British photographic history

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1866: Early High Mountain Photography

If climbing, photography and the Alps are your cup of tea, then you're in luck!

This is the first time that the life’s work of this important photographer (who is usually a footnote in the history of photography), a total of 1,200 photographs, is being exhibited. Born in Biel, Switzerland, Jules Beck worked in his family's textile business in Strasbourg, France before taking up his real passion in life at the age of 41 - mountain photography. Beck started climbing at the age of 24 by making an early ascent of Monte Rosa, the highest peak in Switzerland, and joined the Swiss Alpine Club as soon as it was formed in 1863.

As of 1866 and several times a year over a period of 24 years, Beck undertook his almost 20-hour-long excursions up as far as the highest Alpine summits. Lugging a dry-plate camera the size of a microwave oven up snowy peaks, Beck became a pioneering adventure photographer. Until that time, artists had been using the newly invented camera to take pictures of mountains—usually from afar. Few actually dragged the bulky equipment into the hills. It was rare that he was able to take more than a dozen successful photographs a day. The mountain weather conditions often played tricks on him, especially as in those days the new dry plates required very long exposure times.

For the next quarter of a century, Beck explored the Swiss Alps, laboriously making hundreds of glass-plate exposures. You can now view the fruits of his hard labour in a special exhibition here, and some further background on Beck in a news report here.



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