Proof sheet of Madame Silvy, c.1865. Image from a private collection, Paris, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery
Social networking, photo manipulation, self-promotion - Camille Silvy was a master of them all, long before the invention of Photoshop or the arrival of Facebook. Peter Hamilton profiles the 19th century photographer, and finds a recent exhibition of his work has much to say about contemporary portrait practice.
French photographer Camille Silvy (1834-1910) rose like a comet to the pinnacle of portrait photography in 1860s London. Patronised by Queen Victoria almost from his arrival in the metropolis in 1857, his daybooks show that in the decade of his pomp, he photographed just about everybody who could lay claim to a place in the fashionable society of his era.
Silvy's route to this dominant position was based on his genius at making photographic cartes de visite of style and elegance in exquisite taste. But he was also an "art" photographer of great skill and discernment, whose famous River Scene (1858) remains one of the key works of 19th century photography.
That Silvy was an artist of the lens in an era when the new medium was establishing itself is self-evident. This was richly demonstrated by the superb exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in 2010, curated by the leading authority on Silvy, Mark Haworth-Booth.
But what is often less appreciated is that he was also a consummate businessman, and in some ways a precursor of individuals such as Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook.
The customs of the time demanded that any respectable household would display a basket in the hall where visitors would leave their visiting cards. Any person calling upon the gentleman or lady of the house would thus feel obliged to peruse the cards of previous visitors, to seek confirmation that he or she was in good company, and that a succession of lords, ladies and eminent personages had preceded him - a social practice somewhat akin to gaining followers on Facebook.
This precursor of contemporary social networking was given a huge boost in 1854 by the brilliant invention of Parisian portraitist Disderi of photographic cartes de visite, an innovation made possible by the emergence of the wet collodion negative-positive process in the 1850s, which set off a craze in the Western world where photography was practised, and made the fortune of many an able photographer, such as Nadar and, of course, Silvy.
Cartes were collected in albums and their creation became a mass industry. Its commercial centre was London's Regent Street. Apart from the many photographic studios catering to this clientele, there were wholesalers such as Marion & Co. As a contemporary observer noted: "To this centre flow all the photographs in the country that ‘will run'. Packed in the drawers and on the shelves are the representatives of thousands of Englishwomen and Englishmen waiting to be shuffled out to all the leading shops in the country."
Photographs for cartes were made in elaborate daylight studios replete with appropriate furnishings, props and painted backdrops, plus of course the blinds and reflectors needed to concentrate as much of "God's light" on the sitter as possible.
A fashionable photographer such as Silvy could charge well for a sitting, but the real money was to be made in the mass production of the albumen prints that were pasted on the cartes themselves. It was vital to have an efficient staff capable of the many stages of making the prints, and to manage the studio as a business. Silvy proved he was both a gifted photographer and a good businessman, with all of the processing and finishing conducted at the back of his house in Porchester Terrace.
Master of light
Silvy was born into a wealthy family from Nogent le Rotrou in the Beauce region, not far from Chartres and Le Mans. He studied law and began a career as a diplomat, and was posted by the French foreign office to London in 1854. He was already an able draughtsman and watercolourist, and his growing fascination with the arts fastened on to the emergent new technology of photography.
Under the tutelage of some of the leading photographers of his day, he began to make pictures using the new, but somewhat difficult, medium of wet collodion, which necessitates coating a glass plate with a light-sensitive solution and exposing the plate before it dries out.
The most effective form of development involved the use of potassium cyanide, but the results that could be obtained on a large plate were stunningly sharp and beautifully graduated tonally. Prints made on a glossy albumenised paper by contact registered every detail, and when toned in gold chloride, gave a wonderfully rich and chocolate-brown image.
Sent by the French state to Algeria in 1857 to make drawn illustrations of scenes and buildings, Silvy rapidly realised that his abilities were not sufficient and thus dedicated himself to photography, "reproducing everything interesting, archaeological or historically that presented itself to me". He made some impressive pictures, including one of a recumbent hashish smoker that shows his mastery of the effects of light and shade.
But it was at his return from Algeria that Silvy began to devote himself full-scale to the new medium, and beginning the training that would allow him to produce one of the true masterpieces of early photography, his River Scene. He studied with Count Olympe Aguado, a noted photographer and one of the founders of the Société Française de Photographie.
Haworth-Booth devoted a considerable amount of his curatorial energy to researching this picture, and his book on the subject (Camille Silvy, River Scene, France, published in 1992) is well worth consulting for its use of the background to the great image as a route into understanding the motivations and approaches of Silvy's life's work.
There are several prints of this image, but no two are the same. This is because the picture is a composite, made from two large wet collodion plates, since the blue-sensitive emulsion could not deal with both sky and foreground in one exposure. Thus, a sky negative was married to a foreground negative. It will also be evident that the image was worked upon, perhaps with pencil or paint on the negative, to accentuate certain aspects of its elements and to bring out features such as the shape of the trees.
The different parts of the image also appear to be printed lighter or darker in each version. It is tempting to see this type of work as a precursor to what is now possible via Photoshop, but it may also be evidence that some collaborative effort would have been needed to make such images - Silvy referring to his use of a camera operator to make the plates, no doubt because he was carefully orchestrating the disposition of those in the picture.
A small series of three images published by Silvy of London street scenes in 1860 was similarly constructed from a number of plates, composite printed so that the light effects - "Fog", "Twilight", "Sun" - made a harmonious composition.
A beautiful still life with a dead hare (1859) was also possibly constructed from more than one negative, judging by a number of signs on the print displayed at the NPG.
Silvy's great print of his River Scene, when exhibited in Edinburgh, Paris and London, was widely acclaimed and established his reputation. No doubt buoyed up by his success, he acquired an existing photography business in the then newly built area of Bayswater.
The Royal couple were great supporters of photography, and Silvy's diplomatic connections no doubt helped him to develop this link, as he emphasises when writing to his father that "the Queen continues to send me all the people in her household, the first portraits that I made of them being much appreciated".
Silvy's portrait of Prince Albert (1861) was in huge demand when the Consort died, and probably contributed greatly to the flow of the great and the good to his studio in the 1860s.
However, Silvy's career was a short one. By the end of the 1860s he was back in France, having sold the London business - by now very substantial and employing almost 40 people.
But the market for cartes was just starting to decline and his health was failing, too. It would get worse in the 1870s, a process that led to him being diagnosed with what was probably a form of bi-polar disorder, and eventually being committed to an asylum, where he spent the last 30 years of his life.
Before this, however, Silvy returned briefly to consular work in Devon before going back to France shortly before the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war (1870-71), in which he served honourably. A project to produce a series of publications illustrated by photographs was aborted without the pictures, and one wonders whether somewhere they do exist.
But Silvy's patriotism is evident from much earlier in his career, in the beautiful image of workers in Reading the First Order of the Day from the Army of the Italian Campaign in the districts of Paris of 1859. It is an orchestrated scene, no doubt, but perhaps also an indication of what the lost Silvy photographs of 1870-71 might have been portraying.
The exhibition at the NPG offered an intriguing insight into the work of Silvy, his life and times. As it emphasised, his work has much to say about contemporary portrait practice, with interesting connections to digital manipulation in his still life and landscape pictures, as well as in the early street photography.
His success in London as a portraitist has echoes to today's Facebook culture and the early photographic development of celebrity. Although enigmas remain surrounding his work, we now know more thanks to the research of Haworth-Booth, whose Camille Silvy: Photographer of Modern Life, published by the NPG, priced £25, will be a primary source.
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