Unearthed: Photograpy’s Roots

Dulwich Picture Gallery – Until 30th August 2021

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Off to the Dulwich Picture Gallery this week, what a lovely place Dulwich Village is, all leafy and pretty shops and cafes.  There’s a feel about certain places for me that, like Dulwich Village, makes them seem that idealised English space, stuck somewhere between the 20s and the 50s, all green and genteel so that you feel like you’ve just stepped into an Agatha Christie novel, or maybe I’ve read too many!

The gallery is one of my favourites, designed by Sir John Soane, it has that tasteful pared back elegance that is his hallmark.  Still, I wasn’t there to lounge about in the garden drinking coffee, so time for the exhibition.

The exhibition looks at the early development of photography by focusing in particular on botanical photography.  It takes its starting point from the still-life tradition in painting, Jan van Huysum’s, Vase with Flowers richly illustrating how closely artists in the 17th and 18th centuries worked to realistically capture nature.  The first room showcased early Victorian pioneers of photograpy, the gallery sheds a light here on previously unexhibited works such as botanical images by Anna Atkins and Cecilia Glaisher. Both women came at botanical photography from a scientific angle, attempting to capture images of specimens that could serve to illustrate the study of botany and different species.  They are fascinating, Atikns’ images created using Cyanotype while Glaisher used the technique of photogenic drawing created by Henry Fox Talbot.

In the next room we find more previously unseen treasure, the photographic work of Charles Jones, while Jones was a celebrated gardener, his photographs seem to have been a private pursuit.  They were rescued from loss by a collector in London who chanced upon the whole lot for sale in Bermondsey.  They are really interesting, as the gallery makes clear, these photographs are mainly for the clear recording of specimens but the artistic tilt is inveitable.  The arrangement of the plants, fruits and seeds undeniably has a language, from perfectly poised onions to neatly bisected seed pods, the photographer’s hand is in the images.  I loved them, as I’ve said before, we inevitably bring our own thoughts and ideas to art and I suppose, being a bit of a neat freak, I connected with the spare simplicity of these images, the monochrome imagery adding to that, although, of course, he had no choice at this point!

I was also very blown away by the photographs of Karl Blossfledt, in a fascinating, German state-sponsored project, Blossfledt travelled Europe and North Africa extensively in the 1890s photographing plants for design ideas to be used in manufacturing.  Looking at the photographs you can see where ideas for metalworks could have come from, but, not only that, these photographs show an appreciation for the strength and delicacy of natural forms.  Once again, the photographer himself did not think of his images as artistic but practical although he was very successful when invited to publish and exhibit his work in an artistic context and ranked with renowned photographers of the day.

Moving on through the exhibition the images become much more about an artistic response.  Imogen Cunningham was an early member of Group f/64, a group dedicated to getting photography recognised as an art form in the 1930s.  Her images are as powerful as they are beautiful, Two Callas, 1925, is very affecting for me, silent, the close up nature of the shot brings out their pureness of colour and soft, silky, surface.

The exhibition finally leads us to contemporary artists working with botanical imagery.  Ori Gersht’s,  On reflection, a video installation, has been placed in the mausoleum, a triptych of three videos the artwork is clearly based on Dutch 17th century still-life and it’s allusions to the inevitability of death.  The siting certainly adds to that.  Slowly the image fractures to the background tinkling of glass breaking.  It made me think of sadness and destruction, much of Gersht’s work reflects on his experiences of living in war torn environment and that much does resonate through this piece.

In the last room there are a number of contemporary works, lots of diverse approaches to the same theme of botany.  I particularly liked the image that has been used by the gallery to advertise the exhibition, Richard Learoyd’s, Large Poppies, 2019. They explain his technique which creates a grain-free image, it’s rather breath-taking, the clarity of the image is fantastic with an absolute sharpness to the petals that makes you want to touch them, I wouldn’t dare, as well as the movement of the poppies and the richness and vitality of the saturated colours.   

I really liked this exhibition, I truly believe it deserves five stars.  The curators have taken an unusual theme in art, botany, and blended it seamlessly with early photography.  I loved that they have introduced us to little known artists and techniques and also entered into the discussion of when the practical becomes art.  Within a smallish exhibition they’ve managed to lead us from photography’s roots to the current contemporary contexts for botany in art all the time maintaining the link right back to the still-life genre.  Well worth a visit.

Rita – Gallery Tart

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