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Camille Silvy

(1835—1910) photographer


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(1835–1910). Silvy emerged as a major photographer of the Second Empire in France before repeating his success and enhancing his fame in high Victorian London. He excelled as an individual artistic talent and as the director of a portrait studio serving both an exclusive clientele and a mass market. He was born in Nogent-le-Rotrou, a market town in the Eure-et-Loir, where he photographed his first masterpiece: River Scene, France or La Vallée de l'Huisne. It was exhibited to acclaim in Edinburgh, London, and Paris in 1858 and 1859. The exquisite rendition of a stretch of river, surrounded by foliage and town houses, with two well- dressed members of the country bourgeoisie preparing for a boating trip on one bank and a larger, working-class group relaxing on the other, was crowned by a dramatic, clouded sky—for which Silvy used a second negative. He came to the attention of the imperial court, but moved to London in 1859 to set up what seems to have been the first carte de visite studio in London. He established London's most fashionable studio at 38 Porchester Terrace, looking onto Hyde Park, with luxuriously appointed waiting rooms, fine tapestries, sculptures, and other objets d'art. His distinguished or at least wealthy sitters from ‘the upper ten thousand’, set off by choice accessories and painted backdrops, were personally posed by Silvy, who drew on a fresh pair of white gloves for each sitting. His carte de visite portraits, printed with Silvy's name and red facsimile signature, are also easy to spot today because of the elegance of the poses and the richness of the gold-toned albumen prints. The studio was also a factory, with a staff of over 40 to print, trim, and mount the images. Cartes, taken six to a glass negative, were volume productions, and Silvy had 50 portraits printed from each negative, 40 for immediate sale to the client and ten for stock (for the client's friends to buy for their albums). One of his royal portraits would sell by the thousand or even by the hundred thousand. Silvy continued to make and exhibit extraordinary larger photographs, some of the best being views taken immediately outside the studio. One of these from 1859 or 1860 (now in the J. Paul Getty Museum) shows a man buying an evening paper from a boy who leans against a lighted gas lamp on a misty afternoon. A figure hurrying along the pavement is caught in a blur—probably used deliberately for the first time to suggest rapid movement. Silvy sold his business in 1868 and returned to France. He fought with distinction in the Franco- Prussian War but soon afterwards succumbed to illness, possibly contracted from the dangerous chemicals used in his profession. He was in hospital for the last 35 years of his life.

From The Oxford Companion to the Photograph in Oxford Reference.

Subjects: Photography and Photographs.


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