The father of the family album

The Photographic Art of William Henry Fox Talbot - Specimens and Marvels
March 16, 2001

William Henry Fox Talbot's birth bicentenary last year got lost in the millennium celebrations. This was despite a wonderful exhibition mounted in his honour by the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford, which is now reprised in book form as Specimens and Marvels . It was a stupendous show: curator Russell Roberts was able to draw on the best Talbot collection in the world, now at Bradford. The collection is not only vital to the understanding of the inventor of positive/negative photography, but to the whole project of photography's invention, development and identity.

Roberts is a well-informed and thoughtful guide, who brings a broad-ranging mind to the study of the collection in his care. He based the exhibition and the book on Talbot's own publication, The Pencil of Nature , which came out in serial form in 1844-46. Roberts rightly considers that this work was "not only the first commercially produced book to be illustrated with photographs", but also constitutes "the first philosophy of photography, a demonstration of its causes, effects and possibilities".

Thus, Roberts lays out the book in a sequence of vividly illustrated chapters drawn from Talbot's own view of his invention, using both his images and his words. The first, "Experiments", suggests the magical quality of Talbot's discoveries, about which he wrote enchantingly: "The most transitory of things, a shadow, the proverbial emblem of all that is fleeting and momentary, may be fettered by the spells of our 'natural magic', and may be fixed forever in the position which it seemed only destined for a single instant to occupy." Talbot's friend, Sir John Herschel, joined in the conceit when he joked that Talbot's Calotype process (patented in 1841) "is really magical", adding: "Surely you deal with the naughty one." The colours of these early photographic images are astonishing. The russets, violets, pinks and purples are breathtaking, as are the minutely delicate descriptions in light and shade of lace, ferns, grasses and glass.

The second chapter addresses "The order of nature" and presents an essential side of Talbot: the botanist and student of light, who was "the first to apply photography to the microscope in his studies of light transmitted through crystals". Roberts offers Talbot, in a chapter on "People, places, and things", as the originator of the kinds of picture that occupy a position between a "trade catalogue" (of the things photography could represent) and arguably the most successful of all the medium's many genres - the family album. Talbot portrayed his family and friends, plus bits and pieces of his Lacock Abbey estate.

Another chapter shows Talbot's many experiments with "facsimiles"; he foresaw the utility of the photocopy of modern times. His wonderful book was not a commercial success, but it demonstrated the rapidly advancing powers of the medium. Further chapters focus on "The art of reproduction", "Artifacts" - Talbot harnessed his invention to his fascination with hieroglyphics - "Architecture" and finally "In printer's ink". Talbot's fertile mind made the connection between photography and ink printing that, eventually, created the illustrated book, magazine and newspaper of the 20th century.

The book closes, most appropriately, with a biographical outline contributed by Mike Gray, curator of the Fox Talbot Museum at Lacock. Specimens and Marvels is an invaluable introduction to one of the greatest of modern British scientists and inventors, who was also one of the finest of all photographers.

Was Talbot a photographic artist? Larry Schaaf makes an unanswerable case in the affirmative, in what is destined to become one of the great publications on the history of photography. His new book allows us to watch Talbot becoming the first-ever photographic artist. The story unfolds, spread by spread, each meticulously reproduced photographic image preceded (on the left-hand page) by two columns of text. Schaaf, the doyen of the subject, knows Talbot's images but also the notebooks and the correspondence. This is publishing in the grand style, with printing by Stamperia Valdonega of Verona on specially made uncoated paper that conveys much of the nuance of Talbot's originals.

The images have been gathered from many collections. Schaaf has recorded nearly 15,000 Talbot-associated prints and negatives worldwide. Many are new to me and so is much of the information in the extended captions and introductory chapters. I admit to being stunned by one of Schaaf's discoveries. Talbot's photograph "The Open Door" (1844) is one of his best known. It represents a stable at Lacock with a broom leaning beside the half-open door, and a lantern hanging from the wall. Schaaf takes us through prototype versions from 1843, shows us a variant made at virtually the same time as Talbot's preferred composition, and then produces (from the Bradford collection) a distant view of the scene, which includes - as an enlargement reveals - a second camera trained on the stable door. This is, he adds, "a possibly unique record of the photographic process within Talbot's archive". The image suggests that Talbot was much more self-aware as a photographic artist than previous accounts have indicated.

The value of this book, which will appeal to anyone interested in the art of photography, whether historical or contemporary, is that it presents a chronological development of Talbot as an image-maker. It offers astonishing verisimilitude in the reproductions (many of them the same size as the originals) plus a wealth of contextual information.

Schaaf has won many awards as an historian of photography, but here his writing has become even more elegant and luminous. He is a wonderful guide to the complexities of photographic printmaking in the earliest period. He is also alive to the subtleties of what Talbot achieved: "The new art that Talbot invented taught him how to see, and from that new vision emerged the first signs of a camera vision - a photographic vision - that has continued to grow in the hands of others to this day. Talbot was the first artist taught by photography, and it is hoped that the present book represents a fair portfolio. It is at once romantic and surprisingly modern. And it is beautiful." Amen.

Mark Haworth-Booth is curator of photographs, Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The Photographic Art of William Henry Fox Talbot

Author - Larry J. Schaaf
ISBN - 0 691 05000 7
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Price - £45.00
Pages - 264

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