Fox Talbot: the dawn of the photograph

Media Space, The Science Museum, May 1st 2016

The title of this exhibition is significant. There was a time when Fox Talbot was hailed as the inventor of photography even though Daguerre announced his process beforehand. However, Daguerre’s process only allowed for one copy of the image captured while Fox Talbot’s allowed for countless copies. Nowadays, the invention of photography is not so hotly contested with many people including both chemists and makers of optical instruments are considered. Fox Talbot’s claim has furthermore been dismissed as both patrician and based on virility!

Before coming to this exhibition, I do not get around to reading the reviews but manage a little of what Batchen writes in his book on Fox Talbot who he sees as not just a scientist but also an artist who created a body of work worthy of consideration. I shall use this as a guide and wonder what I shall make of this new exhibition.
The Batchen book is available at a kiosk near the entry to the exhibition in Media Space at The Science Museum along with others such as a book of essays titled Fox Talbot: Beyond Photography and the catalogue to the exhibition which I purchase if only to offer a little support to the museum which grants free entry. Downstairs the museum heaves with people but there are very few in the Fox Talbot exhibition which requires an entry fee.
I walk briskly through the exhibition before returning to the first room and starting to analyse it greater depth. The title does suggest a mature view of Fox Talbot’s significance; “The dawn of the photograph” seems to summarise Fox Talbot’s contribution to the photographic medium.
Photography is not allowed in this exhibition to protect what are antique documents, a member of staff explains; this is also why the lights are low.
The first exhibit can be considered as a photograph of Fox Talbot made by John Moffat in 1864 which is a large about A2 sized carbon print. Fox Talbot sits be a chest of drawers with a lens in his hands and a box on the top of the drawers. He looks sideways at the camera in what is a formal well made photograph slightly engulfed in shadow near the bottom which helps to bring the viewer’s eye back to the central subject, the face and upper torso of Fox Talbot. Writing on the wall from curators Greg Hobson and Russell Roberts mentions William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-77) who “transformed visual culture in the 19’th century” although its’ recognition as an art form did not really begin until the 1860’s being initially seen as science, an automatic process, “the pencil of nature”. Fox Talbot Developed an understanding of photography’s potential by making photographs of a wide range of subjects; “His vision was diverse, emphasising the medium’s evidential power that characterised much of the wonder of photography as a distinct medium.”
The Athenaeum described it as “A wonderful illustration of modern necromancy” which must have aide many laugh while quietly ignoring what was to become so influential.
There is a mezzotint from from 1775 which has an almost photographic quality while the first negative ever made of a latticed window from 1835 looks dull in comparison. It is not the original but a digital copy.
There is a timeline at the end of this first room which notes significant events in Fox Talbot’s life along with events during his lifetime such as the publication of experiments in photography conducted by Davy and Wedgewood. In 1824, Fox Talbot became a member of the Athenaeum club while in 1833 he went on a honeymoon with his wife and became frustrated by the camera Lucida at Lake Como. He later applied for patents to cover his methods and in 1862 won a prize for photoglyphic engraving at the International Exhibition.
This first room contains digital copies of his early salt paper prints. The second room likewise contains digital copies though there are some original Daguerrotypes.
At Lake Como, Fox Talbot was struck by the beauty of the images cast by the camera Lucida, describing them as “fairy pictures, creations of a moment” which he subsequently longed to capture permanently. He was aided by Sir John Herschel in his chemical explorations.
A number of other early photographers are included here such as Hippolyte Bayard, Herschel and Daguerre as well as typical equipment from this time that was used by Fox Talbot including “mousetrap” cameras, a camera Obscura and a calotype camera which held a paper negative and about the size of a medium format camera.
In the third room, what look more like photographs, as we understand them, are on show; these are characterised by a three dimensional quality. Some of these are original salt prints made from a calotype negative and most were made in and are of Fox Talbot’s home, Lacock Abbey. There is also a show of early copies of The Pencil of Nature, Fox Talbot’s Photobook that explores different subjects that photography explores.
There is also a book containing examples of botanical specimens that Fox Talbot made which however is not photographic; in the next room, we see what is generally considered to be the first photographic book, a collection of cyanotypes made by Anna Atkins (1799-1871) being published in 1843 with a copy being sent to Fox Talbot whose own book came out in 1844. Pipped at the post again it seems but Fox Talbot’s contribution to photography cannot be underestimated and in the introduction to his book, he spells out the significance of his discovery.
There are a lot of original salt prints from calotype negatives made by Fox Talbot of Oxford s well as original prints made for “The Pencil of Nature”. He also made a series of photographs connecting places mentioned in Walter Scott’s Waverley novel. As with many of his photographic ventures, this was not commercially successful partly on account of variations in image quality of these ‘sun prints’ and lack of permanence.
There are also photographs of his Reading establishment which run by Dutch born Nicolaas Henneman, was given over to the mass production of photographs yet this enterprise also failed commercially.
The final room of the exhibition shows work made by other contemporary photographers using Talbot’s process. The Reverend Calvert Richard Jones was one of these being also a water colourist and responsible for some of the first joined negatives. Others shown here are David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, Reverend George Wilson Bridges and John Dillwyn Llewelyn.
The final exhibits are photoglyphic engravings made from steel plates, an attempt to make more permanent images, by Fox Talbot during the 1850’s and 1860’s as well as waxed paper negatives from the 1840’s. There are hand coloured salt paper prints from calotype negatives that show not just the diversity of Fox Talbot’s work but also his skill in making images. Other examples demonstrate the use of albumised glass negatives and waxed calotype paper negatives.
It takes me an hour and a half to work through this exhibition which gives one the chance to examine unique and original documents even if they are seperate X by a pane of glass. The tonal quality and overall representation has vastly improved particularly with the introduction of colour yet these images here retain the sense of fascination that photography exerts over the viewer with its’ ability to capture both time and space so convincingly.
Work that is “impressed by the agency of Light alone, without any aid whatever from the artist’s pencil” as Fox Talbot wrote in a notice to the reader from Sun Pictures in Scotland, 1845; he called them “sun pictures” and not “engravings in imitation.”
The walls of the exhibition are mostly light grey yet some are also darker in colour and appear greenish although to some one else they are bluish! The way the light is reflected perhaps.
The catalogue contains good reproductions of many of the photographs shown in the exhibition along with a couple of essays; the latter by Greg Hobson is about the business failure of Talbot.
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