Travel Back In Time With This New Exhibit On 1800s Photography

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Travel back in time with this new exhibit on 1800s photography

“Today, painting is dead.”

Those were the words that acclaimed painter Paul Delaroche is alleged to have uttered when he saw a photograph for the first time.

It’s also the inspiration for a new exhibit showcasing nearly 250 of the earliest photographic works at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. The exhibit “From Today, Painting is Dead: Early Photography in Britain and France” opens Feb. 24 and runs through May 12.

All of the photos come from the collection of Michael Mattis and Judy Hochberg, who began collecting historical photographs in the 1980s while graduate students on the West Coast. This is the second exhibition at the Barnes that pulls from the couple’s photography collection -- in 2016 they lent the museum works from the 20th century.

It’s the first time these 19th century works have been displayed together in a museum.

"For my wife and I this is our coming out party for our really early material which normally at home is in boxes, not in frames and not on the walls," said Mattis.

We take them out now and again like fine Cuban cigars, but it’s not something I’m used to seeing on museum walls.

The Barnes Foundation is home to billions of dollars' worth of artwork: Cool Spaces

Walking around the exhibit with Mattis, Hochberg and Thom Collins (president of the Barnes and the curator for the museum), it’s clear that each and every photograph has its own story.

There’s the first-ever photo of Oxford, taken by William Henry Fox Talbot in 1843. Talbot was the inventor of the negative and the process of developing film -- a process that was used (albeit with updates) until the 1990s when digital photography became prominent.

The seascapes of Gustave Le Gray with their vivid and dramatic skies. Taken in 1857, they were a wonder at the time -- long exposures meant that often skies came out as pure white spaces in photographs. For decades people wondered how Le Gray had managed to showcase the heavens so well. It was only after his death that it was revealed he had invented combination printing. He had combined two separate photos, one of the sky and the other of the sea together to get the end result.

There are photos of India, Egypt, Jerusalem and Athens from the time, providing an insight into just how much these countries and cities have changed over time.

The celebrity-oriented can see portraits of the executed Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico by Francois Aubert in 1867, novelist Victor Hugo on his deathbed by Felix Nadar in 1885 and the very alive poet Alfred Lord Tennyson with his family, taken by Oscar Gustave Rejlander in 1862.

One of the most famous works on display is that of the Roger Fenton photo “Valley of the Shadow of Death” from 1855. Fenton was one of the first war photographers and documented the Crimean War.

Travel back in time photography

This photo shows cannonballs strewn about on a road show the aftermath of a battle -- but it’s been debated on how accurate it is. Fenton is rumored to have moved the cannonballs himself, in an effort to make a better photograph. Other stories say that the soldiers did it for him. Either way, it brings up questions of truth and realism in photography -- just as Gustave Le Gray’s seascapes do.

Which brings us back to the Delaroche quote that gives the exhibit its name: "Painting is dead."

The Delaroche was an academic painter training his students in the art of realism. He quickly grasped that photography would take realism into a whole new direction.

“He was teaching his students how to represent reality and all of a sudden the camera could do it in a way that there was no edging, no fudging,” Mattis said. “It was a more literal purchase of truth…

“But even in its earliest incarnation, photographers would play with truth and ‘improve’ truth -- and of course that is way before photoshop,” he continued. “There’s a little bit of fake news even in the earliest photograph.”

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