To the National Portrait Gallery. Past the Boris bikers, the tourists and the Big Issue sellers. Past Reprieve telling Linda Carty’s story outside St Martin in the Fields. Past, indeed, past the eternal throb of London and into the world as it was – a world of immigrant labour cleaning the shit from the streets, a world of servants, of Mayfair stable lads and grooms, of connected gentry … and of a nascent artform discovering how to capture people at rest, at play and at work. And to a photographer, Camille Silvy, who began life as a diplomat, ended it in an asylum and who, somewhere in the middle, took some of the most beautiful photographs of the nineteenth century.
This is a small exhibition in many senses: it occupies the Porter Gallery space, not the largest area of the National Portrait Gallery; its intriguing collection of street and other outdoor images are few in number; and, of course, the tiny cartes de visite with which Silvy secured his fame and fortune are oh so very small against the wall.
Silvy was a pioneer. He saw that it was practically the duty of the camera to lie – and so his images of French countryside, including the famous image of the river scene, are sometimes cut from a number of negatives and then burned and dodged for all they’re worth. His London street images – a series of experiments in light – are tinted gold, primarily to protect the image but beyond that to add depth to his artistry. His portraits too went beyond the rigid formality required by long exposures and seem to catch their subjects at ease: reading bills, about to sing, or just glancing at the camera. There is a freedom and understanding here that isn’t found too often in photography of the period.
Silvy was active in photography for about a decade during which time he churned out about a million cartes de visite from his Bayswater studio. All human life of the time seems to be covered but, obviously, primarily these are people who could pay or for whom there was a market. The titled feature heavily as do fashionable performers. Silvy took ill though and returned to France and his health declined. He spent the final three decades of his life in an asylum – who knows what he could have achieved with faster shutter speeds and streamlined photography processes.
This is a lovely exhibition and clearly one that has been put together with a lot of thought and understanding. The kind of thought and understanding Silvy used all those years ago.