The words ‘certain photographs’ contain a useful double meaning.
The fires across eastern and south-eastern Australia and on Kangaroo Island in South Australia still smoulder and burn, ready to stir into rage again as we wait out the rest of this awful summer.
We live under a shroud of smoke, breathing atomic ashen particles of billions of incinerated trees and dead creatures, of houses and farms and towns. And we seethe under our uneasy breath over our contrarian leader proudly waving a lump of coal in parliament given him by his masters in the fossil-fuel industries while spouting that climate change, though ‘real’, cannot be due to humans…at least, not rich Australians!
I retreat gratefully into the eccentrically titled history of photography site ‘Luminous-Lint‘, a subscription service invaluable to collectors and chroniclers alike. It has just issued a newsletter in which site owner Alan Griffiths deals with imagery of landscape that it has online.
Amongst them is a picture of La Mer de Glace (‘The Sea of Ice’) in the French Alps, a daguerreotype by John Ruskin (1819–1900) and his servant Frederick Crawley. His attitudes to photography were somewhat fickle—he marvelled at its realism but doubted its value as art, and was vexed over its competition for the ‘material felicity’ he desired in his own art, but here we can see him using the medium in parallel with his drawing and painting.
From the window in an upstairs room of the old Montenvers Hotel, built in 1840 on the 1741 campsite of English visitors Pockocke and Windham whose arrival preceded a stream of tourists, Ruskin shows us the glacier. We see it flanked to the left by the les Echellettes and its ridge rising to Les Drus (3754m) out of the composition top left, and the Tete de Trelaporte ascending to the summit of the Aiguille des Grands Charmoz (3444m) out of the composition at top right. In the centre distance is Pointe Walker (4208m) of the Les Grandes Jorasses, and the ridge of the Franco-Italian border rising 4000m with the Dôme de Rochefort (4015m). Aiguille de Rochefort (4001m) is at the far end of a ridge that rises from the glacier in the centre of the composition via the Aiguille de Tacul (3444m) and just in view juts the triangular Aiguille du Geant (4013m).
Yet Ruskin’s drawing and wash represents what is a tumultuous, forbidding landscape with such draughtsman-like analytical concision that even clouds are well behaved…
…while his and Crawley’s daguerreotype conveys an undeniably Romantic aspect, more like the art of Turner whom Ruskin adored; it is luminous and mysterious. Our eye’s imagined entry into it is barred by the impassable, endless crevasses and seracs, the precipitous mountainsides obscured under mists of clouds blurred during the exposure. It is a magnificent photograph that shows the drawing tame by comparison.
Ruskin was followed in the same year by the Bisson brothers who were commissioned by the Alsatian textile industrialist-cum-glaciologist Daniel Dollfus-Ausset to travel to the Alps to take photograph of the glaciers to support his research into how the glaciers developed and retreated.
Auguste Rosalie Bisson (1826-1900) made a first attempt on the summit of Mont Blanc in August 1859, but failed; made a second expedition in July 1860 which was defeated by the weather; and on July 24 1861 reached the top and took three photographs, “two very good” and one simply “good.” Using the images, in June 1854 the Bissons presented the 105 x 45 cm ‘Panorama-copie de cour de Louvre,” that served Dollfus-Ausset at the Academy of Science and for his multi-volume Matériaux pour l’étude des glaciers (1864-73).
