Photography Inc. at Antwerp's FoMu

In Antwerp the FoMu, the Photography Museum, is celebrating its 50th anniversary. To mark the event the museum is staging a major exhibition spanning the 175 years that the art of photography has been in existence.

Just to be clear, this is not an exhibition about photographic art, but an attempt to tell the story of the photographic industry from its very beginnings to the present day.

Co-curator Tamara Berghmans: "We've selected a number of top exhibits from our own collection that allow you to discover the history of photography on the basis of the development of the photographic industry."

Photography Inc. let's you admire some of the earliest results of the photographic industry that have to be kept behind curtains in order to protect them from the light.

Tamara Berghmans:"Some of the exhibits are real gems. There are original pieces, often very valuable. These include salted paper prints by Britain's William Talbot. Salted paper prints or calotypes were popular in Britain. In France e.g. we see the daguerreotype and back in Britain also the ambrotype."

The daguerreotype produced one unique picture, while several prints of one and the same calotype could be made. Ambrotypes were often used to produce portraits of deceased relatives. In this day this wasn't seen as macabre. Children look like they are sleeping.

Tamara Berghmans: "At this time photography was a luxury product, but we follow the technique's history through to the present day when it has become a mass product. The introduction of tintypes or ferrotypes meant that everybody could afford a family portrait. Often now four or even eight photographs were being produced on one sheet."

Nowadays everyone's a photographer: a click on your smartphone and you have a great picture. Many years ago taking a photograph was quite an enterprise. It involved large cameras, rolls of film and sitting still for an age. At Photography Inc. a photographer's studio has been recreated and you can see the special photographer's chair with headrest people had to use to sit still for half an hour!

Tamara Berghmans: "Belgium too played an important role in the popularisation of photography thanks to the work of Fleming Lieven Gevaert. He started as a one-man business but Gevaert grew into a multinational. In '64 Gevaert merged with a German company to become the Agfa Gevaert concern."

The exhibition shows items from Gevaert's pioneering period and a time line explains how the company grew into a giant. A wealth of different types of photographic paper was used, one more expensive than the other.

The exhibition sheds light on the phenomenon of the photography shop that sprang up in nearly every neighbourhood, but today is in danger of disappearing. The FoMu is in fact collecting snaps of photography shops.

The array of cameras on show contains all the classics as well as some rarer items. Our favourite is a golden camera. For people who have been around for a while Photography Inc. may bring back memories of the cameras we all used to use. For the younger among us the exhibition will shed light on how it used to be before the digital age.

Photography Inc. runs at the FoMu, Waalse kaai 47 in Antwerp until 9 October.