Images from photography’s early years have a peculiar temporality. They evoke a seemingly remote past through old-fashioned clothing and poses, as well as often unfamiliar customs and geographies. But they also deliver the past to us in a very immediate and familiar way. Through photography, the past is always with us — it is ‘ever present’.
This exhibition, drawn from the Gallery’s historical collections, presents works by unknown nineteenth-century photographers alongside iconic images by some of the masters of the twentieth century, such as Walker Evans, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Diane Arbus.
The images in ‘Ever Present’ suggest the multiple stories comprising the history of photography in the pre-digital era.
The most popular and abundant genre of early photography was portraiture. In the years immediately following the dissemination of the daguerreotype process in France in 1839, professional photographic portrait studios started appearing around the world.
The earliest known studio opened in New York City in March 1840 and, by the late 1840s, daguerreotype studios were common throughout the United States and Europe. From the fragile and precious daguerreotype to inexpensive and widely available tintypes and cartes-de-visite paper photographs, portraiture was the most visible genre of the medium from the middle of the nineteenth century.
The photographic portrait had a profound effect on the lives and recorded histories of ordinary people. As with all of the portraits displayed here, nothing is known of these subjects beyond this surviving photograph, but as it had become possible to capture an ‘exact likeness’ in life, they remain visible and present long after death.
With the appearance of large yet portable cameras and the rapid development of photographic techniques in the mid-nineteenth century, professional and amateur photographers across Europe, North America, Asia and Australia took to travelling with the express purpose of photographing landscapes, architecture and people.
The medium quickly became the most immediate means by which images and knowledge of diverse cultures and geographies were collected, succeeding earlier painted and printed views. However, as the scientific and documentary application of photography increased, photographs such as Daniel Marquis’s studio portraits of Indigenous groups, on display here, demonstrate that the empirical nature of the photograph was not inherently objective. Subjects could be romanticised or distorted in various ways, depending on the viewpoint of the photographer.
Photography thus became a culturally inflected medium, used for a variety of public and private purposes. Playing an extraordinary role in the transformation of visual culture, photography has also had a significant impact on society, documenting and affecting social change as well as recording the progressive triumph of mechanisation and technology over nature.