September 4: The ghosts of the long-dead are recovered from dormant, invisible photographs.
Today’s date marks the birth in 1872 of Nils Strindberg, whose work presents an excellent instance of the phenomenon of the longevity of the latent image of photographic film and, as far as I can discover, the earliest.
He was a member of the ill-fated Salomon August Andrée balloon expedition, setting out on 11 July 1897 with Andrée and Knut Fraenkel from Virgohamna in northwest Svalbard in the hydrogen balloon Ömen (‘Eagle’) in the first attempt to travel by air in the polar regions.
At the launch Andrée shouted to onlookers who included several scientists; ‘Don’t be uneasy if you receive no news from me for a year, and possibly not until the following year.’
They promptly lost three drag-lines then had to release ballast when the gondola dipped into the bay not far from shore before losing hydrogen on an uncontrolled high altitude ascent.
65 hours later, after several shuddering contacts with the terrain, the craft halted on the sea ice 480 kilometres northwest of the launch site, well short of their target. The crew were forced to abandon the balloon to journey in bitter conditions for 76 days, with inadequate equipment and clothing, hunting polar bears and seals on the way to replace supplies they had to abandon to save weight. Arriving at last on solid land in Kvitøya in northeast Svalbard they set up camp where they perished for reasons still not understood. In 1930 crew of the Norwegian ship Braatvåg discovered their remains along with diaries by all three, and exposed film made by Strindberg.
As it happens, yesterday was the final day of an exhibition at Moderna Museet, state museum for modern and contemporary art (est. 1958) at Exercisplan 4, 111 49 Stockholm, Sweden. Written in Light – The First Photographers (8 Apr – 3 Sept 2017) was drawn from Moderna Museet’s collection of photography from the second half of the 19th century and included the pictures retrieved from the film left by Strindberg.
The exhibition is surveyed on Dr Marcus Bunyan‘s excellent photography blog artblart where you can find large reproductions of several of the images.
If his name seems familiar, it is because physicist-photographer Nils Strindberg was related to August Strindberg (1849-1912), the famous Swedish playwright and novelist. Nils was the son of one of August’s cousins. He was a brilliant student who was doing original research in physics and chemistry.
As the main scientific purpose of the expedition was to map the area by means of aerial photography, Strindberg’s devotion to photography made him a valuable member. He was equipped with a camera which was recovered by the Braatvåg. It was made for the journey by August Westberg at Numa Petersen & Handels- och Fabriks-AB, Stockholm, which dominated the Swedish market for film production and film accessories from the 1890s up until the beginning of the 1900s.
The camera was able to record date, time and the weather data on to the film. It was also able to make stereo as well as monocular images and had been designed for operation from the balloon as an aerial survey device. Though not intended for the purpose, it served to make the haunting record of the daily lives of the ill-fated crew and their arduous journey which they made on foot, rather than gracefully through the air.
It was John Hertzberg (1871 – 1935) who, late in his career as associate professor of photography since 1921 at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, was commissioned to develop the roll films whose imagery had remained latent traces suspended invisible in their silver gelatin emulsion for thirty-three years in the ice and snow.
Hertzberg was then one of Sweden’s most celebrated and respected photographers who worked in a Pictoralist manner but who also invented a colour process before embracing the Lumiére brothers’ Autochrome colour transparency material when it first appeared.
It was his technical knowledge especially in the ‘painterly’ bromoil and other pigment processes that enabled him to so successfully rescue some of the most beautiful polar expedition imagery from often barely legible negatives.
Five exposed rolls of film were found, one of them still in the camera, from which Hertzberg managed to save 93 of the potential 240 frames, making copies which he then retouched, smoothing away the water damage, fogging, scratches and blotches to discover carefully composed imagery which exceed in aesthetic appeal the factual record-making intended.
In the exhibition Written in Light – The First Photographers, the prints made from the damaged negatives (which have since been further compromised through poor handling and storing) were very appropriately exhibited beside Hertzberg’s retouched versions; what we miss in terms of the patina of time and accident may be seen to be offset by the seamless poetry of the copies.
It was not until 2004 that Tyrone Martinsson, a senior lecturer at the University of Gothenburg researching historical and contemporary photography of the environment and landscape, noticed that 12 previously neglected frames taken by Nils Strindberg could be combined to make up a 360-degree panorama of the landing site. The result has the alien quality of the panoramic view made by the Russian Mars-3 lander of 1973 and others since, which convey the sense of being spontaneously embodied in a cryptic landscape in which we have never set foot. It demonstrates Strindberg’s scientific record-making intention but also the sense of drama that animates all of his pictures.
Augmenting this otherworldly sensation are the vertical black streaks, light leaks top and bottom that vignette the entire strip and the solarisation of a hooded figure standing and looking into the scene (in the 12Mb file below), as another heroically surveys the horizon from the upended gondola.
Martinsson is the author of numbers of papers on expedition photographs the and of a popular biography (in Swedish) Nils Strindberg : En biografi om fotografen på Andrées polarexpedition, 2006. His discovery, more than a century after Strindberg had made his poignant photographic observation of the smallness of human endeavour within nature, demonstrates another aspect of latency; the dormant meaning in photographs that can only be unveiled through our careful attention to them.