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HomeContentsThemes > Early European landscape photography

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Between the late 1830's and 1850 photography advanced quickly both in the chemical processes that were used but also in the choice of subjects. From the static still lifes and portraits that could be taken with long exposures in controlled conditions it became possible to take exterior shots - at first these were of the locations where the inventors lived such as Laycock Abbey for Fox Talbot or the streets of Paris for Daguerre but the underlying reasons for taking photographs also changed.
 
The inventors were testing the variety of photographs that could be taken and Fox Talbot took scientific specimens, portraits, microscopic samples as well as outdoor shots and when looked at as a body of work they seem to be a catalogue of photographic possibilities. By 1844 when he took the photographs for his book "Sun Pictures in Scotland" a different process was taking place - the images of Scottish landscapes and buildings are no longer a catalogue of possibilities but rather have the objective of recording the topographical locations and buildings associated with Walter Scott. The switch, which took place in less than five years, was from a scientific test of what could be achieved with photography to its application to preserve visual memories.
1.   Early British landscape photographers
Sun Pictures in Scotland (1845)
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Henry Fox Talbot
Loch Katrine, Scotland 
1844 (ca)
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Henry Fox Talbot
Book cover for "Sun Pictures in Scotland" by William Henry Fox Talbot 
[Sun Pictures in Scotland] 
1845
  
William Henry Fox Talbot, one of the inventors of photography, was one of the first to produce a book that included landscape photographs.
 
In autumn 1844 he took a trip to Scotland where he photographed locations that were associated with Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), the author of the popular Waverley novels, and Talbot‘s visit to Edinburgh may have coincided with the completion of the Scott Monument.
 
The photographs that Talbot took in Scotland included the Scott Monument, Abbotsford, Melrose Abbey, Dryburgh Abbey and Loch Katrine. The Scottish mountains of the Trossachs and the waters of Loch Katrine had inspired Sir Walter Scott‘s popular poem "The Lady of the Lake" (1810) and this was the reason for the selection of the site by Fox Talbot. His photograph of the loch stands out as a particularly fine example of early British landscape photography.
 
The one guinea book "Sun Pictures in Scotland" was sold by subscription and 120 copies were bound. One of the original handwritten lists of subscribers is preserved at the NMPFT in Bradford (UK).
 
[Thanks to Larry Schaaf for his help on this.]
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Early British landscape photographers can be divided into several distinct types:
  • The inventors: Fox Talbot, Frederick Scott Archer and John Dillwyn Llewelyn all experimented with different chemical processes and perfected new techniques.
  • The commercialists: Francis Frith, George Washington Wilson and James Valentine all evolved from takers of topographical views and architectural details into commercial companies of significance leaving behind vast archives. There are occasional gems amongst these photographs but most have little artistic merit when looked at today - one of the advantages of the Internet is that you can view the archives on-line and George Washington Wilson's archive is at The University of Aberdeen and that of James Valentine and the company Valentines of Dundee Ltd is at the University of St. Andrews.
  • The hobbyists: These include the inventor John Dillwyn Llewelyn, the solicitor Henry White (1819-1903) who was widely respected for his landscapes in the 1850's and Lady Clementina Hawarden who is better remembered for her portraits but she also did some sensitive landscapes. As a group they did not seek financial rewards for their work but could be seen as talented early adopters.
The boundaries between these types are blurred as almost everybody who took up photography in the early years could be classed as an educated person of means who could afford to indulge in a hobby. They were people of standing in British society during a period when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were interested in and promoted scientific and technological achievement. Photographers like George Washington Wilson and Roger Fenton photographed the royal family and their estates. Francis Bedford was an artist who exhibited his drawings at Royal Academy in London before taking up photography and later he photographed the royal collections and accompanied the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII) on his 1862 tour of the Middle East. There were undoubtedly talented British landscape photographers between 1839 and 1860 and there are examples by John Dillwyn Llewelyn taken at his home at Penllergare near Swansea in Wales or works by Roger Fenton that match those of the French landscape photographers. However I feel it would be difficult to argue that as a body of work they equal the artistic sensibilities of the French landscape photographers with their stronger links to painting traditions.  
  
2.   Early French landscape photographers
Early French landscape photography
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Gustave Le Gray
[Oak Tree and Rocks, Forest of Fontainebleau] 
1849-1852
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Gustave Le Gray
Study of Trees and Pathways 
1849
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André Giroux
Landscape 
1855 (ca)
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André Giroux
The Ponds at Obtevoz, Rhône 
1855
During the nineteenth century a group of French painters including Georges Michel, Theodore Rousseau, Jean-Francois Miller, and Corot sought their inspiration by going to the landscape and painting what they saw. Collectively they are known as the Barbizon school of painting named after a village in northern France.
 
The links between the painters and French landscape photography in the middle of the century are numerous. André Giroux (1801-1879) for example was a talented painter as well as a master photographer and the photographs by Gustave Le Gray (1820-1884) of the forests at Fontainebleau were used as templates for paintings.
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Towards the middle of the nineteenth century three factors came together that made France preeminent in early landscape photography - early technological availability, the artistic perception of landscape painting at the time photography was announced and the talent of the people who took up photography. Within painting there had been a move to paint outdoors and to paint what was there rather than imagined within the studio and this flourished with the Barbizon artists who frequented the Fontainebleau forest near Paris. When photography was announced in 1839 it was a tool that matched their aesthetic needs by recording exactly what was seen.
 
