Review: Hilary Forrest
Many readers will be familiar with the name Francis Frith, which is associated with the world of picture postcards, often of seaside views or famous sights. What you will discover from this fascinating and detailed work is that Frith was not only a pioneer in the relatively young field of photography – he was also an imaginative and enterprising traveller.
The book falls naturally into sections beginning with a biographical summary of Francis’ early life in Chesterfield, and in Liverpool where he acquired his photographic skill and enthusiasm as a member of the Liverpool Photographic Society. His lifelong religious belief as a member of the Society of Friends led him to the next phase of his life.
As a young man, he was determined to visit the Bible lands which included Palestine, but began his tour in Egypt in 1856. Three Middle Eastern expeditions are vividly recorded and show the exhilaration he felt on his first visit:
I was not in the least prepared for the extraordinary and brilliant novelty of the scene that bursts upon the eye on first landing in an eastern port… even at this distance of time the mere recollection of it is thrilling… I had seen what we in England called sunshine. But it was nothing like the vital, almost tangible stuff that made itself part… of the atmosphere of Alexandria.
As a man with a photographer’s eye, this had a profound effect on his work.
The artistry and composition of Frith’s photographs brought him widespread fame and, for subsequent generations of travellers, his scenes taken in the mid-19th century have provided an invaluable source of information. To compare modern-day images of the temples of Abu Simbel and Nubia with Frith’s photographs taken in their original locations (which now lie beneath the waters of Lake Nasser) is a fascinating study.
The modern photographer should wonder at how Frith was able to achieve pictures of amazing clarity under such difficult conditions. He took with him three huge cameras, crates of fragile glass-plates, and many bottles and flasks of chemicals needed for processing the images. To take a photo, he needed to set up his dark tent, and cover his head and the camera with a thick black cloth. He would then take his collodion-coated glass-plate, which had been immersed in silver nitrate, expose this for a short time, then dip it in ferrous sulphate to fix the image. He encountered numerous problems, including temperatures of over 40ºC, and yet he managed to produce clear, stunning images that are still highly prized today.
Find out more about Francis Frith and his pioneering photography in Egypt here.
A Grand Spell of Sunshine: The Life and Legacy of Francis Frith
by Julia Skinner
The Francis Frith Collection, 2022