Still life in motion: early photography's sleight of hand

The title of this late 19th- century photograph - "Portrait on a tandem" - is so matter of fact and descriptively bland that it does nothing to detract from the image's enigmatic tension or the tentative character of its apparent solemnity.

"Alinari," the Florentine company that produced this engaging picture, is a name most associated with superb photographs of works of art. Fratelli Alinari was founded by three brothers just over a century and a half ago, when photography was still in its childhood. The firm pioneered representation of architecture, sculpture, drawings, and finally paintings - all, of course, in monochrome. Before photography, books about art were illustrated, minimally, with prints. Photographs seemed to guarantee indisputable accuracy and authenticity, without the intervention of an artist's interpretive eye and hand. In fact, photographers also introduced their own forms of interpretation.

The archives of this old firm include far more than art photographs, as shown by an exhibition called "Fratelli Alinari: A Photographic Tradition. The Changing Face of Italy, 1855-1935," at the Estorick Collection, London, until Sept 19.

After some years, Alinari started making portraits. Among them were a number that portrayed people engaged in sports. Some were named, like "Marion Walsh with her horse." Others, portraying the activities of two fencers training, two children on stilts, and these straw-boatered cyclists, seem to be of types rather than individuals. All look scrupulously posed, and however momentary their actions may actually be, they are focused and frozen.

Unlike Eadweard Muybridge, the contemporaneous photographer of figures in motion whose series of split-second takes of one continuous movement were almost cinematic, the Alinari photographer was more concerned with a singular captive clarity - making the pedaling cyclists so uncanny. They are like a stationary work of art, set against a plain, undistracting background. Unless they are invisibly propped, they must, as the viewer knows, be streaking past - or they would fall over. But these serious-looking gentlemen of the track will remain a transfixed instant, forever motionless, forever balanced.

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