Pro Photo Daily | Trending: The Gold Rush, The Crimean War, and a Portrait of 19th-Century India

By: David Schonauer
Publish Date: Feb. 9, 2018, 10:55 a.m.

For photography, it was a Eureka moment:

The discovery of gold in California 170 years ago profoundly altered the course of American history. A new exhibition and accompanying book, “Gold and Silver: Images and Illusions of the Gold Rush," on view through April 2 at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, explores how the Gold Rush also influenced the art of the daguerreotype.

The exhibition, noted Sarah Moraz in The New York Times, “explores the symbolism and materiality of precious metals: as a stabilizing element within the history of photography, and holding the promise of prosperity that shaped America.”

The evolution of nineteenth-century photography is also a subtext of a new book, Shadows of War: Roger Fenton’s Photographs of the Crimea, 1855, which displays the work of the pioneering war photographer. The book, wrote James Estrin in The Times, “offers a more comprehensive view of his work beyond the dozen or so images familiar to the public.”

Meanwhile, the work of another pioneering war photographer, Felice Beato, is included as part of an astonishing exhibition in Mumbai, India’s Pundole Gallery. The exhibition, “Portrait of a Nation, A Nation in Portraits,” also includes the work of Simon Bourne, who, like Beato, was at the forefront of documenting 19th-century India, as well as other photographers. “Viewing the photos on display is like looking at India through different lenses – with each photographer’s work shining the spotlight on a different facet of the nation,” noted Architectural Digest India  recently.

Gold, Silver, and the California Gold Rush

An unidentified man holding mining tools. Circa 1851

Gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill in Coloma, California, on January 24, 1848, setting off a stampede for riches that would transform the economy, politics, and social fabric of the United States. At around the same time, the daguerreotype enjoyed a similar surge in popularity, notes Sarah Moroz at The New York Times.

“The west was full of swindlers and gangsters; it attracted men with a propensity for ruthlessness and greed. The lawless terrain belonged only to those who exploited it (if at the expense of the indigenous people), and photographs doubled as a primitive land registry,” Moroz writes.

The exhibition “Gold and Silver: Images and Illusions of the Gold Rush,” and its accompanying book, shows how the daguerreotype was used to establish a kind of social standing among the rowdy population rushing to California. At first, portraits were meant to elevate — even the lowliest could be portrayed as aristocrats. Later, notes Moroz, miners “used an antithetical approach to flaunt a higher social standing. Affluence had new iconography; the aristocrat gave way to the bandit, equipped with his aggressive toolkit: pistols, knives, and shovels.”

As such, the images formed “an archaeology of the American imagination” that would influence how the west would later be characterized in the movies and on TV, she notes.

Portrait of two young men drinking liquor. Circa 1850

Portrait of an unidentified man. Circa 1850

Portrait of William McKnight, California. Circa 1851

In the end, California gold fever and the daguerreotype were both short-lived. By the time gold was discovered in Dawson City, launching the Yukon gold rush in 1896, photography had changed drastically, from one-off daguerreotype process to reproducible images on glass or paper.

Roger Fenton and War Photography

“The Valley of the Shadow of Death,” April 23, 1855

Roger Fenton, a lawyer from a well-to-do family, was already noted as a portrait and landscape photographer when he went to document the Crimean War in 1855 — a struggle in which Russia was defeated by an alliance that included Britain, France and the Ottoman Empire.

“Mr. Fenton covered the war thanks to a commission by the publisher Thomas Agnew and Sons to photograph as many of the officers as possible so that Thomas Barker could use the images as the basis for paintings,” notes James Estrin at The Times. “Other sources have suggested he was more motivated by the Duke of New Castle, Prince Albert, and other patrons who wanted photographs that could help shape British public opinion about the war.”

The new book Shadows of War: Roger Fenton’s Photographs of the Crimea, 1855,  by Sophie Gordon with contributions by Louise Pearson, features 350 images made by the cumbersome large cameras and unwieldy glass plates of the era. Fenton lived among the troops and traveled in a photo truck that doubled as his darkroom, notes Estrin, reportedly breaking several ribs in a fall and contracting cholera.

Colonel Brownrigg and two Russian boys, Alma and Inkermann, 1855

Members of the 4th Dragoons, Crimea. 1855

Photographic van, 1855

“Like almost all of the conflict photographers who have followed, he documented from just one side of the battlefield,” writes Estrin. As with modern-day war photography, the relationship between aesthetics and truth is an issue in his work: Fenton’s image “Valley of the Shadow of Death” was the first iconic war photograph — and it is believed to have been staged, Estrin notes.

A Portrait of 19th-Century India

Red Fort, Delhi, Photographer Unknown

Felice Beato, another pioneering war photographer who had been to the Crimea, arrived in India just after the Indian Rebellion of 1857 — an uprising against British rule that was ultimately put down. Beato had been commissioned by the War Office in London to document sights associated with the conflict and, notes Architectural Digest India, “he photographed the landscape of the uprising in Delhi, Kanpur and Meerut through fractured vistas and wounded structures.”  Beato is now considered to be at the forefront 19th-century photography in India.

Eleven of his images are included in the exhibition “Portrait of a Nation, A Nation in Portraits,” at the Pundole Gallery in Mumbai. The exhibition also includes the work of Simon Bourne, who, like Beato, was a leading photographer of 19th-century India, as well as other photographers, notes Vogue India.

“Viewing the photos on display is like looking at India through different lenses – with each photographer’s work shining the spotlight on a different facet of the nation,” notes ADI.

Taj Mahal, Agra, Samuel Bourne

Maharani of Pratapgarh, Unknown Photographer

Residency, Lucknow, Felice Beato, 1858

The exhibition “enmeshes personal stories of photographers such as Bourne and Raja Deen Dayal with a broader history of 19th century-India. It also brings into focus the changing technology and the art of photo making, from albumen silver prints to Photochrom prints,” notes Architectural Digest.
At top: An unidentified pair of prospectors. Circa 1860