2020 Vision: Photographs 1840s-1860s @Met

JTF (just the facts): A total of 46 photographic works, variously framed and matted, and hung against dark brown walls in a series of rooms on the second floor of the museum.

The exhibition includes the following works, with process information and dates as background:

  • Anonymous: 1 salted paper print, c1855
  • Anonymous: 1 salted paper print, c1857
  • Lewis Carroll: 1 albumen silver print, 1870
  • Richard Dykes Alexander: 1 albumen silver print, c1859
  • Anonymous: 1 daguerreotype with applied color, 1850s
  • Anonymous: 1 daguerreotype, c1854
  • Jean-Gabriel Eynard: 1 daguerreotype, c1850
  • Anonymous: 1 ambrotype with applied color , 1860s
  • RC Montgomery: 1 daguerreotype with applied color, 1850s
  • Anonymous: 1 daguerreotype with applied color, 1850s
  • Hippolyte Bayard: 2 salted paper prints, c1839
  • David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson: 1 salted paper print, 1843-1847
  • William Henry Fox Talbot: 2 salted paper prints, 1843
  • Antoine-François-Jean Claudet: 1 salted paper print, c1845
  • Anonymous: 1 carte de visite album of albumen silver prints, 1850s-1860s (in vitrine)
  • Anna Atkins: 1 cyanotype, c1851-1854
  • Gates Brothers: 3 albumen silver prints, 1865
  • James Fitzallen Ryder: 2 albumen silver prints, 1862
  • Anonymous: 1 daguerreotype print, 1850s
  • Anonymous: 1 daguerreotype print, 1850s
  • Anonymous: 1 tintype, 1860s
  • Platt D. Babbitt: 1 daguerreotype print, 1850s
  • Josiah Johnson Hawes: 1 salted paper print, 1850s
  • Charles Nègre: 1 salted paper print, c1852
  • Carleton Watkins: 1 albumen silver print, c1863
  • Eugène Cuvelier: 1 albumen silver print, 1860s
  • Henri Le Secq: 1 salted paper print, 1851-1853
  • John Moran: 1 albumen silver print, c1860s
  • George Wilson Bridges: 1 salted paper print, 1846
  • Charles Marville: 1 albumen silver print, 1863
  • Alphonse Delaunay: 1 albumen silver print, 1854
  • Pietro Dovizielli: 1 albumen silver print, c1855
  • Edouard Denis Baldus: 1 salted paper print, c1853
  • Maurizio Lotze: 1 salted paper print, c1858
  • E&H T Anthony & Co.: 1 albumen stereograph print, 1865
  • Lewis Dowe: 1 albumen silver print, 1860s
  • Roger Fenton: 2 albumen silver prints, 1855, 1857
  • Felice Beato: 1 albumen silver print, 1856-1857
  • Louis Vignes: 1 salted paper print, 1860, 1 albumen silver print, 1864

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: A “recent acquisitions” show at a museum is typically a straightforward exhibition. By definition, it brings together works that have entered the collection in the past year or two, either by donation or purchase, giving visitors a chance to get a personal look at what has been added. In this way, the show performs several important functions – it shares the exciting new artworks with the local community, it announces to the broader world that these works are now part of the museum’s permanent collection, and it publicly celebrates the generosity of the donors.

The inherent challenge for the “recent acquisitions” exhibition is that it’s very hard to avoid the “grab bag” effect. Without a curatorial through line or thematic structure to keep things together, it’s hard to follow the logic of why the works have been included, aside from the fact that they are new to the museum’s collection. This difficulty is rooted in an inversion – as visitors, we need to clearly understand what the museum already owns (and doesn’t own), so we can then see where the new acquisitions fit. Does a new piece deepen an already rich set of holdings by that artist? Or does it fill a gaping hole in the collection that has been open for years? Is it a standout work, or a secondary addition that supports other holdings? Is this a piece the museum has been searching for for decades, or an opportunistic high quality gift? The problem is that very few of these backstories and needs are ever visible, so it’s often nearly impossible to fully appreciate the relative significance of what’s been included.

