Architecture in Photography Exhibitions 1858 – 1861 – review

Natalie Banaszak by
Robert Lansdale

Toronto. We were graced with two excellent speakers in October, 2017. Natalie Banaszak was our Ryerson University thesis winner in 2016. In this presentation, she reviewed the highlights of her thesis and augmented a few items recently reproduced in our Photographic Canadiana. As noted, the photograph she chose are from the collection at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, TX. The thesis is summarized beginning on page 6 of issue 43-3 of Photographica Canadiana.

The  talk presented the first time photography was used in a public exhibition (1851 – Crystal Palace in London, England) followed in 1853 by the formation of photographic societies like the Royal Photographic Society. The societies focussed on the art of photography and the sharing of examples.

The establishment of the wet collodion process allowed photographers to travel and initiated the growth of more commercial studios. The images were much clearer than the previous process by Fox Talbot which relied on a paper negative and the resulting loss of resolution from the paper’s fibres. While the commercial studios grew, architecture was not emphasized until the founding of the first Architectural Photographic Association (APA) in 1857.

The architects did not take photographs or order photographs of their creations. Instead, they bought relevant examples back to London  and assembled them in roughly annual exhibitions. The exhibits worked on a subscription basis which was the downfall of the concept. Attendees paid the APA a guinea (about $170 in today’s purchasing power) per annum. At each exhibition, the attendees chose the prints they wanted and the APA ordered them.

By the time of the first (January 1858) exhibition there were 750 subscribers. The exhibition of 354 architectural photographs was divided into sections and subscribers had to purchase one print in each section.  Unfortunately, an ordered print sometimes was not processed as well as the exhibited print. The prints were large for the time and  where either albumen or salt prints contact printed from glass plate negatives.

Many of the photographs on exhibit were of very ornate doors, more common in Southern Europe than in England.

The second exhibition of 383 photographs took place from December 1858 to February 1859. The photographs were a huge change from the first exhibition. Landscapes or places around a building were chosen. Natalie compared this exhibition with the third exhibition in Paris hosted by the Societe Francaise de Photographie (SFP).  The SFP addressed art objects and landscapes. The SFP considered photographs as art objects and their clientele were familiar with such photographs through their patronage of Parisian studios. Natalie showed an example photograph from an 1858 studio in Venice where no one building was the focus of the photograph.

The APA’s 1860 exhibition had 510 photographs on display for the attendees.

With the 1861 exhibition the APA hit an all-time high with sharper images that showed  much more detail. Architects were becoming heavily invested in photography by this time. Natalie illustrated this with a Francis Frith & Co. photograph of columns taken in the late 1850s. The original is a smaller 8×10 print so sharp you can see the names carved in the columns. The photo is one of a series taken of biblical subjects and completed back in London.

Unfortunately, 1861 was the last exhibition before the business model fell apart. By 1859, the APA could not keep up with the demand. They simply could not distribute the requested photographs fast enough. Nor was the quality acceptable. The APA and its exhibits were deemed too commercial. By 1861 the exhibition’s cost exceeded its profit returned to the APA and it collapsed. The remainder of the exhibition prints ended up in the Victoria and Albert Museum.  Using a new business model, the APA tried to survive. The new model saw the APA commissioning specific photographs rather than going off to various studios to select existing items.

The 1862 exhibition had a minuscule 36 photographs with each subscriber being given eleven prints with no choice at all. By 1868 the need for the APA diminished to the point of disappearing. Architectural photographs were everywhere and anyone wishing a photograph could simply visit a specific studio.

Natalie wrapped up her talk with what were for her some outstanding questions followed by a brief Q&A with the night’s attendees.

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