Perfect and beautiful: early photography in Swansea
For about fifteen years in the middle of the nineteenth century certain people in Swansea went 'quite wild' about the new invention of photography. They compiled the world's first family albums with photographs of their friends and relations that reveal the warmth and delight of life within the walls of the great landed estates of Victorian Wales.
The photographs also show their interest in and knowledge of both art and science. They took pleasure in studies of plants and animals that are also biological specimens, and a photograph of a landscape or a rock formation in North Wales or Cornwall can be linked to the intellectual revolution caused by the study of geology and the new theory of evolution. They made important technical discoveries and took the first 'instantaneous' photographs, freezing the motion of the waves or the movement of steam, forming an image which they called 'an authentic chapter in the history of the world'. These techniques also allowed photographers for the first time ever to capture a fleeting smile on a young boy's face. The artistic ambitions of the time found their apotheosis in photography, which in its accuracy and true depiction of nature they found 'wonderfully perfect and beautiful'. 'Who will accept the work of men's hands,' asked the photographers of Swansea, 'when they can have the work of the sun's rays?' From Morriston to the Mediterranean they looked for the beauty of nature and the wonder of man's constructions, and created photographs that were intended as artistic works to rival those of Michaelangelo.
Today we are so used to photographs that perhaps we lose the ability to see them afresh as pictures. Part of the achievement of the early photographers was to explore and develop the new medium so that it was quickly accepted and in effect taken for granted. As a result it can now be difficult to see these early photographs in the way that they were seen when they were taken. But the passing of time has caused some images to acquire a new force and vigour. A picture taken on the shores of the Gower shows the girls of Penlle'r-gaer, young and graceful, against the background of the cliffs, elements that appear timeless and everlasting. The life of a long-dead generation remains with us in this image of an instant, and we feel the emotional power of photography as it reminds us of the true frailty of human existence. In these and other pictures we are only now beginning to recognise the achievement of the photographers of Swansea and to acknowledge that their work was quite as perfect and beautiful as they felt it to be.