Over the course of its history, photography has left a trail of also-ran processes—techniques that flourished and faded, alternate ways of recording reality. In a new exhibition, the J. Paul Getty Museum at Los Angeles’ Getty Center will draw attention to paper negatives, an early method that some curators and collectors revere for its painterly riff on photographic clarity.
“Real/Ideal: Photography in France, 1847–1860,” which opens Aug. 30, recalls the careers of Édouard Baldus, Gustave Le Gray, Henri Le Secq and Charles Nègre. All four created photos developed from paper negatives to capture the buildings and byways of Second Empire France.
Paper negatives had “a brief moment of glory,” says the Getty’s Karen Hellman, who relied on the museum’s renowned photography department for most of the 150 works and objects on view. The paper process first flourished in France in the late 1840s, following a cross-Channel rivalry between two of photography’s pioneers. Louis Daguerre was capturing real images on small sheets of silver-treated copper—soon widely known as daguerreotypes. In England, William Henry Fox Talbot was creating negative images on sensitized paper, which could then be used to create “positive” photographic prints.
Daguerreotypes were better for portraits, Ms. Hellman says, but prints from paper negatives were more suited to architecture and landscapes. She admires the photos’ “rich shadows,” comparing them to charcoal drawings.
Ms. Hellman says that the title of the exhibition is a reminder that photography is “tied to the real” but is also “a medium with creative possibilities.” The title also suggests the vivid but dreamy quality of the photos that resulted from the paper-negative process.
The four photographers were often drawn to similar subjects, like historic buildings, and the show chronicles the early emergence of individual photographic styles. Baldus (1813–89) and Nègre (1820–80) both photographed Avignon’s Papal Palace, in the south of France. Baldus aimed for a monumental, panoramic effect, says Ms. Hellman, while Nègre shot the scene from a lower vantage point to get a more pedestrian point of view.
Le Gray (1820–84) was one of the first to treat his paper negatives with wax, which Ms. Hellman says helped to consolidate the paper fibers in the paper negative, so the image recorded was sharper and more detailed. When glass-plate negatives began to replace the paper technique during the 1850s, he promoted the newer technology.
Today, Le Gray is the best known of the four, and his works now fetch the highest prices at auction, says Darius Himes, Christie’s international head of photographs. In February, a pin-sharp Le Gray naval scene from 1856-57, developed from a glass-plate negative, sold for $965,000 at a sale at Christie’s New York. The presale estimate was $300,000 to $500,000.
The Getty show, which closes Nov. 27, includes loans from Paris’s Musée d’Orsay and France’s National Library. The exhibition includes actual paper and glass negatives as well as the finished photos. Museum-goers can consider whether, as glass-plate negatives replaced paper, something unusual and compelling was lost.