Image manipulation is a news story, and a scandal, in the 21st century.
A beautiful little exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery -- “Camille Silvy: Photographer of Modern Life” -- reveals that the procedures we associate with Photoshop already existed in mid-Victorian London.
Silvy (1834-1910) was a brilliant French photographic pioneer who set up a successful business in Britain. His masterpiece, “Studies on Light: Twilight,” (1859), shows a London street at dusk. Two figures, a man and boy, stand beneath a gas lamp in the gathering gloom. The background is an atmospheric gray blur.
Looking at it, you can almost feel the chill and smell the coal smoke. As a work of art it’s comparable in effect to the townscapes described in “Bleak House” by Charles Dickens, whom Silvy thought of asking to write a text to tout his photographs.
Another contemporary of Silvy that it brings to mind is Whistler (also born in 1834), who was painting hazy studies of nocturnal London at exactly this time. Interestingly, Silvy used similar methods to those of a painter to achieve his effects.
The figures were obviously posed. More surprisingly, the final image was pieced together from four separate negatives: one for the figures, others for the lamp, the wall on the right and the misty distance. The curator of the show, Mark Haworth-Booth, suggests that the top of a street lamp was drawn by hand (Silvy was a proficient draftsman and watercolorist). This might be right as it’s much sharper than the figures standing beside.
The manipulation is so smoothly done that you wouldn’t notice unless it was pointed out. The problem with many users of Photoshop is that they are clumsy, which is why the world is now full of what David Hockney calls “badly drawn photographs.”
This, on the other hand, is a superbly well-drawn photograph. The same is true of “River Scene, France” (1858) made before Silvy moved to London. It brings to mind a different sort of painting -- the placid river landscapes of Corot and Constable to which Silvy produced a richly atmospheric photographic equivalent. The final image was assembled from two negatives, with trees and bits of cloud drawn over by hand.
Most of Silvy’s work, however, wasn’t landscape but portraiture -- and he thought of it as business, not art. He turned out pictures of people on an industrial scale, employing dozens of assistants and averaging one sitter every 12 minutes at the peak of his success.
Even so, Silvy’s photographic portraits also recall contemporary painting. Any art historian looking at his “Misses Booth” (1861) would think of Ingres’s “Comtesse d’Haussonville” (1845), which has a similar trick with a mirror.
A more intriguing connection isn’t with Ingres but with Facebook. By the 1850s, photography had caused a step-change in the quantity of available images (no painter could portray one sitter every 12 minutes). This resulted in a new level of image sharing.
The faces of loved ones and celebrities such as Prince Albert were collected in albums to be shown and discussed with friends and family. As Haworth-Booth points out, those albums were the Victorian predecessors of social-networking sites.
Silvy’s photographic career was short. He retired in his mid-30s, and died -- decades later -- in a psychiatric hospital. His work is a window on an early Impressionist world and a reminder that photography had scarcely been invented before it began to lie.
“Camille Silvy: Photographer of Modern Life” is at the National Portrait Gallery, London, through Oct. 24. Information: http://www.npg.org.uk.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)