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Francis Frith (British, 1822–1898)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

English photographer. He is noted for his studies of the Middle East and for establishing the largest photographic publishing firm in the 19th century. He was born into a Quaker family and spent five unrewarding years apprenticed to a cutler in Sheffield, suffering a nervous breakdown in 1843. After two years recuperative travel he became a successful businessman, first in wholesale groceries and later in printing. His involvement with photography began at this time. He was one of the founder-members of the Liverpool Photographic Society in 1853 and he exhibited portraits and landscapes to much critical acclaim.

The sale of Frith’s printing firm in 1854 financed the expeditions to Egypt and the Holy Land that were to establish his pre-eminence among early travel photographers. He made three trips between 1856 and 1860. On the first, he sailed up the Nile to the Second Cataract, recording the main historic monuments between Cairo and Abu Simbel. On the second, he struck eastwards to Palestine, visiting Jerusalem, Damascus and other sites associated with the life of Christ. The final expedition was the most ambitious, combining a second visit to the Holy Land with a deeper southward penetration of the Nile. His photographs of the temple at Soleb, 800 miles south of Cairo, represent a genuinely pioneering achievement . Unlike many travel photographers of this period, Frith used the wet collodion process in preference to the more convenient paper-based calotype. Because it involved chemically sensitizing the glass plates on site, this process posed particular problems in a climate dominated by heat, dust and insects. Commenting sardonically on how his chemicals often boiled on contact with the glass, he nevertheless produced negatives that are remarkable for their consistently high technical standard. His equipment included standard full-plate (200×250 mm), mammoth (400×500 mm) and stereoscopic cameras.

Although Frith was not the first European photographer to visit Egypt, his work was wider in its geographical scope and more systematic in its coverage than that of, for example, Maxime Du Camp. Frith photographed most of the key monuments several times, combining general views with close studies of their significant details and broader views of their landscape environment. The clarity of his images proved to be of immense value to archaeologists. The photographs are also often powerfully composed, revealing an understanding of the poetic qualities of light that gives them lasting aesthetic value. Frith’s earlier experience as a printer proved useful in the commercial exploitation of his photographs. They were exhibited widely, sold through print dealers and issued in serial form to subscribers. In 1858–60 he published Egypt and Palestine Photographed and Described by Francis Frith, the first of a series of magnificent albums containing mounted albumen prints accompanied by letterpress commentaries. In 1862 he also produced a limited edition of The Queen’s Bible, illustrated with his photographs of the Holy Land. He had set up his own publishing firm in Reigate in 1859 and he specialized in picturesque scenes for the rising tourist market. Travel remained an obsession, but books such as The Gossiping Photographer at Hastings (1864) reveal a change of tenor from the heroic Egyptian work. Through his shrewd exploitation of the picture postcard the firm quickly became the largest of its kind in the 19th century. The business remained in the Frith family after his death and was wound up in 1971. Material salvaged from the premises was later reissued as the Francis Frith Collection.

Ray McKenzie
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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