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The vanity and eerie beauty of early photography

From striking abstracts to proto-selfies, what people would do with cameras was apparent from the very earliest days


N 16th-century Europe, advances in glassmaking made small, mass-produced mirrors widely available for the first time. Suddenly, it was no longer the preserve of a privileged minority to see one’s own clear reflection. Artists, poets and playwrights, ever attentive to such fads, were quick to pounce on the trend, incorporating reflections and doubles into their work. For some, mirrors even seemed to intimate a new kind of awareness: an altogether different way of seeing the self.

It was not the last time that art and technology would make for a productively volatile mix. So it was, centuries later, with the invention of the “mirror with a memory”: the silvered-copper daguerreotype that would evolve into the modern photograph. “New Realities”, a copious exhibition of more than 300 early photographs at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, captures a moment when this now-quotidian technology was exotic and strange; a snapshot of a medium on the cusp of sparking an artistic revolution.

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