1 March 2015

Salt and Silver: Early Photography 1840 - 1860: Tate Britain

Much has been written about photography's seeming ability to bridge time, capturing a moment and freezing it forever. It's a concept which endlessly fascinates and can be examined through philosophical, scientific and theoretical enquiry. Whatever the view is on the moment when light makes an image on chemically prepared paper, the idea is further expanded to the very earliest photography, from a time which is now remote from living memory.

It's the immediacy of these photographs which is striking. The world has changed, but people do not. Beyond painted portraits and drawings, which had been our only human record up to then, we see the tiny, almost invisible psychological pulls between people, the looks and tells which only a photograph can capture.

Thought to be a Mother and Son circa 1855 © Wilson Centre for Photography

Photography has shaped our contemporary world so much that we read it through photographic images, and now have the luxury of looking back through the lens of many decades of development to see how these earliest examples shaped and influenced its progress to now. How often we find there is nothing new in the world that has not been done before.

Salt printing became superseded by other technologies. I was expecting more presentation about the technique, and perhaps some equipment and materials.

The exhibition became rather marred for me when I started to notice the quality of framing - the images are fairly small and are set in a large surround of white mount, all in uniform frames lined up throughout the rooms. Smears of muck, flecks of dirt, hair, dust, all sorts of bits of detritus on the white board is artfully picked out by the spotlights. This stuff is largely still inside the glass, left by the framers. I could hardly believe my eyes, and it became a terrible and compulsive game to go back through, finding the worst culprits and admittedly totally distracting me from the exhibits.

Framing is such an interesting issue in the arts, and probably one I'm hyper sensitive to. Framing is at once a practical presentation cabinet and preservation unit, and also an aesthetic marker in how the work is to be understood - a framed scrap of paper is given qualities than a pinned up or dropped piece does not have. Framing somewhat elevates works, which is why not framing, or subverting that convention can also be effective. That's a whole other issue for another review perhaps.

Framing work also presents it as a paradigm, announcing that it is a work of art and is a physical tool in psychologically reframing or reinterpreting material. All that and more. Some artists follow through the framing process in their work, making judicious choices which further make the case for their art, and others do not - some artists become a bit afraid of the process and leave decisions to the framers. When artists present their work on a wall, they are saying look, look at all of this, drink it in and walk into my world of vision - however, sometimes that also implies, but don't look at that big screw in the middle, or that wobbly edge, or that frame clearly from Ikea - read and notice everything else, but not that.

There are always going to be imperfections. My belief is that the trick is to embrace that, and that if a fixture or fitting just has to be visible, it is embraced as part of the work, so at least think it through and make the best choice for the work. The point of this mini rant is that in Salt and Silver, Tate Britain are not trialling some experimental framing method - they are using the most traditional framed and mounted photography conventions which are designed to preserve and show the exhibits in a neutral background. The works are borrowed from the Wilson Centre for photography in Washington US. Archive and museum quality standards are the heights of skill and trust in the arts, but I have never before seen such a dirty, distracting and careless level of framing.

Salt and Silver: Tate Britain

Salt and Silver: Early Photography 1840 - 1860
Tate Britain
25th February to 7th June 2015



1st March 2015

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