Camille Silvy

I just happened to be in London the other week and walking past the National Portrait Gallery with some time to kill and I noticed an exhibition was currently showing for Camille Silvy. Not having heard of him until now, I decided to pop in for a viewing.

‘Camille Silvy was a pioneer of early photography and one of the greatest French photographers of the 19th century’

‘Working under the patronage of Queen Victoria, Silvy photographed royalty, aristocrats and celebrities. He also portrayed uncelebrated people, the professional classes and country gentry, their wives, children and servants.’

Exhibition text – National Portrait Gallery

The Camille Silvy exhibition was divided into various sections, detailing particular times/genres in his life.

Introducing Camille Silvy

Camille Silvy started off as an amateur while working as a French diplomat. The first section of the exhibition consisted of family and self portraits, and I was struck by his stature; he was a large powerful looking man and caused me to think of a cross between Brian Blessed (with the think bushy beard) and the fictional character of Harry Flashman; perhaps not the most complementary of images, but that’s what came into my head and this is my blog!

If you have ever read the Harry Flashman novels you will think of the dashing cavalry officers of the 19th century (think charge of the light brigade) with those elegant and elaborate uniforms of the officer class.

The other thing that struck me about these early portraits where his use of props; the elaborate uniforms and costumes, but also chairs tables, ornaments and especially books; either a bookshelf in the background or holding a book, quite different from more contemporary photographs. Although a different age and style I though back to an Irving Penn exhibition with minimal props so that your attention is directed to focus the inner ‘character’

Silvy also used a technique where he produced a photograph of the same image 4 times – Think of a 19th Century Andy Warhol!

Early Photographs: Algeria and Rural France

There were 2 photographs from his early years Algeria; ‘the courtyard of the library’, which had really nice use of light and shadow that created perspective and depth to the photograph.

The other image photograph ‘Hashish smoker on balcony’ also used light and shadow to create depth, but also the use of diagonal lines drawing the eye to the centre. I did find the position of the ‘smoker’ a little eccentric as they were very close to the left edge of the frame, but somehow the use of directional light (coming into the balcony) and leading lines still makes the photograph ‘work’

Although not a particularly remarkable photograph, the old building in his ‘Cider Press’ photograph 1858 (France), did attract my attention to its texture details of the roof tiles, a great use of light to create dimension.

River Scene, France

One of Camille Silvy’s more famous photographs from France was ‘La Vallée de l’Huisne’, (River Scene) 1858. This was really fascinating, not only for the composition and lines creating movement in the frame but also the technique Silvy employed to produce the image.

The photograph was actually a composite of more than one shot and a combination of filters; 2 photographs one for the sky and one for the landscape detail. By joining the negatives together he created a more evenly exposed ‘photograph’. The exhibition text explained that Silvy used other techniques to further improve the overall photograph by ‘cropping’ the frame appropriately and using a technique called burning to darken other parts of the photograph.

These techniques made me think about how photographs are produced in our time, compared to those in Silvy’s and how those techniques remain remarkably unchanged albeit using different mediums. The idea of combining shots at different exposures to produce a final result and the use of ‘burning’ and creative cropping are still employed to day on both film and digital formats. It turns out photography hasn’t really changed as much as we think! Thought provoking…

‘The Emperor’s Order of the Day’

Techniques aside (will return to this idea later) the historical value of seeing older works is fascinating. Another famous image from his collection ‘The Emperor’s order of the day’ and history was that of a group of men reading a poster in the streets of Paris; A message from the Emperor Napoleon III while campaigning in Italy to drive out the Austrians. The photograph has a subtle triangle that leads up to the poster, a great image. I later found out that the photograph was actually staged and the people in the shot where instructed to stand in their positions by Camille Silvy! To have taken the shot candidly would have taken a long exposure and if it were not staged then the photograph would not have worked.


In 1859 Camille Silvy moved to London and started his own photography studio. A lot of the photographs depicted his love for horsemanship, men in elegant riding clothes and elaborate military uniforms (think Harry Flashman books again!). What struck me most about his studio photographs though was the use of props.

There appeared to be a lot of props in his photographs; the use of furniture, leaning onto desks and book cases, standing behind chairs. The male subjects were often holding a book or Hat and standing very formally, similarly the female subjects were often seen to be holding a fan or hankie and generally more feminine objects than the men. Some of the studio work had picture backdrops or elaborate curtains too

I kept thinking about the difference between more contemporary studios with clean and bare environments, they also made me think of the Irving Penn exhibition I saw a while ago where his use of minimal ‘clutter’ made you concentrate of the character of the subject.

One really good photograph that caught my eye was that of ‘The Missus Booth’ 1861 a picture of two sisters with one faces the camera and the other facing away; however her face is reflected in a mirror that is behind them. In terms of composition there are a lot of triangles, both pointing up and inverted that leads you to the centre. I also see a heart shape between the sister’s arms signifying their love: I really liked this portrait.

Another photograph that stood out was a still life of ‘game’ (Rabbits, hairs) however he played with the idea over more traditional still life paintings by Jan Weenix 1642-1719 by introducing modern objects such as cutlery and even a newspaper with the date, showing as a sort of Juxtaposition between the modern (for the 19th century!) and traditional times.

As well as having clients including members of the Royal family (Queen Victoria never had her picture taken by him though) he took a lot of photos of actors and actresses. To improve his reputation and portfolio he would take the pictures for free so that he gained experience and his name spread but then his customers could then sell prints or use them as a sort of business card (Carte de visite) to their fans as well as their own portfolios.

Sun; Twilight; Fog – Studies on Light 1859

This section of the exhibition had to be the most fascinating part for me. There were 3 photographs each depicting an area of lighting; Sun, Fog and Twilight; with each one showing a different use of light. In the sun photograph of an Indian street sweeper you have strong direct light on the subject creating a hard shadow. However the next 2 images were even more interesting.

Silvy was able to create a finished ‘photograph’ that would not be possible by just taking a single shot of a scene. He used various techniques to create the final print. In the ‘Fog’ image (with the 2 musicians) some of the tree has actually been hand drawn in to add more details.

In ‘twilight’ one of his best known images is actually made of a number of images joined together, (one for the background, one for the street lamp, one for the wall and one for the 2 figures under the lamppost) much the same in the ‘river scene’ I also read somewhere (can’t find the reference though now so don’t shoot me!) that some of the lamppost was also drawn in by hand to bring in some more details. I also believe it is one of the earliest intended images depicting motion blur.

What I like about this set and especially with ‘Fog’ and ‘Twilight’; it’s the way that Silvy adapted what equipment and processing techniques he had to create the photograph he wanted, very much knowing exactly what he wanted in the frame for the final image. I really like this idea as it is very similar to how I like to work. Controlling the scene and subject to create what I want.

Later Life

Later on in life Camille Silvy moved back to France due to ill health and he also came up with a new technique to photograph battlefields and one of the final images in the exhibition was of a 360 degree panoramic photograph taken from the center of the Champs Elysées. Another example of manipulation of the equipment and post processes.

I really enjoyed the exhibition – not bad considering I went by chance, with of the most interesting things I took away was the idea that photo manipulation has been around since photography itself!

Of course let’s not get carried away with this after all there is more to photography than manipulation and processing; it’s about light, composition, design and the idea of getting the photograph ‘right’ in camera first time, but you will still hear arguments like “but with Photoshop you can just crop that, burn this, merge those together, stitch them together and so on..” But taking the composition (and medium) aside, when it comes to making a photograph as best it can be , how different is it from what Silvy was doing 150 years ago?