British photographic history

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Exhibition: New Realities. Photography in the Nineteenth Century / Amsterdam, until 17 September 2017

Every so often a photography exhibition comes along which provides a new perspective on what may often be a familiar history of photography and re-excites one as a photo-historian. New Realities is one such show and, if you see no other photography exhibition over the summer, then this is the one not to miss.

Familiar photographs and styles of photography are re-contextualised within a beautifully designed physical space in Amsterdam's refurbished Rijksmuseum and the newly re-opened Philips Wing. Photographically-illustrated books and ephemera are given a rightful prominence (in special cases with glass that eliminates reflections and provide a 360 degree view of the object); and the application of photography is taken beyond science and documentation to its ephemeral use in advertising and mainly through the Steven F Joseph collection which the Rijksmuseum has acquired. 

Using some 300 photographs, photographically-illustrated books and magazines with tipped-in photographs, New Realities tells a story of how photography was put to use after its announcement in 1839. Six themed rooms commence with an introductory room devoted solely to Anna Atkins' British Algae (1843-53). The book itself is displayed with appropriate reverence facing a wall which shows every plate contained within and sets the scene for the way photography changed the way people saw and recorded the world, people and places around them, and created a new art form. 

Room 2 looks at portraiture from the paper prints of Talbot and Hill and Adamson and others to cased daguerreotypes, again beautifully displayed and lit, to the mass-appeal of the carte-de-visite. Room 3 is titled 'functional photography' and includes two copies of Reports by the Juries (1851) which used photography to record the exhibits from the Great Exhibition and a range of images which show how photography was used for recording and documenting the world both visible and invisible (x-rays) for science and medicine, to document collections and people and,how photography showed objects to be advertised to consumers in catalogues and the popular press.

Room 4 looks around the world through travel photography. It shows unique works such as a Girault de Prangey's daguerreotype, to Japanese hand-coloured views of Samurai and to popular stereocards displayed as objects in their own right and for viewing in two stereoscopes recreating their subject in 3D that so captivated the Victorians. Room 5 shows 'high art': how photography was used to support traditional artists through studies of models and, in turn, created high art in its own right, in the new medium.

Finally, room 6 looks at the snapshot photograph and the popularising of photography with early 'instant' photographs and the revolution capitalised by George Eastman with the introduction of the Kodak camera in 1888. 

There are too many individual highlights to mention them all. For me Atkins' British Algae was one, Antonio Cavella's (c.1880, shown above) two portraits of North African men were new to me and seemed contemporary in the subject's gaze and the photographer's approach, and John Hall-Edwards' 18972 x-ray for advertising the Midland Tyre Company's non-collapsible tyre are simply three of so many. 

The exhibition is a testament to the expertise and enthusiasm of Mattie Boom and Hans Rooseboom, curators of photography at the Rijksmuseum. They have produced a stimulating exhibition which reminds us how important photography was throughout the nineteenth century in a fresh way. At the same time it highlights the extent of the photography collections within the Rijksmuseum (some 150,000 images) and they have had the foresight to acquire less obvious collections of photography, such as that of Steven F Joseph, a collection that is likely to grow in importance in showing how photography was used to reach out to commercial and consumer markets.

The catalogue New Realities. Photography in the 19th Century is, like the exhibition, beautifully designed and features essays by the two curators, Saskia Asser, Steven F Joseph and Martin Jürgens. It is fully illustrated, footnoted and indexed. If you cannot see the exhibition, then buy the catalogue. If you get to see the exhibition, then the catalogue will add much to what you will have seen. 

New Realities. Photography in the 19th Century
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, until 17 September 2017


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