This exhibition at the Met brings together a narrowly focused group of new photographic acquisitions, with nearly all of the works made between the 1840s and the 1860s. It weaves a selection of images by anonymous and underknown makers from the collection of longtime dealer William Schaeffer together with singular donations made by other powerhouse collectors on the occasion of the museum’s 150th anniversary. And with the reinstallation of the permanent collection at nearby MoMA overtly beginning at the 1880s, this show feels a little like a coincidental counterpoint or a flex; not only is the Met publicly reaffirming its commitment to early photography, it is reminding us that it has an impressive base of supporters that is helping it to extend its strength in this area.

The show itself is organized into small thematic groups, essentially providing a quick sampler of various early processes and subject matter types. Daguerreotypes are shown in two glassed enclosures, the selections highlighting unusual historical artifacts and unexpected compositions – a New Orleans woman in a tignon, a surveyor looking up at his instrument on a tall tripod, a closely cropped frontal view of a general store (predating Walker Evans-style architectural clarity), and the nested conceptual twist of a daguerreotype of a boy holding a daguerreotype. Another tight group of works brings together early (1840s) salted paper prints where carefully arranged poses give life to the scenes, from the outdoor brightness of William Henry Fox Talbot’s group taking tea at Lacock Abbey to the concentration of Antoine-Francis-Jean Claudet’s chess match.

The majesty of trees and forests was a common subject for 19th century photographers, and this show contains resonant examples from both sides of the Atlantic. Charles Nègre’s image of umbrella pines is the most expressive of the group, the bubbling chemicals on the collodion-coated glass giving the branches a surreal swirl. Carleton Watkins’s grand specimen picture is unusual for its tilted horizon, the mountain range in the backdrop falling off at an angle behind the expansively silhouetted tree. Other images provide a range of seasons and textures – snow on Boston Common (Josiah Johnson Hawes), a chestnut tree in bloom (Henri Le Secq) – and when people enter the frame (a monk in Sicily against a backdrop of greenery, a man carving his name in the trunk of a massive beech tree), nature’s monumental scale generally puts them in their place.

While the Met certainly has many superlative 19th century city views and Grand Tour travel photographs already in its collection, the addition of the architectural and city scenes on view here will further deepen that trove. Pietro Dovizielli’s crisp image of the Spanish Steps in Rome is a standout, the dense horizontals of the steps entirely empty, except for one lone figure at the bottom. Charles Marville’s study of the restoration of the cathedral at Troyes is similarly detailed, with piles of stones and an angled ladder adding to the complexity of the composition. And Alphonse Delaunay takes a more muted approach in his 1854 view of the Alhambra, the print settling into a softer, more tactile aesthetic. As the destinations wander further afield, two Roger Fenton landscapes provide a smart contrast of formal qualities, the insistent dark vertical masts of a Black Sea port placed side by side with the barren emptiness of a rocky plain during the Crimean War.

This “recent acquisitions” show isn’t likely to join the list of durably important photography shows of the decade, but it does successfully function on two relatively separate levels. For the passing visitor just getting exposed to 19th century photography, it provides an easily digestible sampler of engaging work, with a handful of anonymous images that crackle with interest and some big names like Atkins, Talbot, Marville, and Watkins to provide some recognizable heft. And for the more knowledgeable 19th century photography connoisseur, it offers an eclectic selection of rarities, subtitles, and top quality prints to explore and savor. Either way, it’s a show that succinctly gets its job done, quietly reinforcing the position that we still have plenty to learn from 19th century photography.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum exhibition, there are of course no posted prices, and given the broad nature of this 19th century group show, we will forgo our usual discussion of individual secondary market histories.

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Read more about: Alphonse Delaunay, Anna Atkins, Antoine-Francois-Jean Claudet, Carleton Watkins, Charles Marville, David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, Edouard Baldus, Eugene Cuvelier, Felix Beato, Henri Le Secq, Hippolyte Bayard, Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), Louis Vignes, Maurizio Lotze, Pietro Dovizielli, Roger Fenton, William Henry Fox Talbot, Metropolitan Museum of Art

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