Camille-Leon-Louis Silvy was born to Onésipe and Marie Louise Silvy in Nogent-le-Rotrou, near Chartres, France, on May 18, 1834. Descended from a prominent Provencal family - his father was once mayor of Nogent-le-Rotrou - he and his family moved to Paris in 1835 so his father could accept a high-ranking bank position. The young man learned drawing from painter and lithographer Hippolyte Lalaisse. After graduating with a law degree in 1852, Mr. Silvy accepted a diplomatic post, and while vacationing in Algeria with Mr. Lalaisse in 1857, he became introduced to tourist photography.
Ever the perfectionist, Mr. Silvy was disappointed by his initial efforts, although his Algerian photographs reveal an eye for detail and instinctive comprehension of light and shadow. He became a member of the the Societe Française de Photographie in 1858 and participated in a Salon exhibition the following year, which featured primarily wet collodion landscapes of Nogent-le-Rotrou. It is still life and landscape photography for which Mr. Silvy became best known. His most famous image is known today as "River Scene, France," a moody piece that is reminiscent of an Impressionist painting. Unlike the traditional tourist photographs of the period that celebrated monuments and architectural landmarks, Mr. Silvy and his artistic sensibility are more intent upon capturing a moment in time that emphasizes the tranquility of the natural surroundings. However, cloudy skies were, at the time, an early photographer's nemesis because a separate negative of the cloud-covered sky had to be made and then merged with the landscape negative during printing. The trees were also hand-painted by Mr. Silvy during the negative-blending process.
In 1859, Mr. Silvy relocated to London where he opened a successful portrait gallery that within two years had amassed an inventory of nearly 7,000 portraits of prominent citizens. He soon moved to a more expansive Porchester Terrace location, which is believed to be London's first carte-de-visite studio. As the 1850s ended, Mr. Silvy was focusing upon weather studies and street scenes, making a critically acclaimed portrait of street musicians and the award-winning "Twilight," which again was the result of negative manipulation, with one negative used for the streetlight, another comprising the fog-filled background, a third negative for right-corner architecture, and a fourth consisting of the two individuals in the foreground. In defense of his enhancement techniques, Mr. Silvy wrote, "Fine arts create. Photography copies."
By the 1860s, Mr. Silvy was concentrating more on invention, having invented a cylindrical camera that could be fitted with a waxed-paper negative, which was used to capture his Champs Elysées stereo views. He also invented a stand for panoramic cameras that enabled the lens to remain horizontal for surveying purposes. With a marked decline in carte-de-visite business, Mr. Silvy closed his studio and returned to France, where he served as a government official and as a lieutenant during the Franco-Prussian War. Sadly, like many of his fellow photographers, Mr. Silvy began feeling the effects of potassium cyanide poisoning, and was confined to an asylum in 1881, which is where he remained until his death on February 2, 1910. Twelve volumes of Camille Silvy's photographs taken during his time in London are currently housed in that city's National Portrait Gallery. Several prints of his works can also be found at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
1862 The British Journal of Photography, Vol. X (Liverpool, UK: Henry Greenwood), p. 87.
2010 Camille Silvy: Photographer of Modern Life by Mark Haworth-Booth (Los Angeles, CA: The J. Paul Getty Museum), pp. 15, 23.
1992 Camille Silvy: River Scene, France by Mark Haworth-Booth (Malibu, CA: The J. Paul Getty Museum), p. 90.
2007 Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, Vol. I (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group LLC), pp. 1267-1269.
2004 Photographers of Genius at the Getty by Weston J. Naef (Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Trust), pp. 25, 27-28.
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