Paul's Photograph, Part 2

Posted December 23, 2010

(New here? Read Part 1 first!)

I have a couple bits of news, and I'd like to give you a more detailed tour of the print. I'm still ruminating on the fate of the photograph, but there's plenty to do in the meantime ...

First, I have a date with an appraiser to do the first detailed examination of the print. I'll be sharing that process as it unfolds, in early January.

Second, the piece will soon be on display at the Portland Art Museum, as part of the "Riches of a City" exhibition, running from February through May of 2011.

Now, on to the main course. The picture below was taken in a bright examination room, so my apologies for the reflections. I'll be posting better photos after the initial appraisal inspection!

This is a picture of my copy of Frederick Evans' "A Sea of Steps."

What you see here is the photograph, mounted on card stock, behind glass. You can't see the frame, but you can see my finger down there in the lower left. Hah.

The subject of Evans' photograph is a stairwell at Wells Cathedral in Somerset, England. More specifically, this is the intersection of two flights of stairs: the door at the top of the stairwell leads to the Vicar's Close (where the residents of the cathedral live), and the "swell" on the right hand side leads to the Chapter House (the official meeting room).

What makes this image significant is its role in helping establish photography as an art in its own right. Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, photography was a very popular curiosity. Many photographers attempted to reconcile photography with the fine arts by way of elaborate manipulations to make it a human endeavor, not just a mechanical and chemical process. Evans rejected that idea, and sought to create purely photographic images that were beautiful, representational, and undeniably fine art.

His process was painstaking. He would camp out for weeks in a location to find the perfect perspective on his subject, the perfect time of day, and perfect exposure for his film. No artificial illumination, no Photoshop, no creative cropping, and no intervention. What you see in this photograph is what he saw in that stairwell, in that moment.

This image is considered by many to be his finest; the culmination of his technical skill and artistic vision.

The negative for this image was created in 1903, and this print was made sometime before 1915. The first world war effectively ended Evans' career in photography when platinotype (platinum) photography became prohibitively expensive.

Fast forward about one hundred years, and here it is.

The card stock it's mounted on bears the faint remains of his hand drawn borders. The "empty" space underneath the photo contains the imprint of his name, the title of the piece, and his blind stamp -- basically an un-inked stamp of his initials, pressed into the paper.

The print is a bit smaller than the original negative, at about 9.5 x 7.5 inches. That's a big sheet of film: more than two thousand times larger than the sensor in the digital camera used to capture the image above. To make the print, Evans placed the negative directly on top of the paper, and turned on a light for a few seconds to expose it -- simple, eh?

We can tell the paper uses a silver emulsion because of the way it has faded over the last century. The fading is most evident in the lower corners of the photo, which appear gray. It's actually silver when you see it in person, and reflects the light from the room.

The fading has also revealed retouched areas within the photograph, because the retouching pigments fade at a different rate than the emulsion. If you look at the top edge of the photo, towards the left, you'll see some dark boxes that stand out from the rest of the image. Evans is known to have "spotted" his images (to remove dust marks and such), and to have enhanced some window tracery, but these boxes are pretty dramatic.

The photograph appears to be adhered to the card stock at the corners, rather than a full contact mount, which has caused the edges to curl up a bit. It's hard to see in the photo above, but the evidence is in a slight shadow underneath the bottom edge. In it's current frame, the curled edges are touching the glass -- this is something they'll be fixing in the conservation process, probably by inserting shims into the frame to increase the distance between the glass and the photo.

So there it is.

I'll post more news as it comes.

(on to Part 3!)

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