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Unearthing The Roots of Photography

Photographs are ten a penny now, in fact, cheaper, but there was a time when the family camera only came out for holidays, Christmas and family events. And even then, who actually wondered how pointing a lens at something and clicking a button would turn that something into a photo? In the 19th century, there were a lot of people trying to work out how to actually do that, and that is the subject of the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s latest exhibition, writes Michael Holland.

Unearthed: Photography’s Roots takes us right back to the beginning before bringing us up to the present day. The experimental stages involved using salt, egg, silver and all manner of weird combinations to get pictures onto paper, and eventually these intrepid go-getters worked out various ways of producing photographic images.

Early photos replicated the art world of still lifes, some becoming more and more artistic in their endeavours to find an audience. William Henry Fox Talbot and Roger Fenton were great proponents of this genre of photography, but the star of the show is the work of gardener Charles Jones who wanted to immortalise his finest specimens. 

Tulip Robert Mapplethorpe

Using a plate-glass camera, with no formal training, Jones’ photographs reveal a highly sophisticated understanding of composition and the photographic process. Jones was able to turn the humble turnip and potato into things of beauty. He never displayed or published his works but more than twenty years after his death in 1959 his photographs were found in a box in Bermondsey Antiques Market.

Unearthed takes us through the first colour photographs and explains when photography was accepted as an art form, with examples of allegorical work depicting war and oppression in totalitarian regimes via natural imagery; some created when landscape photography could be a capital offence.

Robert Mapplethorpe, someone who has attracted controversy throughout his career, moved away from same-sex partners in erotic poses as his models to using images of flowers with sensual undertones as an alternative for collectors who were not keen to have men in S&M gear above the fireplace.

The exhibition ends with photographs taken using the latest advancements and further experimentations with still life.

Dulwich Picture Gallery, Gallery Road, SE22 until 30th August.  Times: Wednesday–Sunday, 10am–5pm. Admission: £16.50, £8.

Advance booking essential:


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