SPECIMENS AND MARVELS: WILLIAM HENRY FOX TALBOT THE INVENTION OF PHOTOGRAPHY
This year marks the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of William Henry Fox Talbot, an Englishman who dabbled in botany, chemistry, mathematics, and the study of ancient languages, among other disciplines. As his obituary noted, almost as an afterthought, he also invented photography.
William Henry Fox Talbot was born in 1800, and it is fitting that the two hundredth anniversary of that event should be celebrated. While remembering him as a scientist, it is a pity that we do not know more about him as a man. My great-aunt Matilda Talbot, who was his granddaughter, could just recall meeting him when she was a young girl, and described him as a kind and friendly old gentleman with a farseeing look in his eyes; but by all accounts he was a rather withdrawn personality, though he had a wide circle of friends in the scientific field.
SPECIMENS AND MARVELS THE WORK OF WILLIAM HENRY FOX TALBOT
Our fine arts were developed, their types and uses were established, in times very different from the present, by men whose power of action upon things was insignificant in comparison with ours. But the amazing growth of our techniques, the adaptability and precision they have attained, the ideas and habits they are creating, make it a certainty that profound changes are impending in the ancient craft of the Beautiful.
In the opening pages of The Pencil of Nature, Talbot describes the series of events that led to that all-important moment when the idea of photography first occurred to him. The place was Italy, the year 1833. Talbot was traveling with his wife, Constance, and his mother, Lady Elisabeth Feilding.
The experience and definition of nature and culture were to be dramatically transformed during the nineteenth century as a result of industrialization. Photography participated in this process of transformation by introducing a document that would bring about new methods of observation and classification.
Talbot often alluded to genres from the history of painting. Still life, portraiture, tableau vivant, the conversation piece, and the landscape were some of the conventions suggested. Talbot's approach to picture making was never simply arbitrary or literal.
Talbot often took photographs to demonstrate the medium's ability to create copies or facsimiles of objects and printed materials. Indeed one of the first roles imagined for the new process of photogenic drawing was as an alternative to printing.
In a patent of 1843, Talbot described a system for mass-producing prints for publication. Later that year he began work on a proposed print workshop at Reading. Here photographs were to be printed, in large numbers, for books, journals, and print sellers.
During the nineteenth century the photograph, like the museum, introduced a different attitude towards the way in which works of art and art history were consumed. The copying of artworks had previously been dominated by lithography and the making of casts.
Published during the same year as the public announcement of photography, The Antiquity of the Book of Genesis, Illustrated by Some New Arguments is emblematic of Talbot's engagement with lost civilizations through the written word. For Talbot, decoding the words and myths of antiquity could lead to a better understanding of those cultures.
By 1840 the Industrial Revolution was rapidly changing both rural and urban life, as growing cities trading in new commodities began to attract country people looking for work. Talbot's studies of buildings during this period, however, reflect a relatively genteel and pastoral vision of England's architecture.
In 1855, the Photographic Society formed a study group, the Fading Committee, to explore the lack of permanence in paper-based photographic processes. The committee published its findings later that year. Talbot had felt these problems acutely since the production of The Pencil of Nature, and further misfortune was to plague his process when Nicolaas Henneman lost a valuable commission to illustrate the publication the Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, 1851; Reports by the Juries—a loss arising solely from the instability of prints made from calotype negatives.
"So once, so valuable, so there, so now"—this line from W. H. Auden floated into my mind as I thought about Talbot at a conference recently and tried to make sense of him. Two hundred years after his birth Talbot is decidedly valuable and to many people, he is both startlingly of another time and vividly contemporary.
1. See Hannah Arendt, ed., Illuminations (London: Fontana, 1973), pp. 219–253. The original version of Benjamin's essay was published in Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung, V. no 1, New York, 1936. Valéry's "La Conquête de l'ubiquité" was originally published in De la musique avant chose, Editions du Tambourinaire, Paris, 1927.
1. Matilda Talbot, "The Life and Personality of Fox Talbot," The Photographic Journal, September 1939, pp. 546–47. 2. W. H. F. Talbot, The Pencil of Nature (London: Longmans & Co., June 1844). 3. RETRACING THE IMAGE: THE EMERGENCE OF PHOTOGRAPHY IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY AN INTERNATIONAL INTERDISCIPLINARY CONFERENCE, held at NMPFT on June 16–17, 2000.