The account of the expedition can be found in the The London Review, no. 60, vol. III, of August 24, 1861, “Scientific Intelligence: A Photographic Ascent of Mont Blanc”, on p. 236, and graphically describes the enterprise and hardship involved then in making photographs of remote landscape;
M. Auguste Bisson, the well-known Alpine photographer, has recently put into execution a project which has occupied his thoughts for some years past. This is no less than the ascent of Mont Blanc with all the paraphernalia necessary to the obtaining large photographic views from the summit; but, in spite of the well-known energy and talent of this operator, and the experience he has gained during his many photographic excursions at lower elevations, so formidable an enterprise occasioned many of M. Bisson’s friends to have serious misgivings as to the success of the attempt. He started from Chamonix with the guide, Auguste Balmat, and twenty-five porters; for in order to carry the large amount of apparatus to such an altitude it was necessary that it should be well distributed. When they reached the Petits Mulets they encountered a terrible storm of wind, accompanied with avalanches falling on every side, which compelled the party to beat a retreat to the Grands Mulets. Arriving there, some of the bearers were too ill to proceed, and had to be sent back, while the party waited until seven hardier porters could be sent up to them from below. Upon these arriving the ascent was recommenced, and at length the summit was reached. There, almost all the party were so overcome by sleep or exhausted by fatigue and suffering as to be unable to move, leaving Balmat and Bisson, whose photographic ardour sustained his strength, the only ones capable of thinking of the reproduction of that magnificent panorama which lay stretched out beneath them. The photographer and his brave companion set up the tent and arranged the materials, but when they attempted to melt the snow in order to supply themselves with water, the fuel which they had brought with them for this purpose refused to light on account of the rarity of the atmosphere. In spite of all these difficulties three pictures were obtained, of which two are said to be very satisfactory. The time occupied on the summit of the mountain did not exceed two hours and a half.
A decade later, and the scene is accessible to the ‘pocket’ stereo camera developed in 1858 by the London Stereoscopic Company and used by the technically brilliant William England (1816-96), who between 1854 and 1862 was their principal photographer.
This c.1863-68 view was made after he had left the Company but still used the single short-focus-lens camera which was a mere 20cm long x 12 cm wide x 5cm deep and weighed just over half a kilogram; eminently mobile it suited England’s expeditions perfectly. The drawback of this type of single lens design was the fact the whole camera needed to be laterally moved along a groove or track to make the required pair of images, at positions equal to the distance between human eyes, on each half of the plate. It was sensibly superseded by the binocular or twin lens camera which, though more cumbersome, took both images simultaneously and significantly speeded-up picture taking.
After leaving London Stereoscopic Company in 1863, England went freelance and continued with his stereo work all over Europe; France, Switzerland and Italy in particular. His Alpine views were his forte, those taken of the Chamonix Glacier being eagerly bought all over the continent as well as in Britain.
On viewing this in stereo one gains a sense of scale and depth not at all apparent in Ruskin’s wash drawing, and only as an impression in his daguerreotype. We see the two hikers—who have had to remain still as England shifted his camera between the two exposures—are sitting at a dizzy height above the glacier which some time in the past has thrust aside the massive granite boulders that frame the foreground. What we understood as being mere hummocks in the glacier become mountainous upheavals themselves, and the tortured icy flow itself, incomprehensibly vast.
Emma Stibbon (*1962) who is herself, like Ruskin, a Royal Academician, held her most recent solo Territories of Print 1994–2019 November 14–December 21 2019 at the Rabley Drawing Centre. In June 2018 she retraced the steps of Turner and Ruskin visiting the Alps, taking the route made by Ruskin in June 1854 where he produced his series of daguerreotypes of Alpine scenery, to see what remains of Alpine glaciers today. Her work shows how geography has been impacted by climate change over the last two centuries.
During his life Ruskin increasingly bemoaned the damage being done to the wild places he had known from boyhood, in Britain, France, Switzerland and Italy and the loss of beauty and clear skies, writing to a friend:
‘I have never seen the falling away and vanishing of our best life properly described…the ruin of the things we loved. Our Geneva – our Como – our Verona – twice dead – and plucked up by the roots.’
A previous post here of about six months ago deals with the extraordinary 1909 aerial photographs, made from a balloon by Eduard Spelterini, that include more crisply precise imagery of La Mer de Glace from the most informative angle and compared them with what can be seen today on Google Maps. Earlier still, OnThisDateInPhotography dealt with the photogrammetry of Sebastian Finsterwalder, particularly his 1923 and 1924 measurements of flow velocity across Ölgruben rock glacier that have made it the subject of a notably extended longitudinal study with high value in climate research.
Stibbon, in her use of the cyanotype, draws time together so that we see retrospectively, through the wavering focus of her contact print, as if as an X-ray of Ruskin’s daguerreotype, the bare, scraped floor of the glacier. Ruskin’s picture itself is on the very plate that he inserted in his camera. It’s a unique, concrete image, the truth of which we can be certain.
It’s a view of devastation, which itself is devastating. What have we wrought?