Every photograph is an adventure, the word itself, derived from the Latin adventurus ‘about to happen’, from advenire ‘to arrive’, is a very ‘photographic’ term that can be seen to refer to its temporal nature in its materialisations and developments.
Adventure might necessarily entail danger; perhaps that’s the special ingredient of street photography which makes it so attractive…but what of photography of war, or that made from vertiginous heights?
Today marks the death in 1887 of an adventuring photographer, the Romanian Carol Popp de Szathmari (*1812), and only yesterday, June 2, saw the birth of another in 1852, Eduard Spelterini (†1931), who was Swiss.
Photography’s first brush with war—that most murderous of adventures—was the Crimean (1854–1856), though picturing actual warfare wasn’t a practical possibility. Roger Fenton‘s imagery dominates the record, but he was just one of many; the camera was present in the hands of Frenchmen Colonel Charles Langlois, George Shaw Lefevre (Baron Eversley), Léon-Eugene Mehedin, Pierre Lassimonne and Jean-Baptiste Durand-Brager, the German Friedrich Martens, and the British-born James Robertson, a resident of Constantinople. Mis-adventure struck some, including Richard Nicklin, hired by the British military, who drowned with his two assistants when their ship Rip Van Winkle sank in Balaclava harbour on 14 November 1854 during a hurricane.
Even Leo Tolstoy is supposed to have photographed the siege of Sevastopol. Photographing soldiers before they embarked was good business for British photographers Joseph Cundall and Robert Howlett and likewise for Gustave le Gray and Nadar in their portraits of French commanders and officers, but folios of prints assembled by Fenton’s sponsoring publishers Thomas Agnew & Sons to commemorate the war proved uncommercial as it slipped from public consciousness.
Lastly, Parisians Mayer & Pierson were present to photograph the signing of the peace treaty, but theirs, and the photographs by all of the above, appeared in the press only as wood block illustrations, the reproduction technology that preceded the half-tone plate.
It is Szathmari to whom credit as the first war photographer should go. A painter, he had abandoned studies at the academy in favour of learning from experience, travelling and following a bohemian lifestyle, and eventually settled in Bucharest in southern Romania where clientele for his portrait miniatures and landscapes was the city’s high society.
By 1848, Szathmari began to experiment with the calotype and then the wet collodion process developed in that year by F. Scott Archer (1813–1857) and first published in 1851. He was quickly well-practiced enough to open a photographic studio in which he made portraits of soldiers and officers who had arrived with the outbreak of the Crimean War in late June 1853 when Romanian principalities were occupied by the Russian army. The swaggering boasts of his subjects must have piqued his interest and in April 1854, he loaded a carriage-cum-darkroom with his cameras and glass plates and ventured to the edge of war.
Its success in adhering silver nitrate solution to glass meant that the high-resolution and short exposure times of wet collodion dominated all other negative processes from the mid- 1850s, until dry-plate inventions in turn gradually superseded it by the 1870s. Ironically, instructions for collodion warned that;
“it is hardly necessary to caution the student when using Gun Cotton, as he is aware of its explosive nature; a single spark might cause serious consequences.”
Thus armed, Szathmari went to the Danube border where Turkish and Russian soldiers were engaged in the first skirmishes of the war. He was quick to exhibit the resulting photographs at the Paris World Exposition of 1855 and presented copies to Queen Victoria and Emperor Napoleon III.
He leaves us with a most colourful story of photographic derring-do. Photographing both front lines at the Oltenitza Quarantine Station with a long lens, he made one picture (above) which shows Russian officers observing the enemy’s lines through telescopes (detail below).
French photographer Ernest Lacan (1829–1879) recounts the incident in his 1856 book Esquisses photographiques: À propos de l’Exposition Universelle et de la Guerre d’Orient (‘Photographic Sketches: Concerning the Universal Exposition and the Eastern [Crimean] War’):
It is not without danger that M. de Szathmari did his job. He was near Oltenitza in the first days of April 1854 when the Russians were besieging the town. He wanted to take a picture with the quarantine station. Consequently, he approached the town with the van he used as his laboratory, then prepared his camera and began his work. He was surprised by a loud thump and, at almost the same time, the sound of a cannon was heard from the town. Mr. de Szathmari thought that he had chosen a bad place and that it would be better to move out of the Turkish garrison’s line of fire. But he bravely remained there. A second impact followed. It was obvious for the artist that he had the honour of being the target and that the fire was becoming more and more menacing and accurate. But the view he was taking was so interesting, the light and shadow so appropriate, that it was impossible for him to make up his mind to leave the spot. And, in addition, his work would be completed in just a few more moments and waited till all was finished. It was time to leave. A third cannon ball, aimed better than the others, ploughed up the ground a few paces in front of him, covering him with sand. But the picture was magnificent!
Also in flattened perspective and broad sunlight, to reduce subject movement (especially of their horses), he photographed a troop of Turkish cavalrymen; two mounted troopers with rifles in hand, with two dismounted and standing beside their saddled horses, one, a bugler, (left) holds his brass instrument at his waist while the other’s appearance is that of an officer. Despite the static poses, Szathmari has had to apply some rather obvious retouching, picking out against their uniforms of dark blue the brass buttons and the of thirteen rows of silk worsted cord of their sashes. The blurring of the figure second from left, and his mount, has been corrected with a halo of brushwork, though his features remain indistinct, and so likewise have the white horses been outlined against the sky.
