What we see here are unique paper negatives from the 1850’s by some of the greatest old master photographers, a small but perfectly formed exhibition of which opens today at the London arm of Daniel Blau Gallery. They are the true originals, created by the light reflecting off the photographed subject. For their beauty, Zeitgeist, rarity and provenance they rank amongst the greatest treasures of photography.
The paper negative had its heyday for a brief period in the early days of photography until circa 1860. Because the negative is the plate from which a multitude of positive prints can be made, it normally remained in the photographer’s possession during his lifetime. Only later would it enter into public collections by will of the photo-grapher or the family’s donation. It is rare to find negatives by famous artists such as Le Secq, Nègre, de Beaucorps or de Clercq in private hands.
A negative can be so much more evocative than a positive print. We realise from the blurred movement of the clock’s hand on the picture of the Palazzo Vecchio that it took three minutes of exposure time to take the photo, long enough to empty the square of all the people moving about. Their movements made them invisible to the camera. Only the building remains in its static existence with the guard’s rifles leaning against the wall.
Like a printing plate, the photographic negative has long been regarded as a stage in a working process. Surrealism and other lessons in art have taught us how to look at the more abstract pictures of the world. We have since begun to appreciate the photographic paper negative with its saturated, ominous dark against the ethereal pale as a work of art in its own mysterious beauty.
This is truly a prized opportunity to see such precious photographs outside of a museum context, some of which are even magically backlit and are sure to transfix the connoisseurs of nineteenth century photography amongst our readers. Photographer's Own: Paper Negatives runs until 31 March.