Camille Silvy at the National Portrait Gallery, London

by Miserere


Long before there were Photoshop, photography industry, panoramic cameras or Strobist, one man used multiple negatives to create a single image, managed to set up a photography studio that made him wealthy, invented a camera capable of taking 4 exposures to create a single 360° image and ignited a magnesium ribbon to illuminate a crypt so he could photograph it. And he did it all before 1870. This man was Camille Silvy, and here is his (abridged) story.

Born on 18 May 1834 to a well to do family in Nogent-le-Rotrou (Eure-et-Loire, France), he entered the French diplomatic service at a young age. Sent to Algeria in 1857 to draw buildings and scenes to encourage emigration to France’s newest colony, he discovered Photography as a more precise and exact way of reproducing what he saw. Upon returning to France he continued to learn and practice his photographic art, and cemented what would be his style: Images that looked natural, but where anything but.

Camille Silvy - La Vallée de l'Huisne

La Vallée de l'Huisne

One of his most well-known photographs from this period is La Vallée de l'Huisne, depicting a calm afternoon river scene. To begin with, both the couple about to take a boat ride on the left bank and the workers resting on the right bank were paid models. Not only that, but the sky is from a separate exposure (he also printed versions with alternate skies) and the trees reflected in the river are burned in. Like good Photoshopping nowadays, his craft was so good that a non-technical viewer would be none the wiser.

Camille Silvy - Reading the Emperor's First Order of the Day to the Army for the Italian Campaign in the districts of Paris, 1859

Reading the Emperor's First Order of the Day to the Army for the Italian Campaign in the districts of Paris, 1859

Another of his acclaimed photos is 1859′s Reading the Emperor’s First Order of the Day to the Army for the Italian Campaign in the districts of Paris, portraying Parisian workers reading Napoleon III’s Ordre du jour, which he had telegraphed the night before from Italy, where he was camped with his army ready to face the invading Austrians. The scene is emotional and one can just imagine the workers trying to read over each other’s shoulders; however, it was also staged, as the exposure time needed for this image would have required many seconds, if not minutes. The positions and postures of the workers were also orchestrated carefully by Silvy to achieve the composition he wanted. Sadly, I haven’t been able to find an uncropped image file of this image to post here—the one above is cropped to landscape format, when the original is in portrait orientation. If I find some time I’ll scan it from my book.

Camille Silvy - Silvy in his Studio with his Family

Silvy in his Studio with his Family

Within weeks of this picture, Silvy retired from his diplomatic post and moved to London to the Bayswater area, North of Hyde Park. There he opened a Photography studio, with a very large sitting room that he would accessorise with countless props. Many self portraits survive showing Silvy or his wife, sometimes both, posing in varying stances with all manner of clothes; Silvy would use these sessions to try out different lighting, which he manipulated with blinds over the windows and glazed roof of the room. He was 23 years old.

Camille Silvy - Self portrait

Camille Silvy in his London studio

Portraiture was Silvy’s bread and butter, catering to London’s high society and members of the arts and culture scene; he was the first celebrity photographer, selling portraits of famous actors, writers, dancers, singers and other popular characters. Much of his earnings, however, came from producing cartes-de-visite for the wealthy (he made sure to charge more than his competitors for this service), these were the equivalent of today’s business cards, except that they showed the likeness of the person; they were very popular in the 1860′s. In short order Silvy’s studio had so much business he employed several dozen people (assistants, clerks, accountants, PR’s, etc.) and was able to expand the building, even constructing a “Queen’s Room”, should the Queen ever come sit for a portrait—she never did, though much of the royal family did and it was a well-known fact that Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were admirers of his work. From his letters and accounting books we know that his studio made him a wealthy man.

Camille Silvy - Studies on Light: Twilight

Studies on Light: Twilight

Silvy made a clear distinction between the artist C. Silvy and C. Silvy & Co., and he used the former to promote the latter. In a letter to his father he writes Before my talent was my luxury, today it is my capital. His need as an artist took him to equestrian photography (he was an accomplished rider) and, of all things, street photography. Most notable amongst the latter are his Studies on Light: Sun, Twilight and Fog. As we could expect from Silvy’s genius he played tricks with these photographs to achieve the imagery he wanted, thus going far beyond the barriers imposed by his limited equipment. In Twilight (seen at right) Silvy stiched together no fewer than 4 negatives to achieve the final print; writes Weston Naef: One negative was required for the street lamp, another for the foggy background, a third for the architecture at the right, and a fourth for the two standing figures. See the figure on the right either walking towards or away from the camera? That is possibly the first intentional blurring in the history of Photography.

Not content with his artistic and business accomplishments, Silvy developed and patented a panoramic camera that could produce a 360° image using 4 consecutive exposures on a single roll of paper negative. He called it his Cartouch photographique (photographic cartridge) and attempted to market it in 1867 at the International Exhibition as a tool for battlefield photography (timely given the mounting tension between France and Prussia). His invention did away with the need for darkrooms and tents, introducing the concept of replaceable film cartridges. Sadly for him, he did not find patronage for it and it never became commonplace. His example print of the Champs Elysées of Paris, streets devoid of people due to the extremely long exposures, is eerie to look at even today.

Less than a year later Silvy closed his London studio down, some 10 years after opening it. He sold off his negatives and moved to Teignmouth (Exeter, UK) as vice-consul to the French government. Shortly thereafter he enlisted as a lieutenant in the French army to fight the Prussians, sustaining some minor physical injuries, and most likely displaying the first symptoms of PTSD, which later evolved into periods of high creativity interspersed with episodes of depression. Today he would have been diagnosed with manic depression and bipolar disorder. It was 1870—he was 36 years old.

He was taken care of by his mother in La Croix-du-Perche (France); when she died in 1876 his crises became more violent and his general state worsened. After being arrested in 1878 for fighting he was committed to a psychiatric asylum, the first of many, which would become his permanent home for the remaining 3 decades of his life.

Camille Silvy died on 2 February 1910.


National Portrait Gallery Exhibit

The exhibit is open until 24 October 2010, so I suggest that if you’re in the London area you hurry up and purchase a ticket. I can’t remember the entrance fee, but it gives you a discount of £10 at the Gallery bookstore if you purchase the exhibit book, which I highly recommend. The text by Mark Haworth-Booth informed this post, and the photographs are very well reproduced. As for the exhibit itself, it shows over 100 images, from small cartes-de-visite to larger prints, including all the images in this post and the panoramic of the Champs Elysées. While the light levels are low in the rooms in order to preserve the prints from light damage, they are worthy of being seeing in the flesh, so to speak. Spend 5 minutes inside the first room until your eyes are used to the penumbra before you start looking at the photographs. Another reason to purchase the book is that you can readmire the photographs in brighter light from the comfort of your armchair. The book measures aprox. 22.5cm x 27.5cm (8.9″ x 10.8″).

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  1. I love to read stuff like this, Mis. I guess it is the history buff in me. Of course I admire anyone who likes to shoot those foggy morning shots. Great job and thanks for the story!

  2. Love this!. I spend most of my web time looking at old photos like these. Thanks for the great write up!

  3. Miserere,

    I live in London but small children and a job tend to prevent too many trips around art galleries so it’s nice to get a review of these exhibitions.
    I did manage to get to the Points of View exhibition at the British Library.

    The exhibition catalogue is a great overview of the history of photography through the 19th and early 20th century

    All the best


    • Thanks Gavin, that’s a very interesting link to the British Library’s exhibition. I’ll be sure to waste plenty of good time scrolling through the images :-)

      Be sure to check back as I intend to scan and add more of Silvy’s photographs to this article.

  4. An interesting discussion is worth comment. I believe that you need to publish more on this subject, it may not be a taboo matter but
    usually folks don’t talk about these subjects.

    To the next! Many thanks!!

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