in the life of photography, its practitioners would emulate the tenets of still life painting by arranging fruits together to create images reminiscent of the Dutch masters. With the evolution of photography as a medium, however, the term “still life” evolved to encompass a whole artistic practice that ranged from traditional to avant-garde.

The Fenton and Still Life Bit

The crucial and inherent quality of a still life was that it permitted the photographer to exert total artistic control over his subject. These pieces of fruit or ephemera were quite akin to the oils that a painter might use to depict the same subject; where a painter would start working on his canvas, a photographer would carefully and continuously adjust the placement and angles of specific items in his still life so that the camera would be well placed to capture them. 

Fenton had been employed by the British Museum; as its official photographer he had the chance to enhance his photographic skills and experiment with lighting, composition and lenses. With his still life series he used fecund fruits, bursting with ripeness and juice, flowers and the vases and inanimate objects typically found in similar still life paintings. 

Fenton started making his over 40 negatives of still lifes in the summer of 1860 when the wet weather made landscape photography difficult. This was the last photographic series he would make in his lifetime; in 1862 he resigned from the Royal Photographic Society, of which he was the founding member, sold all his equipment and negatives and returned to the bar. 

Roger Fenton, Flowers and Fruit, c.1860
Juliet Hacking, Photography: The Whole Story [8]

These still life compositions also represent a glance into the wealthy Victorian middle classes’ interests. In Victorian times flowers were used to deliver messages in a similar fashion to the way in which we use emojis. In 1852, Henrietta Dumont penned The Language of Flowers, to which this is the introduction:

Why has the beneficent Creator scattered over the face of the earth such a profusion of beautiful flowers – flowers by the thousand and million, in every land – from the tiny snowdrop that gladdens the chill spring of the north, to the gorgeous magnolia that flaunts in the sultry regions of the tropics?

Why is it that every landscape has its appropriate flowers, every nation its national flowers, every rural home its home flowers?

Why do flowers enter and shed their perfume over every scene of life, from the cradle to the grave?

Why are flowers made to utter all voices of joy and sorrow in all varying scenes, from the chaplet that adorns the bridge to the votive wreath that blooms over the tomb?

It is for no other reason than that flowers have in themselves a real and natural significance. They have a positive relation to man, his sentiments, passions, and feelings. They correspond to actual emotions. They have their mission – a mission of love and mercy. They have their language, and from the remotest ages this language has found its interpreters. 

In the East the language of flowers has been universally understood and applied “time out of mind.” Its meaning finds a place in their poetry and in all their literature, and it is familiarly known among the people. In Europe it has existed and been recognised for long ages among the people, although scarcely noticed by the literati until a comparatively recent period. Shakespeare, however, whom nothing escaped which was known to the people, exhibitis his intimate acquaintance with the language of flowers in his masterly delineation of the madness of Ophelia. 

Recent writers in all languages recognise the beauty and propriety of this language to such an extent, that an acquaintance with it has now become indispensable as a part of a polished education.

Our little volume is devoted to the explanation of this beautiful language. We have made it as complete as our materials and limits would permit. We present it to our readers in the humble hope that we shall increase the means of elegant and innocent enjoyment by our “Floral Offering.”

Henrietta Dumont, The Language of Flowers: The Floral Offering [9]

In the compositions that used flowers, you could read a meaning into the specific usage of each bloom. For example, in Dumont’s Dictionary of Flowers, Lilac signified “first emotions of love,” Pinks “pure love,” Sweet William meant “finesse,” and China Aster meant “variety.” [10] During this initial period of creativity in 1860, Fenton’s assistant in the Crimea, Marcus Sparling, passed away. Four days later Fenton’s only son, Anthony Maynard, died. It wasn’t a happy time.

The Grapes Bit

The wonderful thing about this series is that the fruits are just blooming with life. The humble bunch of grapes appears in many of his still life compositions and their plumpness is a sensual experience. Fenton used the wet-plate collodion process here and developed the print with albumen (literally egg white) to create what is a deep and luscious print. He then toned the print with gold chloride which imparted a rich purpley-brown hue. Gold toning was frequently used by photographers to mitigate the impact of fading on their prints, and it also added this delightful over-colour. 

Of course this particular print by Fenton doesn’t have any flowers in it but that’s not the point. In person you can see and feel the tonality of the print and the juiciness of the grapes and plums. You can see the colours of the fruits, feel their ripe flesh almost bursting out of the skins. It is a very sensual experience, even to think about it.

Close up from Roger Fenton, Parian Vase, Grapes and Silver Cup, 1860
Photograph taken at the V&A

The funny thing about the grapes is that Fenton used them numerous times, specifically in the wicker basket. Someone calculated that they appear in just about 80% of his still life compositions. The grapes here are a bit special, you can see the skin beginning to loosen and crease as the fruit inside ages. It’s a perfect metaphor for the subtlety of time’s evanescence.

Wine-adjacent things appear too, decanters, cups, glasses; in our Parian Vase composition here there’s a beautiful silver goblet that could easily serve as a receptacle for wine.

Conclusion?

I found this to be a very peaceful composition. Although I did initially think that the cherub was a little out of place, I then thought that perhaps given Fenton’s personal circumstances the angelic cherub represented for him a means of communicating with G-d; the innocence of his lost child is rendered in the innocent features of this Westernised symbol of the Almighty. This is wild supposition on my part. But everything in the photograph means something. So perhaps this did too.

References