The smell and taste of history in photos
New York — Nothing is as redolent with a sense of evanescent time as an old photograph. Whether the photograph belongs to one's own past or someone else's, it prods the mind beyond nostalgia into a shadowy realm where the captured moment becomes a part of collective rather than personal memory.
The greatest appeal of "Treasures of the Royal Photographic Society," on view at the International Center of Photography, here, lies less in the individual photographs and photographers than in the impression created by the exhibition as a whole. Consisting of approximately 100 19th- and early 20th-century photographs selected from the collection of the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain, which numbers more than 20,000, the show has the smell and taste of history.
Many of the photographers are unknown except to connoisseurs. The famous, such as the British Julia Margaret Cameron, Henry Fox Talbot, David Octavius Hill, Robert Adamson, and Roger Fenton, and the American Alfred Stieglitz, Gertrude Kasebier, Edward Steichen, and Clarence White, are seldom represented by their most popular photographs but instead by those that are relatively obscure. This conscious decision on the part of Sir Tom Hopkinson, who chose the photographs and is a former editor of photographic news magazines, has the soothing effect of anonymity and the stimulating effect of a fresh encounter. It is as if the photographs expect nothing of us nor we of them, and one reacts to the moment rather than its maker.
Evocative is the adjective to describe the show. There are images here that reverberate in the mind long after one leaves, not simply because they are from the distant rather than the recent past, but because they possess a timelessness that makes the past as real as the present. They connect us intimately to lives and events that have gone before.
Among the most unforgettable are John B. B. Wellington's "Sea Urchins" in which a group of young girls romp along the beach in undiminished ecstasy. Another is Hopkinson's favorite, Ricco Weber's "Rainy Weather" in which two women, statuesque as Grecian amphora, recede like their own shadows into the mist of a Viennese street. There are a number of portraits in the show, mostly of writers and royalty, but the most haunting by far is Julia Cameron's Ceylonese "Peasant Group," a study of generations in which age is not chronological but emotional.
Some of the 19th-century photographers traveled throughout the empire and like all tourists took pictures of historic and archaeological sites. In the Earl of Carnarvon's photographs of Tutankhamen's tomb, the suffocating dust and swirling sand create a better metaphor for the passage of time than an ancient tomb, and Francis Frith's "Crocodile on a Sandbank" leaps even farther back into evolutionary time, connecting the crocodile's scaly hide to the desert rock formations.
Finally, we find the epitome of two different kinds of drama in Francis James Mortimer's "action" photographs of a shipwreck, in contrast with the posed painterliness of Henry Peach Robinson's "On the Way to Market," a portrait of a young woman as proud as any Thomas Hardy heroine.
The Royal Photographic Society, by the way, was founded in 1853 as "the Photographic Society" by a group of Victorian photographers, notably Roger Fenton. Fenton, who is best known for his photographs of the Crimean War, served as the society's first secretary, and his photographs, three of which are in this exhibition, are among the society's most important holdings. Queen Victoria gave the society its current name in 1894 when she and Prince Albert consented to become its patrons. Royal patronage has continued ever since and the society, the oldest of its kind in the world, has inspired among the new wave of photography enthusiasts a deserved interest in the history and conservation of the collection.
The exhibition continues at the ICP through March 30.