Artistry of early photographers is on display

July 24, 1994|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

Washington -- To see the earlier photographs from "The Waking Dream: Photography's First Century" at the National Gallery of Art is to realize that, in many ways, we have not improved on what was accomplished during photography's infancy.

The early photographers didn't have color, their materials and processes were cumbersome, and they weren't capable of the technical feats that later became possible. But what pictures they took!

Few can have matched the photographic portraits of Julia Margaret Cameron. With stunning versatility, she hits us in the face with the startling gaze of scientist Sir John Herschel (1867), caresses with light the handsome profile of Mrs. Herbert Duckworth (1867), and places half in shadow the face of the Homer translator Philip Stanhope Worsley (1864-1866) so that he appears mysterious and even slightly menacing.

And surely no one has captured the soft glow of old stone better than the Bisson Freres in "Portal of Saint-Ursin, Bourges" (about 1855). Or defined the sculptural beauty of the human body better than Eugene Durieu in "Nude" (about 1854). Or used a military scene to create a finer composition than Gustave Le Gray in "Cavalry Maneuvers, Camp de Chalons" (1857). Or made more drama of the landscape than Carleton E. Watkins in "Cape Horn near Celilo" (1867).

Yet when the latest of these pictures was created, photography was not 30 years old.

And this exhibit often reminds you that there's really nothing new under the sun. Man Ray's "Rayograph" process of the 1920s, made by putting the object directly on photographic paper, was invented by William Henry Fox Talbot, one of the two originators of photography in the 1830s.

The contemporary photographer Cindy Sherman has made a career primarily out of staging photographs of herself in various guises. In the catalog of "The Waking Dream," curator Pierre Apraxine refers to "the more than seven hundred portraits staged by the notorious Countess de Castiglione between 1857 and 1895, in which the countess assumed personalities as diverse as an eighteenth century marquise and a drunken derelict."

Photographs by Mieczyslaw Berman in 1927 and Henri Cartier-Bresson in 1933 look like today's conceptualist work.

"The Waking Dream" is a distinguished exhibit of more than 250 photographs drawn from the collection of the Gilman Paper Co. Like the collection, the exhibit deals with photography's entire first century -- from the 1830s inventions of Talbot in England and Louis Daguerre in France to such well-known names from the epoch between the world wars as Man Ray, Edward Weston, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Dorothea Lange.

But more than three-fifths of it are devoted to the first three decades of photography in Europe and America, roughly 1840 to 1870. Three sections devoted to a country each -- Britain, France and the United States -- demonstrate that each contributed substantially to the history of photography, and that each country's photography reflected its own concerns.

Most know the name of the Frenchman Daguerre from the daguerreotype. But this early photographic process produced a unique, and not easily reproducible, image. It was the lesser known Talbot who developed the negative from which multiple prints could be made, thus opening the door to photography's future.

One of the show's first photographs is Talbot's "The Open Door" (1843-1844), which shows a broom by a country-church door, open to allow a glimpse of the dark interior. It is a simple picture, but one full of symbolism for the new medium.

Some early British photographers recorded the glories of the industrial revolution, such as Robert Howlett's "The Bow of the [ship] Great Eastern" (1857). Others traveled the empire. In an anonymous 1861 photograph of "The Earl Canning, Barnes Court, Simla," the earl strikes a pose as if not only master of all he surveys but fully aware of the white man's burden.

There's a considerable amount of figurative work in the British section,of which the most romantic is clearly Henry Peach Robinson's reclining young woman (who is perhaps supposed to have expired) with the marvelous title "She Never Told Her Love." To this we have for antidote Cameron's penetrating portraits and the almost shocking photograph of "Alice Liddell as 'The Beggar Maid' " (about 1859) by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. Alice, you will remember, was the inspiration for "Alice in Wonderland," and Dodgson was its author, Lewis Carroll. In this photograph, he has made her look like a knowing and wanton nymphet, a perfect prototype of Lolita.

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