Time consuming, but well worth it
Review: Drawing with Light Masterworks Museum of Bermuda Art
Beginning in 1839 with the invention of photography and continuing well into the 20th Century, photography was thought of as something less than art. Today, that attitude has changed, for in recent times, major art museums have welcomed photography into the realm of art, most notably by producing important photographic exhibitions in their institutions.
Currently both the Masterworks Museum of Bermuda Art and the Bermuda National Gallery are hosting photography exhibitions; a recent exhibition at BSoA was also devoted to photography. For this review I will focus on the Masterworks’ show, Drawing with Light. Incidentally, the title is a direct translation of the word, photography, a term that is generally credited to Sir John Herschel, an Englishman who, as a 19th century scientist, coined it in 1839. Hercules Florence, it seems, came up with “photographie” in 1834.
I see the invention of photography as the coming together of developments in western art, specifically, the passion for ever greater precision in depicting surface reality, which included, not only the earlier invention of linear perspective, but also the employment by artists of several optical devices as an aid to expressing that reality, such as the camera lucida or the camera obscura. Additionally and essential to the invention of photography are advances in chemistry, as well as optics. Photography could only have come about at the time and place it did, because these contributing necessities were not entirely in place until the 19th Century.
The Masterworks exhibition was curated by a Masterwork’s intern, Paul Pegnato, who, over the last two years, has thoroughly organised the museum’s photo collection. Because of that, he probably knows more about their collection than anyone else and thus it was appropriate that he curate the exhibition
In curating an exhibition of this kind, a number of different approaches could have been taken, including showcasing Bermuda’s most prominent photographers. Instead Mr Pegnato chose to focus on the various processes used in local photography, over the approximate 167 years that this art form has been practised here.
A day or so before I first saw this exhibition, I met someone who had been at the opening. She said that because of the size of the exhibition, she found it overwhelming and had only been able to see a part of the show. Now having seen it for myself, I have to concur. It is a large show, having possibly 140, maybe more pictures on view. Still, it is a very worthwhile exhibition, but because of its size, I recommend seeing it by instalment. It is worth several visits, especially if you take the time to look carefully and thoughtfully at each photo. In writing this review, I have found it necessary to see the exhibition several times myself.
In thinking about all the many photographic methods used during the history of photography in Bermuda, it has been tempting to describe in detail each technique, including the various chemical combinations employed in producing the photographs, but in the interest of brevity, I have chosen to do otherwise. I will simply name each technique and their conspicuous qualities. Should you be interested in learning more about the various technical details; these can be found on the internet.
The earliest successful photographic process was the daguerreotype which was invented by Frenchman, Louis Jacques Mende Daguerre in 1839. It is recorded that by November of 1845, a mere six years later, a daguerreotypist from Montreal, TC Doane, was spending the winter in Bermuda, making photographic portraits.
The daguerreotype is a one-off process, but one that produces a highly detailed image. An exposure, I am told, can take up to 15 minutes and in making portraits, a brace was often used to keep the person, especially the head from moving. There are several early daguerreotype portraits in this exhibition, but sadly, the photographers and sitters are unknown.
As one of these portraits is of a military officer, I cannot help but speculate about the possibility of it having been made by Doane. In the Bermuda Government Archives, there is an entry in a diary by an officer, who was stationed here at the same time as Doane’s visit, that tells of his going into town to have his portrait taken.
Of special note in this exhibition are the 19th Century photographs by John Athill Frith, who was probably Bermuda’s first professional photographer and also one of our first black photographers. He was born one year after emancipation in 1835 to former slaves and by the 1860s, he had a studio on Water Street in St George’s. We also know that he was active as a photographer in Cuba and Jamaica as well.
The Masterworks Museum has recently acquired a large photographic collection supposedly by J Frith and about 15 are in the show. It seems though, that several may actually be by JB Heyl. I understand that the collection was purchased as being by Frith and was sold as such.
I suspect, however, that the collection, which probably came from a particular album, included a few pictures by Hyle, who, although a pharmacist, was also a photographer. It seems that he set up as a photographer about 1879, which is a somewhat later from when Frith established his business on Water Street, nevertheless, they do overlap in time, hence the possibility of this album having pictures by both.
