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The Triumph of Photography

`THE ART OF PHOTOGRAPHY, 1839-1989'. The exhibition is currently on view at the Australian National Gallery in Canberra until Aug. 27. It will then travel to London's Royal Academy, where the show runs from Sept. 23 to Dec. 23, 1989. IN this year of observing photography's 150th anniversary, part of the allure of museum and gallery exhibitions is that they show how the camera can become the tool for a very personal art.

For the rest of the year, museums in America and abroad will mount photography exhibits showing the medium's ability to reproduce richly detailed images. Among the most ambitious of these is ``The Art of Photography, 1839-1989,'' which has attracted international attention for its splendid selections, under the influence of curator Daniel Wolf, a private New York collector. Wolf designed the show (in concert with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston) to appeal to viewers unfamiliar with the development of photography while still revealing new insights to the experienced collector.

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As proof that photography is entering the arena of more important art, the Royal Academy of Arts in London will hang this exhibit in its artists' hall, the first time in its 200-year history that photography has been so represented. Mark Rosenthal, director of exhibits for the academy, co-curated the show with Wolf.

Among the vintage prints in this exhibit are represented the stark, unadulterated photojournalism and documentary photography of such disparate masters as Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, and Europe's Henri Cartier-Bresson.

One photographer whose work appears in the show, W.Eugene Smith of Life magazine, presents a dark documentary of sober introverted images. But notably missing are the fine photographs of the American Gordon Parks, whose extraordinary accounts of the Harlem riots also appeared in Life.

Only in recent years have photographs become collectibles. Some antique shops keep a big box called ``Instant Ancestors,'' where browsers may find a snapshot for a dime and a delightful old baby picture for a buck. While photographs do not have the long-time respectability of other antiques, nowadays old cameras and photographs have potential to increase greatly in value.

New to the collectors' scene are ambrotypes, tintypes, stereo views, daguerreotypes, and other 19th-century photographs, until now cherished only as family mementos. In the past, old photographs were sometimes bought just for the frames, the pictures often trashed.

Today, in this collectible category, the more expensive items are full-plate (6 by 8 in.) daguerreotypes. Sometimes depicting military subjects, occupational scenes, portraits of notable 19th-century scientific, artistic, or political personalities or occasionally landscapes, these daguerreotypes are now considered museum items. The popularity of old photographs is recognized by the number of photographic museums now flourishing in America, Britain, France, and Germany, the countries that contributed the most to the development of the photographic process.

Unfortunately, the touring ``Art and Photography'' show does not include the Civil War-era photographs of Matthew Brady or his associates. Brady, an accomplished daguerreotypist working in New York as early as 1844, turned out enormous numbers of high-quality daguerreotypes. With his associates, he had a far greater production than other photographers of his period.

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Joseph-Nicephore Niepce and Louis-Jacques Mande Daguerre, two Frenchmen who experimented in photography, produced the first photograph, a word coined by an English astronomer, Sir John Herschel, in 1839. Niepce took the photo with an eight-hour exposure of his farmyard near Chalon-sur-Saone. He joined forces with Daguerre who gave his name to the process that used silver-coated copper plates instead of paper to retain the photographic image.

Daguerre spent so much time in his photographic experiments that his wife thought he was going mad. He thought so himself one night when, returning to his chemical cabinet to a plate he considered improperly exposed (intending to repolish it later), he was astonished to find the latent image revealed. Repeating the process, Daguerre once more unveiled the mysterious secret of the copper plate. Working with Niepce, Daguerre studied what he called ``the spontaneous action of light.''

After Niepce died, Daguerre worked alone. He perfected a sensitized polished copper plate with silver and iodine vapor. Exposing it in a camera, he developed the plate with mercury vapor (a poisonous substance which killed many photographers who inhaled it) and fixed it finally with a common salt solution.

By 1839, Daguerre and Niepce's son were satisfied with the process and sold it to the French government for 6,000 francs annuity each. Daguerre wrote a book, ``An Historical and Descriptive Account of the Various Processes of the Daguerreotype and the Diorama,'' which became a best seller with 30-odd editions published in dozens of languages around the world.

The daguerreotype, the first practical form of photography, was used for about 20 years for portraiture and other picture-taking. Its main disadvantage was that each photograph was unique. There was no way to make extra copies. The daguerrotype, which showed a reverse or mirror image of the subject, gradually lost favor since it was expensive and dangerous to make.

The breakthrough came in Britain. In 1841 William Henry Fox Talbot developed the first negative-positive process and established the future pattern of photography. Talbot, a Cambridge-educated scientist and Sunday painter, discouraged with his progress with brush and canvas, turned to a portable ``camera Lucida.''