If we look at the photographs of André Giroux (1801-1879) all three factors can be seen working together. André Giroux was the son of Alphonse Giroux who made the first commercial Daguerreotype cameras. He was also a talented landscape artist who won the prestigious "Rome Prize for Historical Landscape" ("Prix de Rome en Paysage Historique") and had painted in Italy in the 1820s at the same time as Camille Corot (1796-1875). With a father who knew how to make cameras and understood photography, a highly refined understanding of capturing the visual essentials of a landscape and artistic ability it is not surprising that his photographs, on which he retouched the glass negatives, should be so remarkable.
 
On Sept 11, 1841 John Goffe Rand was awarded a US patent (No. 2,252) for "Preserving paint (collapsible tube)". This simple invention had a significant effect upon artists as they could now paint conveniently outdoors carrying their pigments in metal tubes. Later movements such as Impression would not have been possible without tube paints and this had an immense, but often overlooked, impact on photography. Many of the early photographers were artists or closely associated with them and therefore as artists went to paint landscapes in the open air so photographers accompanied them.
Eugène Cuvelier (1837-1900)
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Eugène Cuvelier
Le Clos de Barbizon (Neg. 270) 
1860s (early)
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Eugène Cuvelier
[the Forest of Fontainebleau] 
1860s (early)
  
The close connection between artists and photographers is demonstrated by Eugène Cuvelier who was a friend of the painter Camille Corot and who was acquainted with the Barbizon painters. To emphasize the connection one of the photographs shown here was taken in Barbizon.
 
Further reading:
 
Cuvelier, Eugene (Photographer), 1997, Eugene Cuvelier: Legend of the Forest, (Cantz) [ISBN: 3893228578]
 
[Thanks to Nadia Valla for bringing this to my attention.]
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André Giroux was not alone in creating outstanding photographs that capture the balance of the landscape with the eyes of a painter. Within the works of Gustave Le Gray, Henri Le Secq who studied with the painter Delacroix, Charles Marville, Louis-Rémy Robert, Camille Silvy and others there are photographs that pull one in to share the experience of the moment.
Camille de Silvy - River Scene (1858)
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Camille Silvy
River Scene 
1858
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Camille Silvy
Book cover for "Camille Silvy: River Scene, France" by Mark Haworth-Booth 
1993
  
The best landscape photographs go beyond the arrangements and proportions of land, water and sky and take the viewer into the realms of memory and emotion.
 
Here we see the Huisne river near the birthplace of Camille Silvy as he saw it in 1858 with the bands of clouds, wooden rural buildings and brick walls scattered on the left bank with column-like trees cutting vertical lines into the sky - a boat with a man sitting in it and a woman standing close by. On the right there is the meadow with some people on the grass. We can see the details of the picture but it represents far more than that - it has within it a harmony of elements that we feel comfortable with. We can all wish that we had been on the bridge that day with him and we yearn for past that has gone but are glad that he has shared a moment of Arcadian tranquility with us.
 
All is not as simple as it seems in this Arcadia; the print is a complex combination print that merges different images to create the harmonious whole. In the book on this image by Mark Haworth-Booth he argues the intriguing point that it is proto-impressionist - bringing together the edge of a town where it melds into a rural setting and at the same time mixes the social levels of the society with the country bourgeoisie and the working class.
 
In 1990 one of the leading exponents of color photography, Stephen Shore, was commissioned by the J. Paul Getty Museum to re-photograph exactly the same site but he obtained a very different image. You get a record shot of a place as it is but with none of the emotion. It is not that Stephen Shore is not a great photographer, he is, but his approach and sensibilities to landscape photography are totally different.
 
[Thanks to Mark Haworth-Booth for his insights on this.]
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3.   Elsewhere in Europe
Throughout Europe there were photographers taking topographical views for example Hermann Krone (1827-1916) who was born at Breslau in Silesia. He took a wide variety of scientific photographs but also an early series of landscapes from 1853 onwards of Sächsische Schweiz (Saxon Switzerland) to the east of Dresden and in 1872 he produced the Königs-Album (Kings Album) that contained views of the 142 towns and cities of Saxony. These are important as early record shots of the areas concerned but do not have the artistic merits of the best of the early French and English landscape photographers. In 1858 Charles Clifford, amn Englishman living in Spain from 1852, published Voyages en Espagne and had an ability with monuments and landscapes.
 
At the University of Bergen in Norway there are the extensive archives of Knud Knudsen (1832-1915) who took the landscapes of his country throughout his extensive career but is a rare image that surpasses being historically interesting.
Early European travel photography
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Charles Clifford
Devil's Bridge [Spain] 
1870 (ca)
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Francis__Bedford_DUPLICATE_OF_6825
Mer de Glace 
1860
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Auguste Rosalie Bisson
[the Ascent of Mont Blanc] 
1861
 
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Europe - Nineteenth century
 
The Scenic Daguerreotype: Romanticism and Early Photography
The Scenic Daguerreotype: Romanticism and Early Photography 
  
John Wood; & John R. Stilgoe
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