The Importance of William Henry Fox Talbots Experiments

“If it is practiced by a man of taste, the photograph will have the appearance of art (but) the photographer must…intervene as little as possible, so as not to lose the objective charm which it naturally possesses.”

Henri Matisse
Portrait of William Henry Fox Talbot by John Moffat, 1864.

The development of photography can be traced back to the failed attempts by William Henry Fox Talbot to draft the beauty of the landscape at Lake Como by hand in 1833.  He wrote: “How charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durable and remain fixed upon the paper! And why should it not be possible? I asked myself.” 

Photography as Art

Although photography is often described and evaluated in comparison to the traditional arts, it was at this moment the power of photography as an objective expression was envisioned. “One advantage of the discovery of the Photographic Art will be, that it will enable us to introduce into our pictures a multitude of minute details which add to the truth and reality of the representation, but which no artist would take the trouble to faithfully copy from nature” 

William Henry Fox Talbot would draw upon his knowledge of mathematics, botany, physics, chemistry, and optics to develop the photographic process from which modern photography originates and by which the world was transformed into a cult of image.

Photographic specimen from the Bodleian Library’s Talbot archive

Talbot would write of his invention, “The plates of the present work are impressed by the agency of Light alone, without any aid whatever from the artist’s pencil. They are the sun-pictures themselves, and not, as some persons have imagined, engravings in imitation.” His earliest efforts involved the making of “photogenic drawings” by coating paper with silver nitrate that would turn black when exposed to light and setting upon it a leaf whose outline would be perfectly traced. Unfortunately these early images would darken and fade over time. He determined that treating the silver in iodine rendered it no longer light sensitive, essentially “fixing” a permanent image. Use of salt to enhance sensitivity along with the use of Gallic acid to induce the hidden image to reveal itself would allow for shorter exposures and the development of the latent image, (a concept known since the earliest developments of secret “invisible ink”). The new faster emulsion combined with the use of a camera obscura allowed Talbot to explore his world and reveal it’s photogenic qualities.

Lace, 18.7 x 22.9 cm. (7.4 x 9 in.) William Henry Fox Talbot 1843

One cannot overlook the significance of the timing of this invention. Knowledge of the “natural” elements of photography were previously known generations before, but to pursue controlling and manipulating these elements would be venturing into the “black arts” associated with evil. Johann Heinrich Schulze discovered the effect of light on silver salts in 1775 but it was not published until 1827. Talbot acknowledged this when he described his invention in 1839, he said, “It is a little bit of magic realized: of natural magic. You make the powers of nature work for you, and no wonder that your work is well and quickly done… But after all what is nature, but one great field of wonders past our comprehension.” Photography is thought to have been inconceivable until science was able to break away from religion. There is still magic in photography, and a spirituality within Talbot’s own descriptions of his efforts . Photography, it seems, embodies the natural and supernatural.

The Open Door, Salted paper print from paper negative by William Henry Fox Talbot, 1844

While the casual observer may dismiss his early photographs as being banal or limited to scientific inquiry or artistic mimicry, a review of Talbot’s work reveals a sophisticated mind and artistic spirit. Most importantly, we see in Talbot’s images the very essence of the medium that is described by John Szarkowski as “windows and mirrors”. We not only see the fastidious details of the Victorian era, but we see the photographers place within this space and time through the vantage point of the lens. Talbot understood the essence of photographic vision.

The photograms and subsequent photographs by Talbot of the English countryside can be compared to the masterful work of Man Ray and the surrealist movement as well as Laslo Maholy-Nagy whose work is closely tied to the Bauhaus movement.

Maholy-Nagy has articulated Talbort’s accomplishment by delineating the change of perception brought about by photography through the articulation of eight photographic visions:

  • Abstract
  • Exact
  • Rapid (Action is Frozen)
  • Slow (Movement is spread over time)
  • Intensified
    • Microphotography
    • Filter photography to bring out hidden details (I.e. UV Haze filter, Red contrast filter for sky)
  • Penetrative (Xray, Radiography)
  • Simultaneous
    • o Transparent superimposition

The Impact of Photography

One cannot imagine our perception of the world without photography. Marshall McLuhan described the impact of any new medium is not so much in its content, but in its impact on society and culture. By 1860’s the world had millions of photographs – only 25 years after the initial invention. When viewed within this context, Talbot’s experiments are as significant as Gutenberg’s.

It seems as if, through his experiments with photography, that Talbot recognized the world was moving faster and was destined to change at a pace approaching the speed of the very light that was the subject of his images. He would write of his work, “The whole cabinet of a Virtuoso and collector of old China might be depicted on paper in little more time than it would take him to make a written inventory describing it in the usual way.”

Talbot’s negative/positive process of reproduction is the basis for photocopying, photogravure (which Karel Klic based upon Talbot’s research), and photo silkscreening which is used to manufacturer the computer chips and circuit boards that modern life is so dependent upon.

To measure the impact of the negative/positive photographic process we need only look at the writings of Paul Valery and Walter Benjamin while comparing the Calotype to the Daguerreotype.

“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 all the arts there is a physical component which can no longer be considered or treated as it used to be, which cannot remain unaffected by our modern knowledge and power. For the last twenty years neither matter nor space nor time has been what it was from time immemorial. We must expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts, thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bringing about an amazing change in our very notion of art.”

Paul Valéry, Pièces sur L’Art, 1931

While Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre simultaneously developed an alternative photographic process whose acuity and subtlety is still unmatched, it is Fox Talbot soft, fibrous prints that set modern culture in motion. When examined with Walter Benjamin’s seminal article, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in mind, you can see that the Daguerreotype retains its aura through its one-of-a-kind originality while the Calotype and its progeny have gone on to define popular mass culture. The cult value of unique art objects such as sculpture and painting is exceeded by the exhibition value of images that are mechanically reproduced in such mass as to actually contribute to the formation of culture. Surely a man so astute as to be able to decipher cuneiform script and who launched a publishing business had some ambition towards cultural authority.

When considering the origins of the medium of photography, there is one name that stands out as having lasting impact, William Henry Fox Talbot. One cannot look at modern culture, nor the beauty of nature, without feeling influenced by his legacy.

Sources:

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction“ in Illuminations trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schoken Books 1969)

Burnett-Brown, A., Haworth-Booth, M., @ Roberts, R. “Specimens and Marvels: The Invention of Photography.” Aperture 161 (2000): 4-79.

A Little Bit of Magic Realized: William Fox Talbot’s Discovery. DVD. Fims for the Humanities & Science (2004)

McLuhan, M. “Understanding Media: the Extensions of Man”. (New York: McGraw-Hill 1964)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *