The Metropolitan Museum of Art is not headlining its luminous exhibition "Framing a Century: Master Photographers, 1840-1940." There was no press preview or publication for the show, and no banner for the exhibit graces the Met's façade. But the enchanting gathering of more than 150 prints — 10 to 12 iconic works by each of 13 key photographers — a whirlwind tour of the medium's first 100 years, is sure to be one of the Met's sleeper hits of the summer.
The public's ongoing love affair and fascination with photography began not long after the inception of the medium — when, in 1826, the Frenchman Joseph Niépce (1765-1833) fixed an image of his home's rear courtyard on a pewter plate, producing the first photograph from nature. Niépce's process was perfected in 1838 by Louis Jacques Daguerre, whose daguerreotypes created images of vibrant, crystalline sharpness and alchemical mysteriousness. In London, meanwhile, the frustrated painter and polymath William Henry Fox Talbot longed to fix natural images to paper, which he did in 1835 with the invention of cameraless shadow pictures, or photograms. In 1840, Talbot invented the negative/positive process of paper photography, what he called the "calotype," Greek for "beautiful impression."
Everyone seemed to grasp almost immediately the full range — artistic, documentary, scientific, educational, historical, spiritual, entertaining, and sentimental — of photography's usefulness. And it has been the commercial success of portrait and amateur photography, rather than the needs of professionals, that has continually fueled and funded the rapid technological advancements of the medium. But it is in the best of photography that we most readily recognize the difference between what most of us see and what the photographer sees, or what he or she manages to distill from the world and to transform from the prosaic into the poetic. And it is in part because of the rising popularity and ubiquity of photography as a fine-art medium during recent decades that a coinciding interest in photography's earliest forays has been revived.
"Framing a Century" is not a broad, in-depth, exhaustive, or chronological exploration of the birth and genealogy of photography. A number of heavy hitters, including, possibly, some of your favorites, did not make the cut. The show, organized by the curator in charge of the Met's Department of Photographs, Malcolm Daniel, with assistance from Emily Darragh, sidesteps Daguerre, and focuses instead on photography's soft-focus paper trail — from Talbot's first photograms, up through his positive/negative paper process, to the nearly abstract figures of Man Ray and Brassaï. Grouped by artist and somewhat by theme, the show also includes works by Gustave Le Gray, Roger Fenton, Carleton Watkins, Julia Margaret Cameron, Nadar, Édouard Baldus, Charles Marville, Eugène Atget, Walker Evans, and Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Many of the images in the show have been drawn from the Gilman Paper Company Collection, widely considered to be one of the finest collections of 19th- and early-20th-century photography in private hands, which the Met acquired in 2005. The remaining works, roughly half, which help to celebrate the Met's acquisition, come from the museum's permanent collection. What Mr. Daniel has culled together is a dream-team variety show in which each photographer gets just enough play to remain powerful, individual, and enigmatic.
In enticing, Rogues Gallery fashion, a single photograph by each artist lines the walls outside the exhibition. Here, you get a star-studded taste of what's in store. But it is inside, in the individual groupings of works, that each photographer starts to work his or her particular magic.
Many of these early-19th-century photographs appear to come off with such ease that it is important to remember that the photographers and their assistants, lugging bundles of equipment, had to develop their images on-site in makeshift darkrooms, inside tents or railroad cars. Initially, they could not blow up, crop, or reduce images, and exposure times were so long that forms blurred and animals and passersby completely disappeared, imbuing these records of our past with a false, eerie, and desolate sense of abandonment. It was with great effort, sometimes utilizing multiple negatives, that an image materialized at all; and, therefore, it was with great care that an image was chosen in the first place.
The first gallery, an object lesson in national style, houses images of landscape and architecture by the Englishman Fenton, the Frenchman Le Gray, and Watkins, an American. Watkins's photographs of the American West are grand, honest, and picturesque monuments to nature — much more frank and humble than the paintings of the Hudson River School. Fenton produces images of well-stated idyllic calm. In his "Landscape With Clouds" (1856), the soft, cloud-covered sky overwhelms the blurred, dark, silhouetted sliver of land, which moves across the bottom of the scene like a train window rushing by.
The renewed interest in all things medieval led to numerous commissions of Gothic and Romanesque architecture. Fenton's masterpiece, "Salisbury Cathedral - The Nave, From the South Transept" (1858), moves like liquid. Its seeping blacks, whites, and grays caress and mold form and space, creating an image that, like the cathedral itself, is an altar to light.
Le Gray — whose seascapes, you might recall, overtook nearly an entire gallery in the Met's recent Courbet retrospective (Courbet's seascapes, made a decade later, probably owe something to the masterpieces of Le Gray) — is well-represented here. His masterful seascapes, including "Brig on the Water" (1856) and "The Great Wave" (1857), convey the breadth of the horizon, the canopy of sky, and the erotic rush and rat-a-tat-tat of the breakers. We also see his gorgeous views of Egypt and of the forest of Fontainebleau. In "The Imperial Yacht La Reine Hortense, Le Havre" (1856), the ship's rigging pulls the rectangle taut from side to side, as if the boat were woven into the photograph. In "Cavalry Maneuvers, Camp de Châlons" (1857), a mist all but erases the tiny, distant soldiers, who walk the horizon line like a tightrope.
The middle galleries are devoted to Talbot, Cameron, Nadar, Marville, Baldus, and Atget. We are treated to Nadar's inimitable portraits and sad Pierrots; Marville's seemingly desolate records of human-scaled, medieval Paris, just before Baron Haussmann transformed the City of Lights into a modern capital of grand boulevards; Atget's miraculous pictures of Paris's shop windows and streets, as well as his pictures of Greco-Roman sculptures at Versailles; Cameron's ethereal Pre-Raphaelite visions, as well as her great lion's-mane portrait of Sir John Herschel. Included also in the show are facsimiles of Talbot's pre-1840 photograms, as well as his beautifully lit straight-ahead images of architecture and sculpture, and copies of his book "The Pencil of Nature" (1844-46), the first book to be entirely illustrated with photographs. Talbot's plainspoken "The Open Door" (1844) prefigures the mysterious pragmatism of Evans, whose ordinary magic is represented in "Framing a Century" in classic images of billboards, subway riders, architecture, and tenant farmers.
The exhibition concludes with innovative work by Man Ray, Brassaï, and Cartier-Bresson, artists whose photographs helped to transform the medium into a modern visual language. Images are more closely cropped. People remain fixed. Pictures, lit by streetlamps, are taken at night. And the world, seen up close and sometimes seemingly from the inside out, moves more quickly, nervously. That world has also arrived much faster in the lens. The photographs' inimitable magic, however, didn't change over the course of a century. It rests not in the picture's subject, in photography's changing visual vocabulary, or in technological advances but, rather, in the "calotype," the "beautiful impression" framed by the photographer's eye.
Until September 1 (1000 Fifth Ave. at 82nd Street, 212-535-7710).