Salt and Silver - our early photographic heritage

01 March 2015

SIG: Archaeology and Heritage

Dr Michael Pritchard and and Carol Jacobi. Interview on BBC 4's "Today" programme.


Today: What is a salt print, how was it constructed, what does it look like?

Michael Pritchard: A salt print is one of the early photographic processes that was introduced around 1839. It was invented by Henry Fox-Talbot at Lacock Abbey. He devised a way of coating paper that made it light sensitive and ultimately developed that to become the callotype process in 1841. This process really produced some rather wonderful images in his hands, and people like Helen Adamson and a number of those very early photographic pioneers.


Dr Michael Pritchard at the Opening of the Exhibition


T: Do salt prints have a typical look? Would you know one if you saw one?

MP: Yes, certainly experts - people like Carol Jacobi, the exhibition’s curator -would know them immediately. Salt prints can have a range of tones. They are often very deep brown but they can also range through to blacks to the more yellow colours, depending on how they’ve been produced.


T: Are they fragile?

MP: They are light sensitive and they need to be kept and stored and treated carefully but they definitely can be shown in rather wonderful exhibitions like the Tate is putting on until 7 June.


Private View and Official Opening of the Exhibition


T: Why haven’t they been shown before? Are they vulnerable if they are put on show? Is that why we haven’t seen them before?

Carole Jacobi: I think salt prints have often been thought of as early photographs, and they’ve been exhibited as early photographs. What we are doing here is exhibiting them as a very distinct sort of photography, with its own beauty and its own characteristics - that hasn’t been done before in this country.


Carol Jacobi, "Salt and Silver" curator (c) Michael Pritchard FRPS


T: Can you give us a sense of the range of photographs you are exhibiting?

CJ: One of the amazing things about this exhibition is that we get a sense of  what did people point their camera at when they first had a camera. It’s incredibly diverse and hard to categorise. There are portraits and landscapes and still lives, as you might expect, but you there are building sites, shells of china, plaster busts and flood ruins, there is an incredible diversity of images in these early works. But the revelation of the show has been in the area of photographs of people: when you think of Victorian portraits you imagine them being stiff and stuffy - being posed - but the people in these salt prints are incredibly spontaneous; the photographs have captured their gestures and their expressions, and found ways to really create a sense of their presence.


T: It has been suggested that we are not going to be able to keep our digital photos for as long as we managed to keep these early photos, simply because we are not going to have the technology to look at them.  We are not better able to keep photos now than we were then.


MP: It is a problem that the Royal Photographic Society is worried about at the moment, as are organisations like the British Library and the National Archives: How do we look after and preserve these digital files, whether they are images or documents, for future generations? And what’s interesting is that a number of archives, galleries and museums are actually printing their images using traditional photographic techniques because we know that they are still going to be available and accessible in 200 or 300 years’ time; whereas with digital files, I don’t think anybody would want to hazard a guess as to how long they are going to last or whether we are going to be able to read them in the first place.


T: It’s the opposite of what you would expect - you’d think of these salt prints as precious and difficult to get hold of, and the organisation of an exhibition like this is a great thing, but actually, it could be that we’ll lose an awful lot of material that we think of now as pretty permanent.

Salt and Silver exhibition, general view (c) M Pritchard FRPS


CJ: Well, that’s the thing about photography, that there’s always a generation of earlier doctors and the technology is always moving quickly. I mean, salt prints only lasted 20 years before the technology moved on, and I think that’s possibly always going to be the case with photographic imagery.


T: Is anyone still doing it, as an art form?

MP: Yes, in fact there are a number of very good calotype practitioners in the UK, and elsewhere in Europe as well at the moment, and they are producing some stunning, very artistic work; so it’s still an active process.


Salt and Silver: Early Photography 1840-1860, Tate Gallery;  see more information here and here


There are various members of the Archaeology and Heritage Group who practise this and other historical printing methods. To find out more, visit our blogs galleries (here) or contact the Group via the webmaster.


Text edited by Chelin Miller LRPS from a Radio4 interview

Feature image from Tate website

Other images by Dr M Pritchard FRPS and C Miller, as indicated