More successful are Szathmari’s many posed groups of fully armed combatants amongst their tents who remain still during the still lengthy exposures.
Mountains seen from above, while spectacular, are a common social media share of international travellers and involve nothing more courageous than boarding a plane and snapping the view through a cabin window while sipping a pinot.
But to look at Eduard Spelterini’s turn of the century aerial photographs is salutary; they were taken at giddy heights of between 500 and 4,000 metres or as much as 4.5km, but from the basket suspended from a gas balloon, yet in almost every case they are superior to what you’ll take from 10km altitude through the tiny spy hole and layers of glass and perspex that one is provided in a Boeing jet.
Rising from his humble beginning as a Swiss innkeeper’s son, Spelterini dubbed himself King of the Skies. He was accompanied in a series of balloons by European royalty, while crowds of commoners—spectators who paid for the privilege (see left)—gathered at the launches, gasping as the ‘world-renowned Leona Dare’ (American acrobat Susan Stuart) dangled from underneath the basket on a rope held between her teeth.
A consummate showman, he reputedly entertained his customers by popping champagne to punctuate his baritone singing of arias from Bizet’s Carmen that had premiered during the peak of his fame.
His photographs are equally spectacular and his efforts in obtaining them worthy of the femme fatale of whom he lustily sang.
Spelterini had been a talented singer and a top student at the Paris Conservatorium before he fell ill with tuberculosis. Convalescencing in the south of France he saw his first balloon and in Marseilles became an ecstatic passenger, inspired to enrol immediately in the Académie des aérostatiers, from which he qualified as an Aeronaut in 1877, and ten years later constructed the first of his own balloons.
First launching his Urania, a gas balloon with a volume of 1,500 cubic metres, on Oct. 5, 1887, he embarked on a series of ambitious semi-scientific missions—offering himself as a test subject to scientists exploring the effects of air travel on the body, and conducting meteorological experiments—during which he made his technically accomplished aerial views of Alpine glaciers, the pyramids of Giza, ancient Persian cities and South Africa’s gold mines, and of streets and buildings in Cairo, Zurich, Johannesburg, Geneva and Copenhagen.
He was the first to photograph the Alps from the air in 1898, and first to cross them from west to east in a balloon, floating 100 miles (161 km) from the French town of Chamonix to Switzerland on August 8, 1909. His later, 1913 oblique view of the 4,010 m Lagginhorn (above) was made in the midst of the Pennine Alps; the peak being one of the lower of those he recorded over the Simplon Pass.
The sublime image is a pin-sharp rendition of a full spectrum of tones from dark, jagged rock to brilliant sunlit snow beneath billowing layers of passing clouds. Conversely, his earlier view of the pyramids evokes the sense that we see them hazily through shimmering heat and sirocco-blown dust.
With no injuries or casualties Spelterini piloted over 570 flights carrying a total of 1,237 passengers. Though Nadar had taken the first aerial photographs from balloons nearly thirty years earlier at heights ranging from 80 metres (his first showing the village of Petit Bicêtre) to 500 metres for those most often published, showing the Arc de Triomphe and Paris, Spelterini’s photographs reached a wider audience, permitting thousands their first birds-eye view of the world as they crowded into public halls for his “Over the Clouds” magic lantern presentations, repeated 600 times in four different languages.
Eventually the balloonist-photographer found himself overtaken by advancing technology after the rapid aeronautical developments of WW1. Regarding the motorised aeroplane as “noisy, common, and entirely unworthy of a gentleman”, he retired to Coppet near Geneva. Initially well-off financially, his savings were eaten up by the post-war inflation, so in 1922, he hired himself out as a showman at the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, posing for photos and taking people for short rides in a captive balloon, which he detested.
He bought a small house and poultry farm in Zipf near Vöcklabruck in Austria. In 1926, he attempted a last flight from Zürich in a balloon rented by some friends, but fell unconscious during the voyage, his passengers crash-landing in Vorarlberg.
He died impoverished in 1931, and was largely forgotten until the publication of a monograph by Alex Capus, Hilar Stadler & Thomas Krämer with the Museum im Bellpark (2007). Eduard Spelterini : Fotografien des Ballonpioniers (Scheidegger & Spiess, Zürichnow). Now his 1909 series of glass-plate images of the Mer de Glace (“sea of ice”) glacier that sweeps from the Mont Blanc Massif are valued for their unique detail and antiquity, and serve to measure how much this landscape has changed in the intervening years.
None in 1909 could have known that these French glaciers would be threatened only a hundred years later by rising temperatures in the century that followed. By retracing his balloon journey with helicopters, their historical icy topography can be reconstructed using photogrammetry of permanent geological features as points of reference for visualising the changing nature of the alpine landscape. Now the solid stream of ice in Spelterini’s carefully made oblique views has been replaced by a largely empty valley in which the debris-strewn ice surface has dropped around 100 metres compared to its height in 1909. Based on their precisely triangulated comparison scientists have calculated that, overall, the glacier has lost around 700 million cubic metres of water since the beginning of the 20th century.
The adventures of the Romanian painter remain as traces from the photographic margin of military history, while the bold aeronaut’s have a renewed purpose.