The extraordinary range and complexity of the photographic process is explored, from the origins of the medium in the 1840s up to the advent of digital photography at the end of the 20th century, in a comprehensive exhibition and its accompanying guidebook at the National Gallery of Art
, Washington. On view in the West Building, from October 25, 2009 through March 14, 2010, In the Darkroom: Photographic Processes Before the Digital Age chronicles the major technological developments in the 170-year history of photography and presents the virtuosity of the medium's practitioners. Drawn from the Gallerys permanent collection are some 90 photographsranging from William Henry Fox Talbots images of the 1840s to Andy Warhols Polaroid prints of the 1980s.
Organized chronologically, the exhibition opens with Lace (18391844), a photogenic drawing by William Henry Fox Talbot. Made without the aid of a camera, the image was produced by placing a swath of lace onto a sheet of sensitized paper and then exposing it to light to yield a tonally reversed image.
Talbot's greatest achievementthe invention of the first negative-positive photographic processis also celebrated in this section with paper negatives by Charles Nègre and Baron Louis-Adolphe Humbert de Molard as well as salted paper prints made from paper negatives by Nègre, partners David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, and others.
The daguerreotype, the first publicly introduced photographic process and the most popular form of photography during the medium's first decade, is represented by a selection of British and American works, including an exquisite large-plate work by the American photographers Albert Sands Southworth and Josiah Johnson Hawes. By the mid-1850s, the daguerreotype's popularity was eclipsed by two new processes, the ambrotype and the tintype. These portable photographs on glass or metal were relatively inexpensive to produce and were especially popular for portraiture.
The year 1851 marked a turning point in photographic history with the introduction of the collodion negative on glass and the albumen print process. Most often paired together, this negative-print combination yielded lustrous prints with a subtle gradation of tones from dark to light and became the most common form of photography in the 19th century, seen here in works by Julia Margaret Cameron, Roger Fenton, and Gustave Le Gray.
Near the turn of the 20th century, a number of new, complex print processes emerged, such as platinum and palladium, gum dichromate, and bromoil. Often requiring significant manipulation by the hand of the artist, these processes were favored by photographers such as Gertrude Käsebier, Alfred Stieglitz, and Edward Weston.
One of the most significant developments of the late 19th century was the introduction of gelatin into photographic processes, which led to the invention of the film negative and the gelatin silver print. These became the standard for 20th-century black-and-white photography. A chronological selection of gelatin silver prints, including a contact print made by André Kertész in 1912; a grainy, blurred image of Little Italy's San Gennaro festival at night by Sid Grossman from 1948; and a coolly precise industrial landscape by Frank Gohlke from 1975, reveals how the introduction of the film negative and changes in the gelatin silver print process profoundly shaped the direction of modern photography. This section also explores the development of ink-based, photomechanical processes such as photogravure, Woodburytype, and halftone that enabled the large-scale, high-quality reproduction of photographs in books and magazines.
The final section of the exhibition explores the rise of color photography in the 20th century. Although the introduction of chromogenic color processes made color photography commercially viable by the 1930s, it was not widely employed by artists until the 1970s. The exhibition celebrates the pioneers of color photography, including Harry Callahan and William Eggleston, who made exceptional work using the complicated dye transfer process. The exhibition also explores the range of processes developed by the Polaroid Corporation that provided instant gratification to the user, from Andy Warhol's small SX-70 prints to the large-scale Polaroid prints represented by the work of contemporary photographer David Levinthal.