Frith’s photographs are by the albumen process. This method was invented in about 1850 by Louis Désiré Blanquart-Evard and was the first commercially exploitable method of placing a photographic print on paper. By this time (1850s) the use of a negative to make a positive, had already been invented by Englishman, William Henry Fox Talbot and negatives were used in the making of albumen prints. The albumen process was the dominant photographic process from about 1855 until the early 20th Century.
Marriott C Morris, an American visitor to Bermuda in 1880, used another early photographic process known as a cyanotype. The print comes out blue and is the same process used in making architectural blueprints. The one cyanotype in the exhibition is by Morris and depicts a group of cyclists in a garden setting. Of special note, are the penny farthing bikes used by the group.
The cyanotype was invented by Sir John Herschel in 1842. Initially he used the process only to reproduce his written notes, however, it was a friend, Anna Atkins, who first used the process photographically and that was in 1843, only shortly after Herschel had invented it. Like the other photographic techniques already mentioned, this process is chemically sophisticated and is thus a product of 19th Century scientific developments.
There are three tintype portraits in this show, all by unidentified artists. But what is a tintype? It too is an early photographic method that was printed on a metal backing, hence the name. The process was invented in France by Adolphe Alexandre Martin in 1853. The process has a unique quality in that under certain conditions, a negative appears as a positive. This is also true of an Ambrotype, which is essentially the same as a tintype, except it is printed on glass and is usually shown with the addition of a dark background. There are two examples of this process in the show and, as is common with early photographs, the photographers are unknown.
Karl Struss was a well-known American photographer who was employed by the Bermuda Government in promoting the Island as a tourist destination. This was in the early 20th Century. He is known for using several different photographic techniques, including the platinum print and the autochrome.
PLATINUM & AUTORCHRONE
First, the platinum print, which, I note was also used by several other local and visiting photographers, such as William Weiss and Alice Hughes. According to several sources, it took much experimentation, over several decades before Englishman, William Willis finally succeeded in obtaining a successful print, He patented the process in 1873. Platinum prints are noted for their rich tonal range and considerable durability.
The autochrome was an early form of colour photography, which was in common usage until the mid-1930s, when it was replaced by subtractive colour film. Often these early colour prints have a soft, almost pointillist aspect about them, as can be seen in the Struss autochrome of a ship at dock in Hamilton, taken in 1913.
Many of the early colour photographs in this exhibition are actually hand tinted or as the label says, “applied colour”. A good example of applied colour can be seen in works by Fred Armbuster or Edith S Morgan. With both artists, colour was applied to gelatin silver prints
It seems that most 20th Century black and white photographs, at least until the 1960s are of the gelatin silver technique. The process was first developed by Richard Leach Maddox in 1871, but considerably improved by Charles Harper Bennet in 1878. This process exhibits low grain and a high sensitivity to light. Toning increases the stability of the print, in that the silver image is less easily oxidised. Examples of the gelatin silver process can be seen in this exhibition, in the work of such as George Repp, David Knudsen or Margerie Content.
John Pfal, a well-known American photographer, has on exhibit, a particularly engaging chromogenic print that he produced in August of 1975. In this work, he has drawn lines with a cordlike material on Horseshoe Bay that appear to converge on a rock that protrudes from the ocean, some distance out from the beach. This work is part of series he called Altered Landscapes. The actual photograph is called, Triangle, Bermuda.
What, however, is a chromogenic print? According to my research, it is the most common type of full-colour photographic printing. The first commercially available chromogenic print process was the well-known product, Kodacolor, first produced by Kodak in 1942. Chromogenic print paper is also produced by Fujifilm and Agfa.
There is one other colour printing process on exhibit, a cibachrome of a poinsettia by an unidentified photographer. It is said that the cibachrome is a positive print process and is known for its sharpness, rich colour saturation and permanence. Cibachrome prints are typically made from transparencies, such as a 35mm slide.
Drawing With Light continues through September 28.