On a trip to Italy in 1833, Talbot had the idea of fixing the reflected images with chemicals. Like most tourists, he wanted souvenir pictures of his voyage. He tried to produce a paper which, when soaked in chloride and silver nitrate, then washed in a strong solution of potassium iodide became a paper negative. He discovered he could make positive after positive from his paper negatives simply by placing the sensitized paper in contact with the negative and exposing it to light. A paper negative of Talbot's Wilshire home is still on view in the Science Museum in London.

The Fox Talbot calotype, a slow and laborious process, made possible the production of multiple prints from one original negative. Talbot's book ``The Pencil of Nature,'' published in 1844, is a much-sought-after early photographic book. Containing 34 calotypes of still lifes and lace, the book so astonished readers that the publisher had to insert a notice that the plates ``are impressed by light alone, without any aid whatsoever from the artist's pencil.''

Enormous improvements rapidly followed. The wet-plate collodion process, with its vital portable darkroom, was replaced by the gelatin dry plate, giving the photographer far greater freedom for taking ``instant'' photographs because of the shorter exposure times needed.

By the 1860s, photography became commonplace. The roving photographer recorded events and scenes as they happened, the Crimean War and the American Civil War, the changing cities, people at work and at leisure.

Travelers adored the camera. Those who had money for a trip abroad were able to bring back photos of the Sphinx or the Eiffel Tower. But the greatest joy for most families was the ability of the daguerreotype to offer a likeness of someone loved.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote a friend, ``It is not merely the likeness which is precious - but the association and the sense of nearness involved in the thing - the fact of the very shadow of the person lying there fixed forever! I would rather have a memorial of one I dearly loved, than the noblest artist's work ever produced.''

Her sentiment was universal. By 1850, New York had more than 80 photography studios. In Philadelphia portrait studios, dozens of customers daily posed for glassy eyed likenesses that made them all look zonked.

Hundreds of others throughout the country were taking daguerreotypes. In Boston, a team of photographers, Albert Southworth (1811-1894), a druggist, and Josiah Hawes (1808-1901), a carpenter, opened a studio. Immediately recognized for their innovative approaches, they reduced the 15-minutes posing time to 30 seconds. They photographed such famous New Englanders as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Photography caught the imagination of the public and the camera became smaller and more compact, but on the whole, the exotic box remained the domain of the wealthy. Then, in 1888, George Eastman developed the first Kodak portable camera. With roll film, the photographer was freed from the paraphernalia of glass and paper negative plates. Eastman launched the camera with the slogan, ``You press the button, we do the rest.''

The Kodak was a great success, followed by a cheap Brownie camera. Snapshots became as common as coins, and photography became the new folk art.

Since 1900, fine-art practitioners have invested vast sums in more complex equipment, but no significant developments have altered the basic patterns of popular photography.

Julia Margaret Cameron, a Scottish woman, was given a camera by a daughter who wanted to alleviate her mother's boredom. Mrs. Cameron never had time to be bored again. She specialized in the close-up, and her photographs eventually came to be called ``Divine Art.'' She grabbed anyone within arm's length to pose, and was able to convince Browning, Darwin, Carlyle, and Tennyson, among other famous people, to sit for her. Caustic, charming, despotic, and relentless, Mrs. Cameron produced photographs which she tried to make ``the embodiment of prayers.''

An English doctor, Richard Leach Maddox (1816-1902), stepped up the advance of photography with experiments with gelatin-silver bromide emulsion to substitute for colodion on glass plates before exposure. When factories produced the new plates, action shots became popular.

An American, Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904), is one of the photographers sadly excluded from the current exhibit. Muybridge - commissioned by railroad millionaire Leland Stanford to prove that a horse raised all four feet simultaneously when it ran - set up 12 cameras. Muybridge's 12 photographs, taken by the wet-plate method, helped Stanford win the $25,000 bet, making photographic history in the process.

Among the most moving of photographs in the current exhibit are those of Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946). Stieglitz was editor of the ``American Amateur Photographer Magazine.'' He was devoted to the hand-held camera. ``When I see something,'' he wrote, ``that serves as an equivalent for me of what I am experiencing myself, then I feel compelled to set down a picture of it.''

Stieglitz's ``The Steerage,'' taken on his European trip in 1907 as he strolled the deck of a ship, shows immigrants of whom he wrote, ``I saw a picture of shapes - a feeling I had about life.'' ``The Hand of Man'' - one of the wonders of the current exhibit - was Stieglitz's comment on the rapid industrialization of the era.

People snapping left and right dismayed Stieglitz. He urged photographers to choose the subject and study carefully lines and lighting.

No one can come away from this exhibit without recognition of the unique power of the camera in the hands of an artist - the photographs are marvelous, fascinating, and memorable.

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